U.S. coronavirus infections have passed 50,000. The death toll, while still well below the worst-hit countries, is expected to rise. Personal protective gear has run short at hospitals, and many patients with mild symptoms still can't get tested.
The U.S. isn't yet close to having its COVID-19 outbreak under control. But with markets in turmoil and jobs being lost across the country, President Donald Trump has begun laying the groundwork for state and local governments to lift personal restrictions and shutdowns of businesses that have devastated local economies.
"THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!" Trump tweeted Tuesday. In a Fox News town hall appearance later that day, Trump suggested the country might reopen by mid-April. "I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter," Trump said.
"We need to absorb the pain now," says Larry W. Chang, an infectious disease doctor and researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "If you lift restrictions early, the number of infected people will skyrocket. Hospitals will be overwhelmed." That might cause state and local governments to impose even more draconian restrictions, extending economic damage.
Many medical experts think the U.S. won't be ready to lift restrictions for weeks or months. "Before considering big changes to social distancing measures now, we should as quickly as possible get to strongest possible position for COVID response – we're no where near that now," Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said on Twitter Monday.
But even the most hard-core epidemiologists don't want to sit inside forever.
The global pandemic is still new and poorly understood, with debates about how deadly it is, how many people are infected, and who's most at risk. "We are flying the airplane while we are building it," said Gregory Poland, who heads the vaccine research group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Bloomberg News spoke to several experts on public health and outbreaks about what would need to happen for the U.S. to start easing some restrictions, what it would take for people to get back to work, and what the consequences of getting it wrong could be.
Authorities can't start lifting restrictions until the outbreak is better under control. Even with reduced transmission as people stay home, it will likely be many weeks, or more likely months, before that happens. That means, in the short term, harsher measures.