The drastic steps taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 are pushing the United States and much of the rest of the world off an economic cliff. Analysts estimated that more than 3 million Americans registered for unemployment benefits last week alone — a staggering 50% increase in the total number of jobless workers.
So it’s no wonder there’s a growing chorus of business and political leaders complaining, as President Trump puts it, that the cure is worse than the disease. “Our country wasn’t built to be shut down,” the president said Monday. Instead, he keeps hinting that the restrictions on movement and commerce could be ended around April 12, which is Easter Sunday.
Well, sure, we’d all like to see the restrictions lifted as soon as possible. But it would be reckless, irresponsible and deadly to do so anytime soon. Infections and deaths are continuing to increase rapidly even with the social distancing measures that are in place, with the number of deaths doubling in the United States every three days — and every two days in New York and New Jersey. What’s more, today’s numbers don’t reflect just how bad the situation is because they don’t include anyone who’s been infected but is not yet symptomatic.
Worse, we’re largely operating blind when it comes to who has the disease and where it’s spreading because we’re doing only a tiny fraction of the testing and almost none of the monitoring needed to detect it. Encouraging people to go back to work, to the mall, to bars and restaurants only risks allowing the disease to take an even bigger toll, in terms of both lives and livelihoods.
The country can’t go on indefinitely with the restraints that are in place today; the damage inflicted on the economy and on people’s psyches might be irreparable. The issue is how and when to remove or replace those restraints without unleashing a surge in infections that overwhelms the healthcare system and multiplies the death toll.
One idea backed by Trump, among others, is to isolate the people considered most vulnerable to the disease — in particular, those who are elderly or have respiratory or immune-system disorders — while allowing the rest of the country to resume their pre-outbreak routines. Another idea is that the restrictions could be lifted for young people and those who’ve already recovered from COVID-19, allowing kids to go back to school and young adults and previously infected people to go back to their jobs.
But it’s almost impossible in this country to isolate anyone from the coronavirus without taking the sort of extreme measures that China took, such as removing infected people from their homes and quarantining them in special COVID-19 facilities. And even then, those measures have no effect on people who have recently become infected, who can spread the disease before they show symptoms. Young adult bar hoppers will blithely carry the disease back to their grandparents, and schoolchildren who pick up the virus will share it with their pregnant mothers.
Another idea favored by those who want to get the economy moving quickly is to apply different prevention measures to urban and rural areas. Although COVID-19 has been detected in every state, it’s most prevalent in large metropolitan areas such as New York, Seattle and Los Angeles. With that in mind, some people have suggested allowing less densely populated areas with no sign of the novel coronavirus to return to business as usual, leaving the hard-hit cities under lockdown.
Yet that ignores how mobile and interconnected Americans have become, as exemplified by COVID-19’s rapid march through small towns in upstate New York. There are few restrictions on travel within the United States, and people are carrying the virus out of New York City and other hotbeds every day.
There’s no better illustration of the futility of this approach than Italy, where infections and deaths continued to skyrocket after the government imposed controls only in 15 stricken northern provinces. If anything, Italy’s experience argues for governors in the United States to impose a uniform set of social distancing mandates across all 50 states and eliminate the gaps that help the disease spread. (Trump doesn’t have the authority to impose or lift restrictions around the country; that’s a local prerogative.)
For the moment we’re stuck with blunt instruments such as California’s “stay home” mandate. If we really want to start getting back to normal, we would need to know who has the disease and where they are, which means testing everyone regardless of symptoms on a regular basis; checking the temperature of people as they enter offices, apartments and stores; rapidly isolating those who show signs of the disease; and providing protective equipment not just to first responders and healthcare workers, but also to every person who ventures out in public.
With the stakes as high as they are, it would be foolish to lift the social distancing rules until we know much, much more about where the virus is lurking. Otherwise, we’d just be planting the seeds for a more widespread problem that overwhelms the healthcare system, drives up the death toll and costs the economy more in the long term.
Congress is trying to buy us all some time with a massive infusion of cash to help businesses and workers survive the coronavirus meltdown. We need to stay focused on detecting the disease and limiting its spread, at least until there are effective treatments available. That means more testing, more monitoring and less guessing. Too many lives are at stake.