Re-opening After the COVID-19 Shutdown

| May 6, 2020 | 0 Comments

Re-opening after the COVID-19 Shutdown

After weeks of stay-at-home orders and shuttered businesses, governments around the world are strategizing on how to best re-open their countries, states, and provinces. It turns out that closing down was the easy part. Now, not only do governments have to decide what sectors of the economy and society to open up first, but they also feel the need to recommend how people should behave after the re-opening to try to prevent a second overwhelming wave of infection.

The fact that re-opening discussions are happening does not mean case numbers in the world or in the U.S. are going down. Italy, France, and Spain are seeing major improvements in new case rates, but Great Britain, Russia, and Brazil have become new epicenters for COVID-19, with new cases still on the rise. New case numbers in New York City have dropped off, but cases in other states are making up for the “loss.”

Federal guidelines for the U.S.

The Trump administration has unveiled the “Guidelines for Opening up America Again,” a three-phased approach based on the advice of public health experts and intended to give guidance to state and local governments in opening up their economies while keeping the public safe. The plan outlines certain criteria and levels of preparedness that should be reality before areas can begin opening up again.

The required criteria for beginning the re-opening process are: a downward trajectory of documented and new cases over a 14-day period, a testing program in place for healthcare workers, and the ability of area hospitals to treat all patients without crisis care.

Adequate preparedness for re-opening means: the ability to conduct adequate testing on both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals and then trace the contacts of anyone who tests positive, the ability to surge medical capability quickly in the event of another outbreak, and plans in place to protect the health and safety of workers in critical industry, those living in high-risk facilities (e.g., senior care facilities), and employees and users of mass transit systems.

Once the criteria and preparedness guidelines are fulfilled, society can begin opening up in three stepped phases. Phase One means all vulnerable individuals continue to shelter in place, all individuals should maximize physical distance from others in public places, and social groups should be limited to 10 people if appropriate physical distance cannot be maintained. Under Phase One, schools would remain closed and visits to senior living facilities and hospitals would still be prohibited. Large venues such as sit-down dining and places of worship could operate under strict physical distancing protocols. Non-essential travel should be minimized and employers should encourage employees to work from home when possible. The Phase Two guidelines are much the same as Phase One, but social group size is increased to 50, and physical distancing is to be “moderate” instead of “strict.” Non-essential travel can resume. Phase Three is basically a return to normal life, but with cautions to maintain good hygiene practices and recommendations that vulnerable individuals continue physical distancing. “Vulnerable individuals” are the elderly or those with serious underlying health conditions or a compromised immune system.

Re-opening is already happening

The guidelines above are just that: guidelines. The federal government will not enforce them and President Trump has left the final decision to reopen to state governors and other local government officials. There is quite a variety of sentiments among state governors as to what is the right way forward. As of May 1, there were 16 states that never shut down or had already lifted most of the measures they had in place. At least two more have announced plans to lift restrictions. Non-essential businesses are opening and non-essential travel is permitted again. Many of these states do not meet the federal-recommended testing levels nor do they have adequate ability to trace contacts of individuals who do test positive. State governors moving forward with re-opening have faced criticism from more caution-inclined individuals, but there is nothing that can stop them from opening if they so choose. Quite a few states have formed regional “alliances,” agreeing to work together in easing restrictions.

Even in states that have not yet lifted restrictions, people are getting restless and moving around more already. A lot of movement can be tracked by following cell phone data. One analysis of cell phone data that tracked 18 million cell phones shows that the movement of people dropped off significantly when stay-at-home orders were first instituted over a month ago. Movement reached a low point on Easter Sunday and since then has been on its way up, the rise starting before any restrictions were lifted.

Should re-opening be happening already?

It is very likely that COVID-19 infection and death rates will rise further as states open up again. This is leading some to question whether the quarantines should be lifted yet. It’s a good concern, and if preventing people from getting infected was the only consideration, staying shut down would definitely be the way to go. However, the shutdown has had many more effects than potentially saving some lives.

The reality is that the shutdown has done exactly what it was intended to do and its usefulness is ending. The infection curve has been flattened for the time being. It was known from the beginning that shutting down the country would not necessarily lower the number of people infected in the long run. Instead, the goal was to spread the infections out over a longer time period to prevent the health system from becoming overwhelmed and more people potentially dying as a result. Shutting down gave manufacturers more time to increase production of medical supplies, testing kits, and protective gear. It also gave many healthcare systems in little-affected areas another month or two to prepare for COVID-19, before it began spreading in their communities. Many healthcare facilities in the earliest hotspots were caught unprepared, and, due to lack of protective gear, many healthcare workers got sick and some died as a result. Shutting down has also allowed more testing and research to be done on infected patients to see what treatments may be most effective for the future.

