To our fellow quaranteens: school’s out, for maybe longer than you think.
With experts warning that the majority of the United States is one to two weeks away (Murray) from peak coronavirus cases, there is a general sentiment in the population, and especially among our age group — where spring break plans were cancelled, couples separated, and lives flipped upside down — that the horror of the coronavirus will soon ‘blow over’. After weeks — if not months — of self-isolation at home, college students speak about the fall semester with palpable anticipation as friends count down the months left before they can reunite. There is a strong feeling that normalcy will return within a few months, and any alternative is near impossible to imagine.
Unfortunately, despite it being an extremely difficult reality to come to terms with, there are in fact very few scenarios where normal activity will return in the near future. At least, normal enough for us to go back to school. With countries like South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan having a second uptick in a curve that was once thought to be bottomed out (“South Korea”), our ability to end quarantine soon is precarious at best and impossible at worst. Any scenario where quarantine ends before a vaccine is released would likely lead to an overburdened healthcare system, undoing the original purpose of quarantine and incurring millions of deaths (Booth).
Below, we have outlined the different possible scenarios to ending this quarantine — a vital step to facing the reality of the predicament we are in. A simple analysis makes it abundantly clear that the impact of this crisis will stretch for a longer time than many once thought. Just like we were once humbled when we found it difficult to imagine the Coronavirus so thoroughly impacting our lives, we must strive to not make a similar mistake again by looking into the future with unclouded judgement.
1. The Cycle System
The cycle system is perhaps one of the longer, yet more well-known solutions. It relies heavily on the eventual production of a vaccine, which experts estimate will take at minimum a year to develop. This time frame is generous; it assumes that every trial phase is successful, with the vaccine proving to be not only safe, but also effective. While there are currently at least 35 possible vaccines in production (Spinney), there is no way to tell if a stumbling block will significantly increase the time it will take. Additionally, this year-long estimate does not take into account the time necessary to manufacture and distribute the vaccine once developed (Alemany).
Assuming that at some point there will be a vaccine, however, the cycle system aims to allow some level of business activity at a much slower and controlled manner so that the healthcare system does not get overwhelmed. By developing a more thorough understanding of the Coronavirus’ response to factors like seasonality and immunity duration (Yong), there would be phases of moving between periods of activity to resuming quarantine when the numbers of those infected begin to rise again (Yong). With stronger toolkits for testing becoming available, states will be able to re-enter periods of quarantine in a more timely and controlled manner because they will be prepared. This type of cyclical pattern would continue until a vaccine or extremely effective treatment became available.
2. Localizing the Herd
The idea of developing herd immunity locally and slowly throughout the United States is a novel one, yet may become a feasible long-term solution should vaccine development take longer than expected. While allowing the entire country out of quarantine at once would massively overwhelm the healthcare system and lead to millions of deaths (Booth) (see: the Rampant Dog below), handling coronavirus more locally with a precalculated number of resources — i.e. PPE, ventilators, beds, volunteer medical professionals — and accurate testing at the ready may be possible. By shifting over resources from places in strict quarantine to a selected opened-up community, we allow for business activity to occur in a narrow region. Over time, local herd immunity will be achieved without unnecessary death. A new location would then be selected, and resources would be shifted for herd immunity to be established in the new region as well. This process would continue until all regions of the US have developed some form of this immunity.
In the best case scenario, this approach would allow the US economy to safely restart a single location at a time, without worrying about returning to quarantine. Unfortunately, however, there are multiple factors that make this plan difficult to enforce and maintain. For example, success depends on the parts of the country that have not yet gained immunity to remain in quarantine for an indefinite period of time, on vulnerable members of populations safely undergoing isolation as their communities gain herd immunity, as well as on medical professionals’ ability to accurately predict the necessary amount of resources for each location. Finally, it depends on doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals’ willingness to volunteer to travel from location to location and administer this process, at the risk to their own health and separation from their families. While in the long term this plan has several benefits, it would be a long process with many variables and is thus not as likely as several other options that have been presented.
3. The Rampant Dog
Essentially, this method revolves around stepping back and letting the virus spread throughout the population with the goal of eventually establishing large-scale herd immunity. While this may be tempting due to the quick nature of its results — we could return to normalcy significantly faster — a scientific paper has predicted that overwhelming the health system in such a way would lead to the death of approximately “2.2 million” individuals “over the course of the outbreak” (Booth). Furthermore, the staggering death rates globally would not provide a permanent solution and would cause an inordinate amount of preventable suffering and damage to humans. In short it would provide herd immunity, but only to those lucky enough to survive.
4. A National Iron-Fist
Many have heard about some of the extraordinarily harsh measures that China created to ensure complete compliance. Unless we can create a rapid-testing solution similar to the South Korea model (“‘How One Firm’s’”), wiping out the virus nationally would require that the government take extreme measures to ensure compliance among citizens. It would require the federalizing of rules so that each state’s policies would be equally stringent, an action that the current administration has so far resisted doing. Otherwise, the virus would continue to persist at levels that could possibly lead to exponential growth. This not only poses ethical and constitutionality concerns, but also the possibility of leading to more harm than good. There would be no more religious exemptions. States would give up power to a federally mandated policy, with no definite assurance of receiving it back. People would still resist, and incarcerations and other strict policies may lead to further suffering among the population.
