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A parade of protesters in vehicles drive past like-minded protesters to put pressure on the Governor to end stay-at-home orders in Colorado. Sunday, April 19, 2020. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, the data that has dominated headlines inevitably has been about the impact of the virus itself on human lives: caseloads, hospitalizations, positivity rates and, tragically, deaths.

But for much of that time there was another data set looming just over the horizon. It quantified the toll exacted by the federal, state and local response to the pandemic.

A compelling and eye-opening study just released by Colorado’s Independence Institute represents the most comprehensive effort so far to tally that toll on our state. “Unequal opportunities, unequal outcomes: the COVID-19 recession in Colorado,” conducted by economist Paul Prentice and researcher Jim Royal, should be required reading for every elected and appointed policy maker in the state. Its findings and their implications for future policy making are that broadly relevant.

Among those findings:

  • As of last June, the number of small businesses in Colorado had declined by over 40% during the pandemic.
  • The leisure and hospitality industry, which averages some of the lowest wages of any economic sector in Colorado, was hit harder than any other during the pandemic. Hispanic Coloradans — the state’s largest minority group — comprise a higher percentage of workers in leisure and hospitality than in just about any other industry.
  • While most Colorado K-12 students suffered setbacks in their academic achievement — idled at home by remote learning amid COVID — the impact was far more pronounced on low-income students and students of color. The authors note: “Since education is highly correlated with earnings, this is certain to increase inequality of income and wealth in the future.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated already-rising overdose rates in the state, with “an outsized effect on minority groups” — notably Hispanic and Black Coloradans.
  • Almost twice as many lower-income adults postponed a medical procedure during the pandemic than did higher-income adults. Say the authors, “The long-term economic impact on the poor of reduced health outcomes … is certain to increase inequality in the future.”

These and other troubling developments observed in the study weren’t caused by the virus per se, of course — but by government intervention intended to stem the virus. Intuitively, most of us knew there’d be a comeuppance for the wide-ranging measures — lockdowns at home, shutdowns of businesses and lockouts at schools — that were imposed by government. But most Coloradans, like most Americans, probably accepted even drastic measures at first, early in the crisis. As the nation’s public health hierarchy struggled to understand the virus, and elected officials groped for an effective response, no step seemed too extreme.

Yet, as the survey’s author note, “… Colorado repeatedly extended its emergency orders in spite of mounting evidence of severe unintended consequences.” It seems we’ll be reeling from those consequences for some time to come.

It’s not necessarily that, as a society, we didn’t anticipate that our attempts to curb COVID would come at a cost. But the Independence study quantifies it — rendering what was previously an abstraction into something grimly real.

We all realized, for example, that our children’s academic growth would be stunted by being marooned at home behind a computer screen as a distant teacher droned on. But we could not have imagined what a crushing blow it would be for Colorado’s most at-risk kids.

In the Pikes Peak region, the study points out, kids in School District 38 — among the wealthiest in the area — suffered a 2.9% setback in math proficiency. Meanwhile, one of the poorest school districts, District 2, saw math proficiency fall by 15.9%.

Metro Denver school systems fared similarly, the study found. Wealthy Cherry Creek School District in Arapahoe County slipped 1.4% in math proficiency. Economically challenged District 14 in Adams County, meanwhile, plummeted a devastating 27% in math proficiency.

The same goes for Coloradans’ mental health. The study found that overdoses increased in 2020 among all races, but the sharpest increases occurred among Black and Hispanic Coloradans.

The sheer dollars and cents of it all are brutal. Again, we all saw it coming in the abstract, but the numbers make it palpable.

“In 2019, real GDP in Colorado increased 4.3%, real wage and salary income increased by 4.5%, and employment increased 2.2%,” the authors write. “Assuming these trends would have continued without the interruption of a pandemic, the economic cost of the COVID-19 lockdowns is 12.5% in real GDP, 10.2% in wages and salary income, and 16.9% in employment.”

The authors make clear that the implications of their findings are relevant not only to the next public health crisis but, more urgently, to how Colorado navigates what remains of this pandemic.

“Colorado’s leaders must proceed with extreme caution as they craft policy to respond to the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19,” they write. “Preventing Delta from overwhelming Colorado’s hospital capacity is important, but any steps taken to achieve that goal should be justified with thorough cost-benefit analysis.”

Gov. Jared Polis has shown an inclination of late to heed just such a cost-benefit analysis in moving forward. These findings reinforce the need for him to stay the course.