How Prolonging Social Distancing Will Save Lives

A new study, published in The Lancet Public Health, describes how social distancing imposed in the region helped Wuhan get hold of the coronavirus pandemic. The study also proposes that extending these restrictions to April can possibly delay the second wave of infections to the end of year 2020.

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Delaying the Second Wave

The study, funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, National Institute for Health Research, Wellcome Trust and Health Data Research UK, aimed at finding how physical distancing measures affected the progression of COVID-19 in the Wuhan region.

The researchers report that extensive school closures and workplace shutdowns seems to have worked in China. The aggressive social distancing measures in China achieved their intended result: reduced number of coronavirus cases.

Officials happy with this progress are now extending social distancing measures till April, instead of March as previously planned. The study suggests this can help in holding off the second wave. The measures helped flatten the curve in time and gave time to health officials to make necessary preparations.

Through mathematical modelling, the scientists created two scenarios. In the first one one social distancing the measures were extended and the second where the social distancing measures were relaxed. According to calculations, if the measures are relaxed in this month, a second wave of coronavirus cases will be seen by late August. However, if the measures are taken till April, the second wave will hit China in October. Delaying the lifting of restrictions till April meant that the reduced number of cases (median) will be more than 92% in mid-2020, and 24% in end-2020.

The researchers noted that this model was made according to variables in China and may not be applicable in other countries. Yang Liu, a scientist on the team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says:

Our results won’t look exactly the same in another country, because the population structure and the way people mix will be different.

However, they did suggest that physical distance is key here and will be useful in controlling the pandemic everywhere in the world. As people will return to their jobs and children will come back to schools, a second wave will probably be seen in every country. The team working on the project suggests that gradually lifting off restrictions everywhere in the world will flatten the curve and delay a second wave everywhere. This time can be used to build health care and testing capacity.

Wuhan Lockdown

China was the first country to implement social distancing measures in the current coronavirus pandemic. The level of the measures implemented was even called draconian and aggressive. The government imposed a lockdown in the city of Wuhan (the ground zero of the pandemic). The largest lockdown at the time to be implemented, it restricted movement of 11 million people in Wuhan and 57 million in 15 other cities.

This measure was at first criticized by western countries including Amnesty International but as the pandemic spread, many countries around the globe enacted similar measures. Now all eyes are on China to see if these measures worked. This study answers the question. Yes, social distancing is the best we can do for now.

The White House 15-day Pause

On Thursday, United States surpassed China and Italy in total number of reported cases of coronavirus. Right now, the diagnosed cases stand at 85,749 with 314 deaths across the country. The White House came up with a 15day Plan strategy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic on March 16. The strategy suggests that everyone should put physical distancing in practice to keep the most at risk population safe. These suggested measures include:

  • Following the advice of local and state authorities
  • Practice good personal hygiene. Wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds. Sanitize with alcohol sanitizer, stop touching your face and disinfect surfaces
  • Contacting your medical provider if you feel sick and avoiding going to work
  • Contacting medical provider if any of your children are sick and keeping them at home
  • If someone tests positive for coronavirus in the house, keeping everyone in the house from going out
  • If someone is old, they should stay home and away from other people
  • If someone has serious health condition like heart or lung disease, they should stay home and away from people

For public health officials, these 15 days will be dedicated to preparing for the future and capacity building of health care system and social networks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This involves:

  • Identifying key officials and persons from different aspects of life and circles who will help implement coordinated efforts to control the virus
  • Communicating with public and preparing them for a possible extension of social distancing measures
  • Identification and capacity building of organizations working with people at risk
  • Fill out critical gaps in resources and supply chain ofmedical equipment, food supply and disinfection products
  • Build up childcare infrastructure for critical workforce like medical professionals, first responders, teachers and hospital administrators, utility staff and mental health professionals
  • Planning out an orderly return to daily life after social distancing measures are lifted off

It is difficult to say where United States stands on right now on prolonging social distancing measures. This week President Donald Trump said that he wanted to lift off the social distancing measure in time for Easter of April 12. However, later in a media briefing he said that he will wait and listen to the advice of experts before taking any such decision.

Understanding Social Distancing

Social distancing is increasing physical distance among people to stop the spread of infection. It is a measure that is usually imposed on a population when health agencies and governments need time to ready the health care system for patients and meet the increased demand that results due to a pandemic.

When an infectious disease pandemic hits a region, especially with a fast-moving virus like coronavirus, the health care officials need time to build up their capacity, to meet this demand. While they prepare, social distancing measures can decrease the rate of infection spreading (flattening the curve) and limit the number of overall cases.

Source: The University of Alabama at Birmingham

Social distancing measures can include isolation, quarantine, shelter in place orders, lockdowns, closing down schools, border closures, closing of community centers, and closing of workplaces except necessary services like food supply chain, health care system and administrative services. These measures can also include bans on crowds and limitation in number of people in a gathering.

Source: The University of Alabama at Birmingham

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