- Known cases of COVID-19 in the United States have now topped 80,000, and experts think that’s likely far lower than the actual number of cases.
- Deaths in the United States are more than 1,100.
- Multiple states have issued some form of a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better.
That’s been the party line around the world as governments and health departments have been battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wednesday, March 25 proved to be one of the worst days yet, as a new high for fatalities spiked in a single day in the U.S.
Officials are reporting 223 deaths on Wednesday, an increase that’s higher than any other day. As more tests are administered, numbers are expected to rise even more.
Through it all, both federal and state governments have emphasized the necessity of social distancing.
In the case of COVID-19, social distancing has been defined as staying at least 6 feet away from other people.
This means avoiding mass gatherings, working from home if possible, and closing schools. Essentially, just staying home.
This is all in an effort to “flatten the curve,” which means preventing dramatic spikes of cases to stagger the number of new ones over a longer period of time to not overwhelm healthcare facilities.
“The number of COVID-19 cases is rising rapidly across the country, even as our cities have become eerily quiet and downtowns as unpopulated at midday as they would be at midnight,” said Dr. Michael Grosso, chief medical officer and chair of pediatrics at Huntington Hospital in Long Island, New York.
“Many businesses have closed up shop and may not reopen. The service industries are especially hard hit. Is all this social distancing worthwhile, even though we’re not yet seeing results? The answer is yes, absolutely,” he said.
But if social distancing slows the pace of disease but numbers are still rising, many citizens are wondering whether it’s actually effective and are questioning the necessity of it.
Because, let’s face it: What we’re all dealing with is difficult, and so much is unknown.
The want to return to normalcy and get back to business is great. But the still vitally important need to maintain social distancing is even greater.
Why are numbers rising?
One of the reasons why numbers are going to continue to spike is because healthcare providers are gaining access to more testing supplies.
According to the COVID Tracking Project, as of March 26 there were 432,655 tests administered in the United States, with 65,512 returning back positive.
The majority of these tests were administered in the last 10 days, due to improved access to testing materials. Before this, only people with severe symptoms were being tested.
“As… our testing ability becomes more readily available, we are going to be testing people with much milder symptoms,” said Dr. Eric Cioe-Pena, director of global health at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York. “So what qualified for testing and a positive test last week was [much different] than what will qualify for testing next week.”
A second reason why numbers will continue to climb is that there’s a 2-week incubation period for COVID-19. This means it can take up to 2 weeks for symptoms to even appear.
The significance of this is that healthcare providers still don’t know how many cases are out there and how many will continue to crop up.
“We need to let the virus incubation period pass at least once or twice to start seeing the downstream effects on social distancing,” Cioe-Pena added. “We’d expect to see an effect in 1 to 2 weeks, assuming the numbers and types of people we test stay the same.”
Why social distancing matters
It’s important to keep in mind that even though you may feel fine, you can still be a carrier of the virus and transmit it to others.
If you’ve had COVID-19 and recovered, there’s not enough available information to determine how long you can still spread the virus.
Even though social distancing is slow to take off, this is something medical professionals expect and have prepared for.
“We don’t expect to see immediate results with social distancing,” said Dr. Vanessa Raabe, an infectious disease allergy and immunology specialist at NYU Langone Health in New York. “[Social distancing] won’t bring transmission down to zero. But it will lessen transmissions that are ongoing.”
Keeping hospitals functioning
There may be a misconception as to why we’re doing social distancing.
Yes, it’s to stop the spread of transmission, but the reason we need to stop the spread of transmission is to keep occupancy at hospitals not only manageable but safe and functional.
“We need to keep in mind that the potential death toll from this pandemic is extremely large and will be even larger if transmission isn’t slowed,” Gross said.
“The reason can be seen in New York–area hospitals that are experiencing such rapid rises in ICU cases that we can already envision an ‘Italy experience’: far more patients needing ventilators all at once than there are ICU beds to accommodate them.
“Social isolation is the only realistic way to avert this. Medications help only a little, and a vaccine is more than a year away. We should also remember that whatever program of distancing we created 2 weeks ago won’t have had an observable effect yet,” Gross explained.
It’s also important to remember that we aren’t doing social distancing only to keep ourselves healthy. Yes, that’s certainly a worthy reason. But even if your risk for severe COVID-19 is low, it’s still important to keep social distancing.
“We’re doing this not out of fear, but to protect people we care about,” Raabe said.
“There are a lot of people who have diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiac disease. We all know them, and they are more at risk,” she said.” If you’re staying at home is going to prevent them from contracting a life-threatening illness, that’s why we’re doing it. We’re doing it to save each other.”
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