By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – As we headed out to Richmond a couple of summers ago, I suggested to Gov. Eric Holcomb that the opioid/heroin epidemic would probably become the “story of our lifetime.”

Little did anyone know that just over the horizon as 2019 rolled into 2020 how wrong that assertion would prove to be. While heroin overdose deaths are still occurring at a brisk clip around the state – the Wall Street Journal listed Indiana as one of a half dozen states still grappling with a significant rise in that addiction – what is clear now is the COVID-19 pandemic has become the monster story, dwarfing all others. It will be a milepost that future governors, journalists (if there are any of us left) and historians will be pointing to a century from now.

We are now at just the six-month marker of when the pandemic came to Indiana.

In the Feb. 20 edition of Howey Politics Indiana, the leading state stories were Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Democratic presidential campaign, the pending law license suspension of Attorney General Curtis Hill, and the closing of Indiana Beach. Nationally, Roger Stone had just been sentenced and President Trump pardoned former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.

A week later is when the pandemic began to permeate the attention of Hoosiers. President Trump turned the federal pandemic response over to Vice President Pence that week. In doing so, Trump pronounced the United States “very, very ready” for whatever the COVID-19 outbreak could bring, and added, “This will end. You don’t want to see panic because there’s no reason to be panicked.” According to Trump’s own words in Bob Woodward’s book “Rage,” this was a lie.

Pandemic metrics

At this writing, 101,485 Hoosiers have been documented as infected by the novel coronavirus, killing at least 3,173 of us.

As HPI reported in its April 23 edition, the COVID-19 virus has infected less than 1% of Hoosiers, and killed just a fraction of those. It has proven deadly with senior citizens with “co-morbidities.” While it has shut down schools, induced colleges and K-12 classes into fitful restarts this summer, it hasn’t been a killer of youth. But there is so much we don’t know. The Big Ten conference shut down football this autumn due to concerns over how it impacts the hearts of young athletes.

It has shut down a state with an annual GDP of more than $360 billion, and a labor force of more than three million, taking aim at an array of small and large corporations, mom-and-pop businesses, tens of thousands of bars and restaurants that saw April revenues decline by almost $1 billion. It could cost local governments between $200 million and $360 million in revenue. It has emptied college campuses, fieldhouses and NBA stadiums, and has carved a deadly path through more than 150 nursing homes and retirement centers. It has delayed the Indianapolis 500 and Kentucky Derby, sidelined the NCAA’s March Madness, the IHSAA’s Hoosier Hysteria, and sent more than one million students home for the rest of the spring semester, idling more than 60,000 teachers. It silenced churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. CBS4 reports that there’s been a 70% increase in domestic disturbance calls to central Indiana police departments during Gov. Holcomb’s stay at home hunkering down sequence.

In addition to how this pandemic has impacted opioid overdose deaths, we had little metrics on how it was affecting the overall economy and suicides. As the Indianapolis 500 ran, with nary a fan in the stands that normally would have brought 300,000 to the track, on Aug. 23, the coming economic hit is, at this writing, unfathomable.

In its April 30 edition, HPI described “the grimmest April” in the state since the 1974 super tornado outbreak. “No modern governor has faced the type of loss of life and economic paralysis and destruction that COVID-19 has dropped at Holcomb’s boots,” HPI observed.

Nationally, the numbers are sobering. There have been 6,327,499 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, resulting in 190,374 deaths. as of Wednesday. There have been 82.84 million tests administered nationally, according to researchers at the COVID Tracking Project.

And we aren’t even at “halftime” in Gov. Holcomb’s tendency to use basketball parlance to describe the pandemic. Tens of thousands of college students across the country have gotten infected with the coronavirus, and thousands more are being sent home to potentially spread the virus to their families and communities, Caitlin Owens of Axios writes. Colleges and universities have found at least 51,000 coronavirus cases already, according to a campus tracker the N.Y. Times built. Indiana had 1,543 infections at 17 schools. Each of these schools has reported more than 1,000 cases: Illinois State University, the University of South Carolina, Auburn University, the University of Alabama and UNC Chapel Hill.

