Fear and uncertainty over the pandemic are rising again as the first U.S. case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was found in a patient in California and has been spreading across the nation. But let’s not panic and jump to solutions. While this could contribute to the second consecutive winter wave, our new research shows why state governments shouldn’t overreact. Instead, we must steer clear of the devastation caused by mistaken shutdowns over the last two years.

Recently, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told a U.S. Senate committee that this new variant poses “downside risks” to our country’s economic recovery and inflation headed into 2022.

But if recent history is a guide, the economic consequences of Omicron—or future variants—would be mostly from bad policies out of Washington and state capitols.

Congress is already running up massive deficits with excessive spending and misguided policies. The Fed has monetized much of that debt issuance, creating too much money that’s chasing too few goods, hence the highest inflation in 39 years. That inflation rate is challenging for the middle class, but it’s devastating to the impoverished who struggle to afford spiking prices of groceries, gasoline, and more.

But what’s too often missed is the effect that states had on making what could have been a slowdown or minor recession in response to the pandemic into a severe downturn.

Our new research, commissioned by the Georgia Center for Opportunity, finds that the overreaction by states to previous waves did substantial damage without much benefit in reducing the effects of the coronavirus.

The research shows a statistical correlation between how severe state governmental actions were in shutting down their economies and negative impacts on employment more than a year after the pandemic began in America. This was the case even after controlling for a state’s dependence on tourism or agriculture, population density, and the prevalence of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

Our research found no correlations between the severity of shutdowns imposed by state governments and the rate of reported COVID-19 hospitalizations or deaths.

What we do know is that nationally, there are 3.3 million fewer people employed in the private sector since February 2020, a month before the shutdowns in most states. But the job loss is not spread evenly across the country.

Our study did not settle for simply comparing the job loss as measured from February 2020, the month before the pandemic hit. Instead, we ran more than 200 ARIMA model forecasts to capture pre-pandemic trajectories in an effort not to skew the results. Not all states had upward trajectories, and job growth rates varied from −0.8% to 2.9% for the 12 months prior to the pandemic.

States like Hawaii, New York, California, and New Mexico that imposed harsher economic restrictions generally have greater job losses even today than those states that were less harsh, such as South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Utah. For example, New York was 10.2% below its trajectory in October 2021 while Nebraska was just 2.4% below.

Policies need to be implemented in a way that preserve jobs.

Protecting the rights and opportunities of workers to earn a living is obvious. Equally important are the psychological benefits that come with the dignity of work. And there are socio-economic benefits from work that positively impact everyone, such as building social capital and gaining skills, which are especially important for those in marginalized communities who were most impacted by the pandemic.

As the states prepare to deal with the Omicron variant (and we’re sure there are more to come), it is paramount that they consider the empirical evidence and not impose burdensome restrictions—such as business closures, stay-at-home orders, school closures, gathering restrictions, and capacity limits—on economic activity that will likely end up doing more harm than good.

Instead, the policies need to be crafted more carefully to expand opportunities for the poor and preserve jobs in an open economy in which entrepreneurs can solve problems while taking measures when necessary to protect vulnerable populations.

These are the policies that should have been done all along to avoid the severity of the shutdown recession and the effects on lives and livelihoods thereafter. Let’s not make another mistake when so many are already suffering.

Mr. Randolph who authored the study, is the Director of Research for the Georgia Center for Opportunity. Mr. Ginn, who sat on the advisory panel for the study, is chief economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, served as associate director for economic policy at the White House Office of Management and Budget, 2019-20.