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In our opinion: Instead of criticizing coronavirus experts, listen to them

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence listens.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Health experts estimated that Utah’s version of the novel coronavirus pandemic peaked on Friday. Whether or not this is true will become apparent shortly.

But people should be clear on one thing. When infections from the virus have peaked, that does not mean people should retreat from the practices that have kept things from becoming much worse. The virus could flare up again.

The voluntary compliance to stay-at-home directives and social distancing requirements have not been easy. Nonessential businesses are closed. Those who can are working from home. But too many have lost jobs or are struggling with reduced pay. Too many businesses have seen customers disappear out of fear. Even for those who aren’t infected, the economic pain is real.

It can be hard to grasp that the pain has helped, but it has. As of Thursday last week, Salt Lake County had 935 confirmed cases of COVID-19. But without shutting down much of the economy and keeping a distance of at least 6 feet from other people, experts said that figure would have been more than 2,200.

You can’t prove that, of course. But as one medical expert said at the start of this crisis, the people leading the response to COVID-19 can’t win. If the outbreak was larger and more deadly than anticipated, they would be criticized for not doing enough. If their measures succeed and the outbreak is much less than anticipated, people would say the fears were overblown and the response was too harsh.

Humans tend to be impatient, by nature. Many have begun to criticize the experts and to note their contradictions as the virus spread. At first, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Americans shouldn’t wear masks. Now, the thinking is the opposite. A few weeks ago, experts said the virus was spread primarily through droplets from coughs and sneezes. Now they warn it can live on surfaces like the handles of shopping carts and that people who don’t have any symptoms of the virus may spread it. First, young people were thought to be safe from the virus. Now, tragically, the world has learned otherwise.

The critics, however, do not understand the nature of what the world is experiencing. The virus is new. Scientists have had to learn about it as the pandemic raged. They have had to devise strategies that at times were unpopular with politicians who, naturally, wanted to avoid even an artificially induced recession.

Because the virus is new, fresh data must be analyzed constantly, and projections recalibrated. A few days ago, the White House was warning people that health experts expected at least 100,000 deaths in the United States. As of the end of last week, that had been reduced to 60,000.

Experts say the differences have to do with how well Americans are following instructions. Expect even further changes as more data is collected.

Impatient people who lack a scientific background demand total and unchanging perfection. They see conspiracies and political motives in every nuance and adjustment. They castigate experts as evil or suspect.

Meanwhile, statistics from around the world show how the American approach to the virus has worked. Nations that have kept people apart and slowed normal economic activity have seen lower death rates.

One may argue that the United States should have started responding earlier. Certainly, the situation in New York City has been tragic and desperate. But the nation’s death rate is 52 people per million. The United Kingdom, which stubbornly refused to impose similar measures, has a rate of 118 per million. Sweden, which also has done little in response, has a rate of 86 per million, according to the worldometer.info website.

Utah, and the rest of the nation, needs to stay the course until the danger has passed, and people should continue to heed the scientists and other experts who are doing their best to figure things out as the pandemic proceeds.