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When can we stop social distancing?

  • Some scientists believe social distancing will be needed until 2022
  • The advent of contact tracing is going to be key
  • Too much social distancing, though, might actually be harmful

As the days, weeks, and months go by with people self-quarantining at home, the big question on everyone’s mind is: When can we stop social distancing and open the country back up for business? It has also become a hot-button issue for many, with protesters storming state capitals in mid-April and sharing misinformation online. As with most questions surrounding the coronavirus, there are no straightforward answers—but medical experts and economists alike are racing at breakneck speed to discover a solution.

Perhaps the most important factor in how soon we can stop social distancing and slow the coronavirus will depend on the availability of widespread testing to slow the spread of the virus. And not just to isolate those who are sick, but asymptomatic carriers, as well—according to Neil Dutta, head of U.S. economics at Renaissance Macro Research. “We can’t open the economy if every person that gets the virus is still spreading it to five people,” he recently wrote.

Opening up the economy too early poses the risk of triggering another spike in coronavirus cases, which could potentially be even more devastating to the economy.

Once we have adequate testing measures in place, the next factor to analyze will be the basic reproduction number (also known as the “basic reproductive ratio” or “R0”), which refers to how many people the average infected person in turn infects. When the R0 is greater than 1, the outbreak spreads, and likewise, when the R0 is less than 1, it shrinks. To safely ease social distancing, that number will have to be pushed far below 1.

Gabriel Leung, a modeler at the University of Hong Kong, says there are “basically three control knobs on the dashboard” to regulate this R0 number. These equate to isolating patients and tracing their contacts; border restrictions; and—you got it—social distancing.

Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea have made successful advancements by the aggressive use of the first control and then easing up on restrictions for the rest of society. But again, to do so requires widespread access to testing. “Although [the U.S.’s] testing capacity has grown a lot in the last couple of weeks, we are not where we need to be yet,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist and faculty director with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said, via Science magazine.

when can we stop social distancing
Photo via marada/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

Contact tracing is crucial to know when we can stop social distancing

Contact tracing —the ability to trace and monitor contacts of infected people — could play a huge factor in ensuring the safe and effective quarantine of contacts to prevent additional transmission by notifying people when they have come into contact with an infected individual. However, this measure will require society participation, and it raises privacy issues.

Google and Apple have already teamed up to incorporate contact tracing apps into device operating systems. Germany and France, as well as other countries, are also developing similar apps that will rely on short-range Bluetooth signals to gauge the proximity between two devices—but without logging their exact locations to ease these privacy concerns.

This practice could be needed until 2022

To prevent additional waves of the disease, Harvard scientists believe that repeated periods of social distancing may be required into 2022 to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. The Harvard team reached this conclusion by using a computer simulation that found COVID-19 will become seasonal, much like the common cold and flu. However, there are still unknown factors in play such as the level of immunity acquired by previous infections and how long that immunity lasts.

“We found that one-time social distancing measures are likely to be insufficient to maintain the incidence of SARS-CoV-2 within the limits of critical care capacity in the United States,” the lead scientist told reporters on April 14. “What seems to be necessary in the absence of other sorts of treatments are intermittent social distancing periods.”

In fact, too much social distancing could have a negative impact on the ability to build up an immunity to the virus. One scenario modeled by the simulation found that “social distancing was so effective that virtually no population immunity is built,” which is why an intermittent approach may be necessary.

Ultimately, the reopening of the economy, which some states are desperate to try, will involve a rehabilitation process that will happen in waves—starting around 50% and guided by both safety and customer demand. Sectors such as construction and manufacturing will likely bounce back more quickly than businesses such as restaurants, salons and concert venues—which require more human contact and will, therefore, need additional time to figure out safety measures. 

Another factor is consumers just feeling safe enough to venture out from their homes, which may be another process that happens in waves—with at-risk populations such as older and immunocompromised people needing additional time.

Sources: Washington Post, ScienceMag, CDC, AFP


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