When you mix science and politics, you get politics. With the coronavirus, the United States has proven that the policy has not worked. If we want to plan for the complete reopening of both the economy and schools safely – which can be done – we have to go back to science.
To understand how bad the situation is in the United States and, most importantly, what can be done about it, comparisons are necessary. At the time of this writing, Italy, which a few months ago was the representation of the devastation caused by the coronavirus and whose population is twice that of Texas, has recently averaged around 200 new cases a day, while Texas has had more of 9000. Germany, with a population four times that of Florida, has had less than 400 new cases a day. On Sunday, Florida reported more than 15,300, the highest single-day total of any state..
The White House says the country has to learn to live with the virus. It would be one thing if the new cases occurred at the rate that they occur in Italy or Germany, not to mention South Korea, Australia or Vietnam (which so far has zero deaths). But the United States has the highest growth rate of new cases in the world, even above Brazil.
Italy, Germany and dozens of other countries have reopened almost entirely, and they were absolutely right to do so. They all took the virus seriously and acted decisively, and continue to do so: Australia just issued fines totaling $ 18,000 because too many people attended a birthday party at a house.
In the United States, public health experts virtually unanimously agreed that replicating European success required, first, maintaining confinement until we reached a pronounced downward trend in the number of cases; second, achieve widespread compliance with public health recommendations, and third, create a workforce of at least 100,000 people — some experts believe 300,000 would be needed — to evaluate, track, and isolate cases. At the national level, we are nowhere near any of those goals, although some states achieved it and are now carefully and safely reopening. Other states were far from achieving it, but reopened anyway. Now we see the results.
Although New York City has just recorded its first day in months without a death from COVID-19, the pandemic is growing in 39 states. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, six hospitals have reached their capacity limit. In Houston, where one of the worst outbreaks in the country broke out, officials have urged the governor to issue an order to stay home.
As if the explosive growth in many states was not bad enough, we also suffered from the same shortcomings that hit hospitals in March and April. In New Orleans, testing supplies are so limited that one location began testing at 8:00 a.m., but only had enough to serve people already trained at 7:33 a.m.
The tests themselves have little effect without an infrastructure not only to track and contact potentially infected people, but also to care for and support those who test positive and should be isolated, as well as those who need to be immediately quarantined.. Too often this has not happened; In Miami, only 17 percent of those who tested positive for the coronavirus had completed questionnaires to assist with contact tracing, a crucial action to slow the spread. Many states now have so many cases that contact tracing has become impossible.
What is the solution?
Social distancing, handwashing, and voluntary confinement remain crucial. Little emphasis has been placed on ventilation, which also matters. In public areas, UV lights can be installed. These things will reduce the spread, and President Donald Trump finally wore a face mask in public, which could somehow depoliticize the matter. However, at this point, all of these actions together, even with widespread compliance, can only help reduce dangerous trends where they are occurring. The virus is too widespread for these actions to flatten the curve quickly.
To reopen schools in the safest way, which may not be possible in some instances, and restart the economy, we must reduce the case count to manageable levels, until we reach the levels of European countries. The Trump administration’s threat to withhold federal funds from non-reopening schools will not achieve that goal. To do that, only the decisive measures will work in places experiencing explosive growth: at a minimum, set limits even in private meetings and impose selective closures that should include not only obvious places like bars, but also churches, which are a Well-documented source of large-scale spread.
Depending on local circumstances, that may be insufficient; perhaps a full quarantine like April’s is required. This could be on a county-by-county basis, but half-measures will accomplish little, except prevent hospitals from becoming saturated. Half measures will leave transmission at a level that will far exceed those of various countries that have successfully contained the virus. Half-hearted measures will cause many Americans not to live with the virus, but to die from it.
During the 1918 influenza pandemic, almost all cities suspended much of their activities. The fear and care of the sick relatives achieved the rest; absenteeism even in the war industry exceeded 50 percent and destroyed the economy. Many cities reopened too soon and had to close a second time – in some cases, a third time – and faced intense resistance. However, lives were saved.
If we had done it the right way the first time, we would be operating at almost 100 percent now, schools would be preparing for an almost normal school year, soccer teams would be preparing for practice, and tens of thousands Americans would not have died.
This is our second chance. We will not have a third. If we don’t contain the growth of this pandemic now, in a few months when the weather turns cold and forces people to spend more time indoors, we could face a disaster that makes the current situation look tiny.
*c.2020 The New York Times Company