To infectious disease experts, despite increasing calls to reopen the economy from many across the country, the dangers of COVID-19 make continued social distancing necessary.
Gustavus Adolphus Assistant Professor in Biology Laura Burrack said one of the key reasons for the mass spread of COVID-19 is that no one has immunity from the virus. In other outbreaks, such as measles or influenza, there were available vaccines.
Burrack is unsure of when American life could return closer to normal. She said variables such as when a vaccine is developed, the extent to which people travel, and the impact weather conditions play on the spread of the virus will play an impact. She said another big reason for the high death toll from COVID-19 is the impact it’s had on people who had a previous infectious virus. Also, asymptomatic coronavirus patients are transmitting the disease to more at-risk segments of the population.
To Burrack, a recent belief that the curve in Minnesota is being flattened suggests social distancing is proving effective. Despite that, Burrack said she would be hesitant to lift social distancing measures, noting the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic came in waves.
Burrack expressed confidence that clinical trials seeking to treat COVID-19 symptoms will prove fruitful.
“I am optimistic that we can develop a vaccine,” she said.
She said evidence suggests that it’s unlikely someone could be re-infected with the virus.
Some have advocated using herd immunity — when enough people have either had the disease or been vaccinated so that the probability of infection of people within the population decreases — to combat the pandemic.
Burrack expressed trepidation over that proposal.
“In the long term, it could play a role,” Burrack said. “However, until a vaccine is developed, herd immunity would mean that many, many people have been sick.”
“A life-or-death matter”
Kumi Smith, University of Minnesota assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, said the elderly have been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus because many already have weakened immune systems and live in congregate facilities like nursing homes, making social distancing challenging.
“Outbreaks are challenging to control in places like that,” Smith said.
She noted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines stipulate social distancing measures should only take place after there is an observed decline in case counts for at least two weeks. Then there’s the additional factor of how long it will take the public to feel safe going out again.
Smith said the U.S. government response to the pandemic has been fragmented, with states seeing varying degrees of success. She attributes part of the fragmentation to the natural patchwork layout of the U.S. government and a lack of federal leadership. She said there’s been an insufficient development of emergency-related stockpiles and an abundance of feuds between governors and the Trump administration. Smith said she hasn’t seen needed empathy from Trump for people who are suffering COVID-19 or loss of income, jobs or other things from the pandemic.
Speaking of countries she said have seen success in fighting the pandemic, South Korea identified and recognized COVID-19 as a novel strain, and China developed testing in record time and enacted mass screenings so people, especially in urban areas and those with fevers, were immediately tested and treated.
Smith, who teaches infectious disease epidemiology and is a member of a COVID-19 modeling team for the Minnesota Department of Health, said the amount of time social distancing will need to remain in place depends on how well people adhere to distancing guidelines. She added pandemic progression projections become more difficult the further out they go.
She said although economic losses and forced social distancing from COVID-19 are difficult, those issues pale in comparison with the need to conserve human life. Smith added social distancing rules tend to be especially ignored when people are visiting friends and family.
“My heart goes out to anyone who is suffering because of the economic fallout from the stay-at-home measures,” Smith said. “This is a life-or-death matter.”