As most of the country begins to roll out reopening measures—if having not already done so—coronavirus cases are on the rise in more than a dozen states. Which begs the question of whether state governors may be forced to shut down again in mid-June, more than three months after the pandemic began.
“This is really the most crucial time, and the most dangerous time,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) told CNN’s State of the Union in mid-May, just weeks after his state began its initial rollout. “All of this is a work in progress. We thought it was a huge risk not to open. But we also know it’s a huge risk in opening.”
Yes, there certainly were risks in either case. However, one positive factor that makes state officials hesitant to pause these now-reawakening economies is that the United States is now overall better prepared and equipped to treat cases than when the pandemic first broke out in early March.
Hospitals now have greater access to protective gear for health care workers, and testing has become more widely accessible to those who think they may be infected. Likewise, contact tracing efforts have identified and quickly stamped out outbreaks in places where the virus can be easily spread, such as nursing homes, prisons, and meatpacking plants.
Renewed closures also could trigger another wave of public meltdowns—as people have already gotten accustomed to patronizing recently reopened bars and casinos.
“I don’t know that anyone has the appetite for massive shutdowns again,” said Lisa Piercey, health secretary of Tennessee, told Politico, adding that the state would approach reimposed restrictions with “a more laser focus” if it came down to it. Tennessee is currently one of the states seeing a spike in cases.
Likewise, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said that reimposing restrictions would be a last resort, despite the fact that his state is now reporting its highest-ever number of cases. “We want to avoid going backward if we possibly can,” he said.
Even after Florida suffered through its worst day of coronavirus infections with more than 2,700 new cases on June 16, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said he wouldn’t change his mind. “We’re not rolling back,” he said. “… The negative effects of that would far exceed any gains you’re getting. You have to have society function.”
On the other hand, Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, seems a bit wary at states’ insistence to remain open. “We always knew that once we returned back to the community, we had to do it carefully and that there would have to be a pause when we saw increases,” he said. “That should always have been understood.”
Yet, Utah is the only state which has decided to pause the next reopening plan phase amid a surge in new infections.
“Common sense requires keeping our current health risk guidance in place,” said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in a June 5 statement. “A marked increase in disease incidence and in hospitalizations due to COVID-19 give us pause.”
Could testing actually be skewing the data?
Though cases continue to spike in many states, this may actually be due to increases in testing. Early into the pandemic, it was difficult to assess exactly the number of asymptomatic cases, much less sick cases, as typically only patients admitted into the hospital were tested for the virus. Now, it’s becoming increasingly easy to get tested even as a preventative measure.
Take, for example, the recent Black Lives Matter protests. In Washington D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser encouraged anyone who participated in the protests to get tested, which were provided by a free, walk-through testing site at Judiciary Square.
“I feel absolutely fine,” said one protester, 29-year-old Lourdes Olivencia. “But I just feel like I have a responsibility [to get tested].”
Ali Mokdad, a health metrics expert at the University of Washington, told Politico that states can continue to reopen safely, provided they continue to stay on top of testing, tracing, and quarantining those who test positive. “In general, we are heading in the right direction,” he said.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) remains optimistic, even as daily new cases have doubled in his state—that is, provided there are enough ICU beds available for ill patients. As of June 9, there were a reported 68 coronavirus patients in ICU beds in Kentucky, less than half of the state’s previous record-high earlier in the pandemic.
“If that ICU number does significantly go up that’s when we really have to look at things,” Beshear said.
In essence, it seems as though the deciding factor on whether states must reevaluate future shutdowns lies not in the number of cases, but in the medical resources available to sick patients. In the event hospitals once again become overrun, it’s probably a sign that stricter social distancing measures must once again resume.