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Why Social Distancing Is Important Even If COVID-19 Cases Peaked

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right. So today, the president is going to unveil plans to reopen the economy, as we just heard. Yesterday, he claimed that the country is over the worst of the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The data suggests that nationwide, we have passed the peak on new cases.

MARTIN: So what data is the president pointing to? We've got epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo on the line with us now. She's a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Thank you so much for being with us.

JENNIFER NUZZO: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Are we past the peak, as the president claims?

NUZZO: Well, I have a really hard time using the word peak to describe where we are now, and that's because in usual outbreaks or epidemics, the word peak basically is the day where we have had the greatest number of cases occur. And while it's true that the number of cases occurring on any one day, the total number in the U.S. is slowing, we can't assume that we're going to continue to see a decline in cases. And that's because the fact that it's slowing is largely due to efforts in a few states to reduce the new cases that occur through social distancing. So if we release these measures, we have no expectation that we will continue to see declines.

MARTIN: And how much of this has to do with the fact that we don't have universal testing at this point?

NUZZO: Well, that's another important point. So when we're looking at the number of cases reported each day, that's just people who've been tested. We know that in much of the country, many people who are sick are not able to be tested. So those numbers aren't even being included. So I would feel more confident to say that we are seeing a sustained decline in cases if, despite increasing numbers of people tested, increasing proportions of our state being tested, the case numbers continue to fall.

MARTIN: If we could just, for a moment, examine this possibility - what would it mean for our public health response if the country were past the peak? What would start to happen? What should happen?

NUZZO: Right, so we would first have to believe that the case declines are real and not just kind of an artifact of testing or the result of a few states being quite aggressive and kind of further along in their response. We might want to think about what measures we can release, but we have to be prepared to deal with the rise in cases that will inevitably occur when we do that. And so that means we need to be able to test all the new cases that occur, isolate them, figure out who they may have exposed before they became a case, trace those contacts, monitor those contacts and, if they become sick, test them.

So that's a whole lot of work that requires a whole lot of resources that we don't yet have. And so I think even talking about releasing measures is quite premature - not until we are able to test more and do more.

MARTIN: Members of the White House task force, including Vice President Mike Pence, Dr. Deborah Birx, have referenced states that have low numbers of cases. Does that mean those places have escaped the worst effects of the pandemic?

NUZZO: Right, so low numbers of cases don't really tell us much. In fact, there are many communities in the country that have small numbers of cases, but they're also small populations. And while the big cities are, you know, probably dominating the headlines, and we're seeing some good progress in big cities, there are actually parts of the country's - where the case numbers are rising. And I'm actually particularly worried about those places because often, it's occurring in places that have fewer health care resources. And if they don't have enough health care resources, we're going to see really severe outcomes if their hospitals get overwhelmed with even a small number of cases.

MARTIN: Lastly, can you just define the risk if we start to return to normal or, well, opening businesses, starting to open the economy too soon?

NUZZO: Right. So I think it's important for everyone to realize that the social distancing measures that we're doing right now are absolutely essential. They are needed to stop that rapid growth in cases that we saw about a month ago, but they're not a cure. They're a pause button. As soon as we begin to release, we should expect to see a rise in cases, and unless we have a plan to deal with them, we could find ourselves right back where we started, which I think will feel very, very frustrating to a lot of people if they have to go through this all over again.

MARTIN: Johns Hopkins professor Jennifer Nuzzo, thank you so much for your time this morning.

NUZZO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.