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COVID-19 —Preparing for the long haul

April 17, 2020 by Kimberly Drake

Intermittent lockdowns and social distancing may be the transitory new norm.

With businesses under restrictions, employees temporarily laid off and a worldwide social lockdown in place due to COVID-19, society is essentially “waiting to exhale” the moment those constraints are lifted, hoping to go back to business as usual as soon as possible. 

As we sit in our homes, with every trip to the grocery store resembling a military-style tactical operation, we are all asking the same question. When will this lockdown end? In Wisconsin, the tentative date is April 24, but according to national and worldwide medical experts, lifting the stay at home orders too soon may be short-sighted, and warn this current lockdown might not be our last.

In a yet to be peer-reviewed study published in the preprint server MedRxiv on March 24, researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health vetted the available data on the efficacy of a short-term shutdown. The team ran the numbers, looking at different time frames for the continuation of social distancing measures, and all equations added up to one sum. Even a strict isolation regimen that lasted as long as five months might only be a short-term fix. 

Investigators concluded that because not much is known about COVID-19, including if it has a seasonal element to it much like the influenza virus, intermittent social distancing practices may have to continue for at least a year with some data pushing that time frame out to 2022. The investigators believe that this “one-time” isolation lockdown currently sweeping the United States, and the world, might not be enough. Once the stay at home orders are lifted, a resurgence of the coronavirus will most likely take place, once again overwhelming medical care facilities.

The World Health Organization (WHO) seems to agree, with statements made by Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warning that if countries relax restrictions too soon, the virus could surge again, and force yet more business and school shutdowns to keep both the rate of infections and mortality rates under control. 

This lockdown cycle is already happening in China, the proverbial “ground zero” of the pandemic. According to a March 23 press conference distributed on Radio Free Asia, Chinese officials have begun to reinstitute restrictions after a brief hiatus, due to a recent uptick on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the region.

What does the future hold?

In an interview conducted by Alexandra Sifferlin, deputy editor of Medium’s health publication, Elemental, with Dr. Bruce Ribner, the medical director of the Serious Communicable Diseases Unit at Emory University Hospital, Dr. Ribner said “the exact percentage of the population that will become infected is difficult to predict at this moment due to ongoing containment efforts, but estimates range from 20% to 60% of the population. It is also likely that we are talking months, not weeks, of ongoing infections occurring.”

According to the World Economic Forum, the WHO outlined six steps countries must take to avoid an overwhelming resurgence of the virus once it is “under control.” These steps include: Expanding, training and deploying the public health force, implementing a system to find every suspected case, ramping up testing capacity and availability, identifying and adapting essential facilities used to treat and isolate patients, developing a clear plan to quarantine contacts, and refocusing the whole of government on the suppression and containment of COVID-19.

Implementing these steps is at the discretion of each nation, but it is clear the WHO foresees a much longer road ahead than previously thought. 

Although lockdowns are frustrating and lost revenue is worrisome, it may be a worthwhile sacrifice. According to WHO data, as of March 3, the overall death rate of COVID-19 was at 3.4%. Other official numbers vary, mostly due to the fact this disease is still evolving. Experts say this number could decrease as time goes on, as countries strengthen their medical facilities to handle the influx of patients, and science and medical authorities develop better prevention and treatment strategies.

In comparison, according to a CNBC article written by Berkeley Lovelace Jr., the seasonal flu has a death rate of 0.1%, the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 was at 0.02%, the 1957 flu pandemic had a rate of 0.6%, and the 1918 flu pandemic ended with a death rate of 2.5%.

As far as the more lethal viruses of our time, the mortality rate for SARS in 2003 was 10%, and MERS, which circulated in 2012, impacted 7.13 billion of the world’s population with a death rate of 35%. Although more deadly, both viruses were much less infectious than the current coronavirus.

The wait to exhale, although frustrating, might be a wait we will have to bear more than once. The good news is, scientists are working around the clock to develop effective vaccines and treatments that could reduce the health impact, as well as the shutdown-related economic effects of COVID-19. Until then, adapting to this new norm as best as possible is our only option, as like it or not, it looks like we are in this for the long haul. 

Kimberly Drake can be reached at [email protected]

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