Election 2020 Politics

Tucker Carlson claims there’s ‘no evidence’ stay-at-home orders saved lives. He’s wrong.

At times, this approach has contrasted with President Trump’s political inclinations, as when Carlson last week criticized the idea that the administration might resume funding to the World Health Organization. In short order, Trump, an avid watcher, backtracked. Usually, though, Carlson’s debate-club shtick aligns with Trump’s politics, and the two operate in happy symbiosis.

Often, Carlson goes further than Trump, providing (intentionally or not) space for the president to seem more moderate than he might otherwise. That was the approach Carlson took on Thursday night.

During his opening monologue, Carlson argued against stay-at-home orders that have been enacted across the country to contain the coronavirus, which emerged late last year. Sure, such orders were encouraged by the White House two months ago, but since then, Trump has made clear that he wants them to end — and Fox News’s on-air personalities and guests have worked to bolster that case.

The heart of Carlson’s claim was that the orders didn’t work and, perhaps, were dangerous.

“Here’s what you need to know and what they’re not going to tell you,” Carlson said. “There is, as of tonight, precisely no evidence that the lockdowns in America saved lives anywhere. In fact, it’s possible that mass quarantines killed people.”

As one of the “they” to whom Carlson is referring, I’ll admit that I agree: I will not tell you that there is no evidence that the stay-at-home orders saved lives because there is obvious evidence that they did.

Consider a handful of states that enacted stay-at-home orders, including New York, where the outbreak was the most severe last month. Remember that the effects of a stay-at-home order on new cases and on deaths isn’t immediate. The virus can take two weeks before symptoms manifest; once they do, it takes several more days before those unlucky enough to succumb to it do so.

Here’s how new daily cases shifted relative to stay-at-home orders in a number of places.

We’ve highlighted the two-week window after the implementation of the stay-at-home order in each place and, because this is a seven-day average of new cases, the third week as well, since its average includes part of that two-week window. What you see above doesn’t offer an even picture: New Jersey’s new cases plateaued after its stay-at-home order, for example, while Pennsylvania saw a slow decline.

But in New York alone, there’s clearly a correlation between the order and the decline in cases — and, further out on the timeline, fewer deaths. Is this a big coincidence, that people stopped interacting as they normally do and the virus then stopped spreading as rapidly? Carlson claimed that it was obvious that the stay-at-home orders would be more dangerous since “forcing people into close quarters all day obviously increases the odds of infecting family members.” Of course, if none of those people are infected and they actually stay at home, there’s very little opportunity for infections to spread from that point forward.

Had Carlson said there was no peer-reviewed study demonstrating that the stay-at-home order in New York saved lives, he might have been right. The above, though, is clearly evidence that the stay-at-home order in New York saved lives.

In fact, a study undertaken by researchers at Columbia University found that the country’s stay-at-home orders came too late. Had they been introduced a week earlier, 36,000 lives could have been saved.

Carlson had a “study” of his own, though: analysis from a quantitative strategist at the financial firm J.P. Morgan. That strategist compared the rate of spread of the virus from the end of the stay-at-home orders in states to the rate now. It’s a simple comparison, showing that most states that scaled back distancing efforts had slower rates of spread now than they did at the time the efforts were scaled back.

The J.P. Morgan chart shows that states such as Iowa, Mississippi and South Dakota stand out as having lower rates of spread now than when the restrictions were ended.

“Overall, ending the lockdowns was associated with a slower spread of the virus,” Carlson said, adding a melodramatic “amazing” to his discovery.

In fact, the data show something different and less amazing.

The J.P. Morgan analysis simply compares two points in time: then and now. Importantly, it also compares the point at which restrictions were scaled back with the current moment — ignoring that the effects of the stay-at-home orders would linger for weeks in reduced infection rates. For the same reason that we gave a two-week window above for the orders to be felt, we need to similarly give a two-week window after they are scaled back to see what happened.

The site rt.live tracks the effective rate of spread in each state over time. If we take the states named above and throw in Georgia, poster-child for quick reopening, here’s how the rate of spread in each state has changed.

See what happened? Yes, the rate in Mississippi and Georgia is lower — but the declines have been flat since the two-week window ended. The picture above offers a lot more information than the J.P. Morgan analysis, and it doesn’t exactly bolster the case that the stay-at-home orders “killed people” — Carlson’s hyperbolic extension of his idea that rates dropped once stay-at-home orders were lifted.

The thrust of Carlson’s complaint isn’t really about the utility of the stay-at-home orders. Instead, it’s just a tool for bolstering his main argument: The elites are stealing your freedom and demanding fealty.

“Rattling you was exactly the point” of offering warnings about the spread of the virus, he claimed. “Stop thinking. Obey. That was the message.”

One can certainly discern some irony in the above paragraph.

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