When to end the coronavirus lockdown? Soon
New facts about coronavirus are pouring in from scientists around the globe. This information needs to guide our response.
People infected are most contagious before they have symptoms, and some spread the infection widely but never get sick themselves, reports the International Journal of Infectious Diseases. That's why screening for fever and telling people who don't feel well to stay home isn't enough to stop this virus. It's a danger to merely stand close to someone unknowingly infected. Traces of the virus can survive for hours on a shopping cart handle or an elevator button, the New England Journal of Medicine warns.
The stealth nature of the virus is one reason New York, California and 18 other states -- with half the nation's population -- have imposed lockdowns.
But there's a bigger reason -- to prepare hospitals. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made clear when he shuttered the state, the goal is to slow the invisible spread until hospital capacity can handle the predicted tsunami of patients.
Overseas, hospital shortages are responsible for many coronavirus deaths. In Italy and China, mortality spiked when hospitals ran out of beds, ventilators and medical staff. In some areas of Spain, patients must settle for a space on the hospital hallway floor outlined by tape. There are no beds.
In hard-hit states, hospital readiness should be the benchmark, as public officials decide when to modify the lockdown in order to limit its grave costs. It's not possible to wait until the virus is eradicated.
After all, this lockdown is a danger to life as well. What do you tell the couple who has spent 30 years building a small business, like a diner or hardware store, and are now forced to close and lay off employees? If the shutdown goes on long, they'll face bankruptcy.
America risks curbing coronavirus only to face soaring deaths of despair -- suicides and overdoses -- brought on by financial failures and joblessness. Unemployment is headed for 30% within the next two months, warns the St. Louis Fed's James Bullard.
Joblessness will cause suffering. Once hospitals are ready, public officials need to consider shifting to a new strategy of protecting the highest-risk population -- baby boomers, the elderly and people with health problems.
How soon can New York hospitals be ready? It could be a matter of weeks. Hospitals are increasing capacity by canceling elective surgeries and moving more beds into rooms. The federal government is building four large temporary hospitals, all predicted to be ready in 10 days. Masks, ventilators and other equipment are en route.