The White House has proposed a list of “preparedness responsiblities” for lifting social distancing rules enacted to slow spread the COVID-19 coronavirus. States should be able to test for the coronavirus, contact trace, and ensure hospitals have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and ICU capacity for when the virus flares up again. Individuals should wear face masks when they can’t keep six feet apart in public.
Testing, tracing and isolating, hospital readiness, and masks are the four main pillars of reopening, dozens of scientists, public health experts, and disease historians told The New York Times and ProPublica, but the White House is seriously lowballing the amount of testing needed and skimming over some difficult choices America must make. Keeping the economy locked down isn’t sustainable, but “the White House’s ‘phased’ plan for reopening will surely raise the death toll no matter how carefully it is executed,” Donald McNeil Jr. writes at the Times. “The best hope is that fatalities can be held to a minimum.”
A vaccine — the generally accepted prerequisite for a return toward normalcy — is realistically 18 months away at the earliest. All the experts agreed the U.S. needs to massively ramp up testing for both the virus and, separately, the antibodies that show who has already recovered — and they all agreed the U.S. is nowhere near ready for this. The U.S. also has tens of thousands too few workers trained to trace everybody who came in contact with every infected individual.
China, South Korea, and other countries have supplemented the labor-intensive task of contact tracing with smartphone monitoring, a step the U.S. has neither the legal framework nor the civil-liberties culture to embrace. And however the positive cases are identified, the next step is even thornier. “To keep the virus in check, several experts insisted, the country also must start isolating all the ill — including mild cases,” McNeil writes. China sent everyone testing positive to make-shift infirmities, while Taiwan paid infected citizens to quarantine in hotels.
“Separating people from their families for 14 days is a very tough thing to do,” and “it would be massively unpopular” in America’s “family-centered society,” ProPublica notes. But “what we’ve learned in Italy, Taiwan, and now our country is sobering,” and it’s that when people self-isolated at home, “the disease spread to the entire family, sometimes sickening multiple generations.” Read more about our coronavirus future at The New York Times.