New case numbers of COVID-19 in the United States have stayed relatively flat for the last month at around 30,000 confirmed new cases per day. The numbers have not yet begun to go down, but probably would soon if movement would not be resumed. Ironically, there is no real benefit in the infection rate going down at this point. It is fairly safe to assume that the majority of Americans will be infected at one time or another (unless a vaccine is developed very soon). The fastest way to resume normalcy is a stepped re-opening that keeps the new case rate at the highest level that can be handled well by the health care system until a high enough percentage of the population achieves immunity, self-regulating the infection rate.

The biggest incentive in re-opening is so that normal economic production can resume. The wealth of any country (and, indeed, the world as a whole) is directly dependent on the number of goods that it produces. The longer a country’s shutdown lasts, the larger will be the amount of goods not produced, and the more the living standard of the country’s people will be reduced. Granted, the United States has enough product and wealth reserves to keep its people comfortable for a long time. However, the developing world does not have these reserves and the number of people living with food insecurity is already rising. Also, the world’s poorer nations are heavily dependent on aid received from richer nations (such as the U.S.), and the longer the richer nations’ shutdowns last, the less aid will be sent to help those who are starving.

While re-opening now will mean lots of people getting sick and dying, it is probably the best way forward, as harsh as it sounds. I do not want to appear calloused to the death that will result from re-opening. However, the hard truth is that staying closed much longer will probably not save many lives; it will simply drag out the duration of the outbreak. The only way more lives would actually be saved by a continued shutdown would be if a vaccine is developed soon to protect those who have not yet been infected.

Normal life?

Will life ever be back to normal? This is probably a question that many people have asked themselves after weeks of restricted movement. Unfortunately, no one really knows the answer to this because of all the unknowns involved.

One unknown is immunity. It is not yet known exactly how much immunity the average person will have to COVID-19 after contracting the disease and recovering. The human body can develop a lifetime immunity to certain diseases, making it almost impossible for a person to become re-infected with such a disease. Other diseases produce only limited immunity in humans, meaning they can become sick with a given disease again after several months or years. Though some immunity to COVID-19 is expected, it will take time to determine how long that immunity will last. If immunity to COVID-19 lasts for a lifetime, it would be possible for life to return to normal as we have known it. If immunity is limited, some permanent changes may be the best option.

A second unknown is vaccination. Ever since the COVID-19 outbreak was first identified in China, research labs have been working furiously to produce a vaccine to combat it. A couple are already in the experimental stage. However, it could be up to a year before these vaccines are approved for widespread use, even if they prove to be effective.

Until more is known about immunity levels and vaccine effectiveness, we can all expect continued change in our lives, at least in the public sphere. There will probably be a lot more cleaning happening. New York City has announced plans to shut down its subway system for four hours every night to completely disinfect every train. This will not affect those of us that live outside of NYC, but we will see more disinfectant being splashed around as well. Shopping carts, door handles, and anything else that is touched on a regular basis by a large number of people will be cleaned much more diligently than before.

Increased physical distancing will probably become the norm. The days of packing into buses, restaurants, churches, auditoriums, and music festivals may be over. Even though activities like eating out, going to church, and attending concerts will resume, they will look different. Seats will be spaced out further and health checks may be done at the door. The number of people present at large events may be limited by authorities and these reduced numbers strictly enforced in order to allow enough breathing room for everybody.

How should we live?

I believe the best way forward is to continue following the guidelines that our local governments have established. We may disagree with them. That is OK. The Bible does not ask us to agree with all the laws of our governments, but it does command us to respect them, providing we do not violate other Biblical commands in doing so. If our governments are still limiting our movements or asking us to exercise precautionary behavior in public, let’s not defy these guidelines just because we judge them to be irrational or feel our freedoms are being cramped.

Do not live in fear of contracting the virus. It is true that tens of thousands have died from COVID-19 and tens of thousands more have become seriously ill. The same is true every year of the flu. The death rate of COVID-19 is most likely several times higher than that of the flu (according to recent analyses of positive test results), but not quite the terrible killer it has sometimes been portrayed to be. Like with any other disease, the best option is a common sense response and a firm trust that God is in control of our life and death.

Practice good hygiene. The fact that COVID-19 is not as deadly as once thought does not mean we want to get it right away, nor do we want to spread it to vulnerable friends and family members. Wash your hands often and avoid unnecessary contact with those you know are sick. If you contract COVID-19 (or any cold or flu), be respectful of others by minimizing physical contact with them.

Let’s reach out to those around us. There are so many opportunities to be a blessing. Many have lost family members to COVID-19. Let’s comfort and pray for them. Many have lost income because of the shutdown. Let’s make sure their needs are met as well as we possibly can. Many do not know God nor know what it is like to trust Him with the future. They are scared of getting sick or fear what the future holds. Let’s point them to the God who loves them and cares for them as He does for us. I am encouraged by the wonderful ways that the church in America (and beyond) has found to be a blessing during the COVID-19 pandemic. My prayer is that this will continue, that more lives can be touched with the love of God, and that God’s name will be glorified in it all.

~Leonard Hege

Category: Public

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