Even if you can assume that the logistics of those draconian measures are possible, once the United States reaches a bottoming out of its curve, it would need to implement very extreme policies for any sort of travel into the United States to prevent the virus from returning. It would require either testing or isolation for every individual who enters the country. It would also need to address illegal immigration by putting significantly more resources into protecting borders. However, even a single asymptomatic person entering the country could cause a spiral effect. This would therefore be a grave logistical challenge to actually implement in our border systems.
5. Rapid Testing
This system is somewhat self-explanatory. If we can make testing available on a mass scale to anyone who wishes to have it, then people can return to work with the knowledge that they are not a carrier of the virus. People who test positive would quickly go into isolation as well as notify those around them so that they could receive immediate testing.
With test kits from Abbott Laboratories showing promise of giving results in less than 15 minutes and experts like Dr. Fauci stated the rapid testing will be “critical” to a return to normalcy (Layne), as well as countries like South Korea showing tremendous success from using this system, rapid testing seems likely to be some part of the future. However, while two rapid testing centers have already been set up in the US (Coombs), the setup of the US healthcare system makes the logistics of distribution of a widely available test a difficult puzzle to navigate. Furthermore, even after the use of rapid testing to quell the outbreak nationally, there would need to be drastic testing measures for all those who wish to enter the country.
These are not the only possible scenarios for how this pandemic will play out in the United States, but they are some of the most likely options. While ‘solutions’ like the Rampant Dog, Rapid Testing, and the National Iron Fist, can happen quickly with the potential — if properly executed — to return society to relative normalcy within a few months, each one comes with drastic issues; Rampant Dog would lead to millions of Americans dead, while the quick implementation of the Rapid Testing and the National Iron Fist would be difficult at best, if not impossible given the complex bureaucratic systems the US has in place. Instead, we are left with Localizing the Herd — a long process that is similarly very difficult to implement — and the Cycle System which, while also a long process, seems more realistic to implement at this point in time.
For students, any of the possible plans signify a change to our lives that may be longer and harder to face than we once hoped. It’s clear that, should the cyclical method be implemented, it is unlikely that colleges will go through the process of moving us in and out of dormitories during quarantine periods. Instead, the many who have moved back home will likely stay in these locations until a possible vaccine or effective treatment is developed, no matter how long this would take.
While it’s comforting to be able to plan for the future, understanding how precarious the situation really is is difficult to come to terms with. As we spend our time sharing Zoom University memes, complaining on reddit, or binge watching tv shows, it’s difficult not to grasp onto the hope that normalcy will find a way to return, and soon. However, this sort of wishful thinking is what allowed us to ignore the coronavirus until it was too late.
As a generation too young to remember 9/11 or experience any major national crisis, this experience has allowed us to gain a fundamental wisdom — that what is normal is always temporary. This crisis has taught us that we are not invulnerable, and we can use this newfound understanding to foresee and thus attempt to mitigate similar disasters in the future. By paying attention and, more importantly, consciously believing in crises looming just around the corner, we can be the generation that stops cowering from reality and instead embraces and plans for a future that is to come. Today it is coronavirus, but tomorrow it may be the inevitable effects of global warming. Today our lack of foresight has landed us in quarantine with an uncertain future, tomorrow we will use this experience to prepare for the future with an unclouded vision. We will not be caught off guard again.
Alemany, Jacqueline. “Power Up: The Coronavirus Vaccine Race Is on. But We Probably Won’t See One This Year.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 Apr. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/powerup/2020/04/06/powerup-the-coronavirus-vaccine-race-is-on-but-we-probably-won-t-see-one-this-year/5e8a4d62602ff10d49add885/.
Booth, William. “A Chilling Scientific Paper Helped Upend U.S. and U.K. Coronavirus Strategies.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Mar. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/a-chilling-scientific-paper-helped-upend-us-and-uk-coronavirus-strategies/2020/03/17/aaa84116-6851-11ea-b199-3a9799c54512_story.html.
Coombs, Bertha. “CVS Launches Drive-thru Rapid Testing in Rhode Island and Georgia.” CNBC, CNBC, 6 Apr. 2020, www.cnbc.com/2020/04/06/cvs-launches-drive-thru-rapid-testing-in-rhode-island-and-georgia.html.
Murray, Christopher Jl. “Forecasting COVID-19 Impact on Hospital Bed-Days, ICU-Days, Ventilator-Days and Deaths by US State in the next 4 Months.” 2020, doi:10.1101/2020.03.27.20043752.
“How One Firm’s Covid-19 Tests Help Control The Virus In South Korea.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 7 Apr. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/forbesasia/2020/04/05/how-one-firms-covid-19-tests-help-control-the-virus-in-south-korea/#7e079dc45bff.
Layne, Nathan. “New York Governor Sees ‘Return to Normalcy’ with Rapid Coronavirus Testing.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 5 Apr. 2020, www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-testing/new-york-governor-sees-return-to-normalcy-with-rapid-coronavirus-testing-idUSKBN21N0QA.
Spinney, Laura. “When Will a Coronavirus Vaccine Be Ready?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Apr. 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/06/when-will-coronavirus-vaccine-be-ready.
“South Korea.” Worldometer, www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/south-korea/.
Yong, Ed. “How the Pandemic Will End.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 30 Mar. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/03/how-will-coronavirus-end/608719/.