And NBC News reports that another 250,000 cases between Aug. 2 and Sept. 2 could be linked to the Sturgis, S.D., motorcycle rally in late July, according to a new estimate by the Center for Health Economics & Policy Studies.

This is where the metrics collide with values, and politics.

In the April 2 edition of HPI, my analysis was this: The statistics are troubling. In a nation of 331 million, 2,000 deaths seem miniscule. Out of 6.85 million Hoosiers, the 65 fatalities reported on Tuesday seem the same. But this is before the wave hits us. The critical question now seems to be whether it will be a microbe tsunami. Dr. Tony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx warned that 100,000 to 200,000 Americans will die of coronavirus even in “perfect” social distancing scenarios. A University of Washington model of Indiana put our death toll at 2,400 by August. IU’s Dr. Aaron Carroll warns that COVID-19 could storm back next fall and winter just like the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

On Wednesday, the University of Washington’s Health Metrics site forecast 208,255 U.S. deaths by Nov. 1. Those numbers would drop to 162,808 if at least 95% of people wore masks in public. It projects 7,653 COVID deaths in Indiana by Jan. 1, as well as a potential swamping of the state’s ICU beds and ventilators, particularly if masks are not worn in comprehensive fashion.

“We can now see the projected trajectory of the epidemic into the fall, and many states are expected to experience significant increases in cases and deaths in September and October,” said IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray. “However, as we all have come to recognize, wearing masks can substantially reduce transmission of the virus. Mask mandates delay the need for re-imposing closures of businesses and have huge economic benefits. Moreover, those who refuse masks are putting their lives, their families, their friends, and their communities at risk.

“The U.S. didn’t experience a true end to the first wave of the pandemic,” Murray said. “This will not spare us from a second surge in the fall, which will hit particularly hard in states currently seeing high levels of infections.”

In the March 5 edition of HPI, the specter of an end game, a reliable, properly medically tested vaccine, had already taken root. The underpinnings to this pandemic are that President Trump has sliced away key personnel in what should be a continual warfare against the microbes. And the president doesn’t understand or comprehend the science involved. When Trump, Pence, Azar and Fauci met with pharma execs, this became apparent when Trump pressed them for a vaccine timeline. “I don’t think they know what the time will be,” Trump said. “I’ve heard very quick numbers – a matter of months – and I’ve heard pretty much a year would be an outside number.”

Trump/Pence mixed signals

Throughout the early stages of the pandemic, President Trump became a font of mixed signals and misinformation, saying in late February, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” On Feb. 7, he told Woodward how deadly the pandemic would be. Then at an early March MAGA rally in Charleston, S.C., Trump claimed the pandemic to be a “hoax.”

In late July, Trump finally accepted to the notion that wearing a face mask was a good thing, tweeting to supporters: “We are United in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus, and many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance. There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!”  

But last weekend, Trump was making fun of Reuters reporter Jeff Mason for wearing a mask, as he did at a May press conference. At a MAGA rally in North Carolina on Tuesday, Trump ignored local mask mandates, despite pleas to do so by one of his supporters, Forsyth County Commissioner David Plyler. “It’s been ordered by the governor,” Plyler told the Winston-Salem Journal. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in North Carolina, do as the governor says.”

“The president of the United States sets the example for everybody else,” Plyler told CNN. “You can hear it; if the president of the United States says I don’t have to wear it, I’m not going to wear it. And I can guarantee you that will be done.”

Columnist John Krull of the Statehouse File observed in April, “If there is a threat, real or perceived, to his base, the president will find a way to exploit it. That is his gift. It is a dark gift, to be sure, but it has elevated him to the highest office in the land. It doesn’t serve him – or the nation – well at this moment. The present crisis calls for him to alleviate rather than alarm, soothe rather than stoke. And he doesn’t know how to do it. That’s why his press conference dealing with the galloping coronavirus concerns was such a disaster. When he wasn’t incoherent, he was clueless.”

