A group of public health experts and medical professionals in the U.S. made a simple plead to the country’s leaders via an open letter this week: Bring back the shutdowns that helped slow the spread of covid-19 earlier in the year, and build up the resources that will allow the country to reopen safely once transmission is low again, such as more testing and contact tracers.
The letter was published on the website of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a nonprofit organization and advocacy group that purports to “speak out for a healthier, safer world in which we’re freer to pursue our own individual well-being and the common good.” Some of the many causes that the national PIRG or its state-run chapters have championed include reducing antibiotic overuse in livestock; advocating for the third-party right to repair used products like cell phones; and promoting the widespread adoption of electric buses for mass transit.
As of Friday, over 150 people in the medical or research world have signed the letter. Signatories include virologists, public health researchers, as well as frontline doctors, nurses, and EMTs.
The letter lays out the grim condition of the country’s current covid-19 problem. Several states are experiencing uncontrolled outbreaks of the viral disease, while only a handful are reporting a flat or declining daily number of new cases and deaths. Just today, White House Coronavirus Task Force member Deborah Birx compared the situation in Texas, Florida, and California to the outbreaks that hit New York in April and May, which killed more than 30,000 people. By most estimates, the country as a whole is expected to reach 200,000 known dead by early fall.
In light of all this, the letter calls for decision makers to “hit the reset button” and roll back the steps that states have taken to reopen segments of industry that aren’t considered essential. Under their plan, restaurants would still be limited to take-out, people would be encouraged to stay home, going out only to get food and medicine or to exercise and get fresh air. And masks would be mandatory, indoors and outdoors, in any situations where people are expected to be around one another. Non-essential interstate travel would be suspended.
“The best thing for the nation is not to reopen as quickly as possible, it’s to save as many lives as possible. And reopening before suppressing the virus isn’t going to help the economy,” the letter states.
The model follows the approach that some (but not all) countries have taken to curtail the virus within their borders. Most countries, but especially those that went with a “suppression” strategy, are now reporting far fewer cases of covid-19 than earlier in the year. And though the U.S. was also reporting declining cases when it started to reopen, many experts were vocal at the time about the dangers of opening too soon, especially without enough measures to prevent new outbreaks from spilling out of control again.
“We need that protocol in place until case numbers recede to a level at which we have the capacity to effectively test and trace. Then, and only then, we can try a little more opening, one small step at a time,” the letter states.
By some expert estimates, the country as a whole should be performing 1.9 million daily tests; currently, that number is around 700,000. We may also need over 300,000 contract tracers, according to George Washington University’s model, a number that we’re far short from. And we’ll need a surplus of personal protective equipment, as some hard-hit areas are once again set to experience the sort of shortages seen in April.
The Trump administration has reluctantly signaled in recent days that things are getting worse, and some governors in hard-hit states have stated that they may need to shut down if the situation doesn’t improve. But elsewhere, there’s little indication that the federal government is interested in a second lockdown. Just yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released revised guidelines that emphasized the need for schools to open this fall. Some experts were quick to criticize the guidelines for doing little to address concerns of opening schools in places with raging outbreaks or how best to protect teachers and other adults.