Americans are right to be concerned about the coronavirus pandemic, and many of the solutions to slow its spread start with empowering individual people with the right information. However, there remain a lot of open questions about the outbreak and how to avoid it. Heeding these warnings will cause disruptions in everyday life, but they can also ensure our healthcare system does not become overwhelmed and those in need of medical care are able to get the care they need. This will save lives.
Thankfully, a medical journal, The Lancet, recently published a helpful article that provides some answers. I’ve done my best to pull relevant information from the article to get the word out to constituents and other concerned Americans.
First things first, we must recognize the basic fact that all countries will struggle with both the economic and human impacts of this pandemic. Because of the coronavirus’s scale and high rate of transmission, the vast bulk of nations are likely to suffer outbreaks before any preventative measures can stop them. What is most important is reducing the number of deaths associated with the virus as much as possible.
What has been successful to help contain the disease, however, are straightforward measures like quarantining, social distancing, and isolating infected populations. Early government action and efforts taken to this effect by individual Americans will save lives.
The widespread government action we see now, along with cancellation of large public events, suspension of sports leagues, and mass closures of schools, are critical and necessary steps to reduce the transmission. Flattening the transmission curve is essential to ensure our healthcare system is not overwhelmed.
While reliable data is not yet available, the transmission rate of the coronavirus is clearly high, estimated to be similar to SARS. From what we know now, the fatality rate also appears to be higher than a normal flu season.
Another big question is whether the virus is infectious in humans before symptoms start showing up. There have been few clinical studies to provide an answer, but initial research suggests that, yes, there may in fact be a considerable period — potentially 1–2 days — when you could transmit the virus before showing any symptoms yourself. Americans should therefore exercise caution after coming in contact with anyone who has tested positive — even if you yourself feel fine.
There also appear to be a large number of coronavirus cases in which the patient is mostly asymptomatic, showing few signs that you might normally expect of infection. Right now, scientists estimate that 80 percent of those with the virus have mild or no symptoms; 14 percent are suffering severely; and 6 percent are critically ill. The takeaway is that the disease can look very different in different people, and typical, symptom-based control may be insufficient.
In general, research comparing this coronavirus outbreak with the more typical flu strain or historical example of SARS suggests a few conclusions. First, the pandemic may spread more slowly initially than is typical for a new flu strain, but it also looks like it could be more drawn out, which means we should be especially concerned about providing economic relief to people and businesses affected. In addition, we don’t know how the change in seasons will affect transmission, but we should not necessarily expect warm weather to help as it does normal flu season.
Work on inventing a vaccine is very much ongoing, but it will require time — at minimum, a year before we reach substantial production.
In the meantime, Americans should continue “containment” behaviors meant to avoid infection, such as social distancing, canceling gatherings, avoiding large groups, and conducting work or classes remotely. As the article’s authors emphasize, “Individual behavior will be crucial to control the spread of COVID-19. Personal, rather than government action, in western democracies might be the most important issue.”
Social distancing will significantly reduce transmission rates and, importantly, free up critical resources for health services to treat cases. Even if you only have mild symptoms, you should take steps to distance yourself. If you have any reason to think you might be sick, applying special social distancing to populations for whom coronavirus would be especially deadly (the elderly and immunocompromised, in particular) is critical.
However, even following best practices, this outbreak will put a strain on our health care infrastructure, businesses, communities, families, and economy. Americans will need to pull together in the midst of this pandemic and beyond. Our nation has faced crises since its founding, and our resilience and resolve have always allowed us to persevere.