Just Because You Can Get Out Doesn’t Mean You Should

Businesses are reopening in many areas, which is perfectly understandable if you feel like visiting all the places you missed during your stop. But is this week really less risky than last week or even last month? In most cases, it is best to stay at home.

In my state of Pennsylvania, for example, the number of cases is slowly declining since the peak in early April. But when I look at the number of new cases today, they are the same as on March 29th. Would I go to a restaurant on March 29, full of bliss and carelessness? Hell no. It was around this time that we realized that two weeks of isolation would not help and that schools and businesses would have to remain closed for a long time.

Cases continued to rise for several weeks thereafter, despite the new distancing rules. They will most likely start shooting again when the rules are relaxed. As a popular copy of Facebook’s status says: “The end of couch orders does not mean the pandemic is over. So there is a place for you in the intensive care unit. “

Another thing that often gets lost in discussions is that the decision to stay at home (when possible, for those who can) is not just about protecting yourself. It’s about excluding yourself from the chain of transmission that might otherwise have spread from someone with a raging case of COVID-19 to someone else’s grandmother.

Reopening doesn’t mean it’s safe

Easing restrictions is more a political act than an epidemiological one. “Reopening” means that businesses can force workers to return, for example, if they want to keep their jobs .

Gina Kolata recently wrote that historians distinguish between a “social” and a “medical” end to the pandemic. We can simply decide that we are tired of fighting the pandemic and start acting like it’s over, even if the virus is still raging. From a medical point of view, this will lead to disaster. (For one historical example, the 1918 influenza pandemic triggered a fatal first wave in the spring and then a huge second wave that fall after the initial precautions were lifted, which claimed many more lives than the first.)

Each state government has its own rules governing which numbers to keep track of to make sure it is safe to reopen. But these numbers seem to have been chosen more for convenience and optics than for real security , writes Michael Hobbs in the Huffington Post, and I think he’s right.

Time will tell

In deciding when and how to resume work, several states have seen a decline in the number of cases, but cases always lag behind actual infections by several weeks. It takes time for the infection to manifest itself in the form of symptoms, and some time after that, for someone to go and get tested and wait for their results. Today’s case count does not tell us how many people are infected today ; we will not find out for several weeks. Death accounts for the lag even further, as this virus takes a month or more to kill you. Undark goes into detail on this : at any point on the upward curve, if you go back in time to that day, the curve would seem to show that mortality has already peaked and is declining – but that is only because the numbers were not completely filled in later.

Another source of complexity is what we mean by “rediscovering” different things. (I have already noted that our collective vocabulary for pandemic-related phenomena is terribly inadequate .) Every state or country can look at those that began to loosen restrictions before it, but that does not mean that they will do the same. In some places, gyms and salons opened early; in others, they will be the last to open. In some places people can run out without masks as soon as they can; in other cases, people may be more careful about staying at home, even if they do not require it.

I am interested in comparing the state’s plan for reopening against national guidelines and then against the World Health Organization’s checklist . The latter option is the most revealing, especially when you look at the transmission control. Do we have a robust enough testing and contact tracing infrastructure to find all cases and stop them from spreading? When we do that, I will feel much better when the restrictions are lifted.


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