In that March 12 edition of HPI, my analysis: “We’ve watched the coronavirus swarm across the globe and into the American psyche. President Trump’s response has been abysmal, crystalized in his visit late last week to the Center for Disease Control where he asked, ‘Who would have thought? Who would have thought we would even be having the subject?’ Ask Indiana Health Commissioner Kristina Box or Gov. Eric Holcomb if they had ever pondered a microbe-induced pandemic here.

“Sadly, we now face an engulfing pandemic. The Trump administration’s decision not to accept the World Health Organization’s coronavirus test has mystified and infuriated American governors. What has become painfully evident is that President Trump is woefully unprepared for his first non-self-inflicted crisis. This is not to say that incredible events and fate won’t whiplash the body politic once again before this cycle runs its course. But we find ourselves in a vastly different place than we were a month ago.”

In the March 19 edition of HPI, Vice President Pence said, “Every American can be confident that we’re going to do whatever it takes to keep the American people safe and when we defeat the coronavirus in the United States, the economy will come roaring back. All of our health experts agree, you do not need the results of coronavirus testing to know what you should do. Every American in every community should be following President Trump’s guidelines.”

Those guidelines include the wearing of face masks and social distancing, a point repeatedly stated in CDC guidelines as well as by Gov. Holcomb and Dr. Box. And, repeatedly, Trump and Pence have flouted those guidelines apparently to construct a political facade of what President Warren G. Harding would have described as “normalcy.”

We’ve watched the Trump/Pence campaign eschew those guidelines from the Tulsa MAGA rally to the president’s White House RNC acceptance speech.

Asked whether he thinks President Trump has downplayed the virus, as is reported by journalist Bob Woodward in his book “Rage”, Holcomb said, “not with me.” He said he would continue to rely on medical experts and “will never downplay it here.”

Fending off a system collapse

From the beginning of this pandemic in early March, Gov. Holcomb sought to fend off a collapse of the state’s health care system, which nearly occurred in New York City, Houston, Phoenix and New Orleans. If the University of Washington forecasts are to be believed, he and all of us will be facing a similar dilemma later this fall.

“There’s a beginning, a middle and an end to this all,” Holcomb said in early March. “We understand and are equally concerned about the pain that is being put upon all of us. What we’re trying to do is make sure our health care system doesn’t collapse under the weight of all the new cases. And to do that, we’ve had to change our behavior. We’ve had to socially distance ourselves. We know that’s how it negatively compounds itself on us all, our businesses and our family members. We’re trying to push through this keeping in mind there’s another phase to this.

“If you look at the numbers locally ... we’re going up. We’ve got to get to that peak and then find our way down, and then not react too quickly. We could have a whiplash, or a double whammy,” Holcomb said in March. “I spoke with a number of governors yesterday and we all concurred, 100%, that it may be the fact that it will be harder to de-escalate than escalate. We will keep in mind, of course, the humanitarian effect this is having, the adverse economic impact this is having on 512,000 other small business owners.”

Six months into this pandemic, we fret about the lack of Big Ten football. We watch pockets of COVID invade Greek houses at IU and Purdue. Local school districts are skittish, with South Vermillion HS moving to online this week, Gibson Southern HS last week, while Michigan City cancelled Friday’s football game due to a staffer testing positive. Purdue released its spring academic schedule, with no spring break and an online option.

As he ordered an unprecedented statewide economic, academic and athletic shutdown last March, Gov. Holcomb said, “For those of you who think we are overreacting, I can assure you we are not. Indiana is under a state of emergency. We will win this war with COVID-19. Make no mistake about it, collectively the actions we are taking today will have a positive impact 30, 60, 90 days later.”

On Wednesday, Holcomb said that reaching the 100,000 infection milepost was inevitable. “I never look forward to these updates but I can tell you … I’m very, very proud of everyone who is pitching in and going the extra distance.”