Pandemic Expert Says California's COVID-19 Tier System Doesn't Work

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Weeks before the state rolled out its color-coded tier system for reopening counties, a pandemic expert warned reopening the economy so soon would eventually just lead to more shutdowns.

New England Complex Systems Institute founder Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam has advised presidential administrations and worked to end the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

“All you’re doing is perpetuating the situation,” said Bar-Yam in an interview with NBC 7 back in August.

At the time, Bar-Yam advocated for a strict five-week lockdown -- isolating at home and never traveling outside our own neighborhoods.

“If you have a fire in your house,” said Bar-Yam. “What you really want to do is get rid of it. And you don’t want to leave any fire around.”

Bar-Yam said if communities committed to such a strict lockdown, it would eradicate the coronavirus in 4 to 6 weeks. It’s a strategy he believes would do the least harm to the economy in the long run.

 “The fastest, best way to get out of this is to go all in and get rid of the disease,” said Bar-Yam.

Instead, San Diego County ultimately lifted restrictions, after re-enforcing them mid-summer, after lifting them at the start of summer.

“Why would we want to do this to ourselves?” asked Bar-Yam in that August interview. “How long do we want to do it? Months? Years?"

Three weeks after Bar-Yam said that, California rolled out a new COVID-19 tier system. And three months later, here we are.

“We know that our hospitals are already seeing levels of surge that they’ve never seen before,” said California’s top health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly earlier this week.

The latest numbers from the county show the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive has nearly doubled in the last two months, from 5% to 9%.

“The tier system as it now exists doesn’t work,” said Bar-Yam in a second interview with NBC 7 Wednesday. "Every place that said, 'Lets find a way to live with the disease. We’ll do a little bit of this, a little bit of that. We’ll be OK,' it just doesn’t work."

Hospitalizations in San Diego County are also heading in a scary direction, with 518 COVID-19 patients reported this past Tuesday -- nearly 300 more than a month ago. And patients in the ICU have doubled from 77 last month to 151 this week.

“The problem is it gives people a feeling they’re doing something when they’re really not,” said Bar-Yam about restrictions like limiting indoor capacity and moving business operations outdoors.

And if you think vaccines will be a silver bullet to returning to normal life, think again.

 “Vaccinating a few people is not going to solve the problem,” Bar-Yam said.

Bar-Yam thinks the only way to end this is to get to zero cases and use the vaccine to help communities reach that number.

But any vaccine is still six months away.

Why wait six months when if we go into a lockdown, we can end this for good within 5 weeks, Bar-Yam wonders.

“What we do is act now,” he said. “Act strong, and go for the win.”

While we have seen cases continue to spike since San Diego County fell into the purple tier of the state's tier system, this might not even be the worst of it because the impact of holiday season spread won't be fully realized until mid-January.

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