The recent surges in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Texas, Florida, and California have forced their governors to pause their states’ reopening plans to restrict further spread and to prevent area medical systems from being overwhelmed.
Some are claiming that means reopening plans are not working and represent reckless behavior. In reality, however, the governors are appropriately pausing to assess the developing situation and react to the new data.
That’s a planned fallback and an important aspect of a flexible and robust reopening strategy that balances protecting both lives and livelihoods.
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As expected with reopening, we have begun to see incidences of COVID-19 begin to rise again. That’s no surprise. From the beginning, we knew reopening could result in rising case numbers and that there may be hot spots where a governor or mayor might need to target mitigation measures to stop and slow the spread of the disease.
States are in various stages of reopening, with many officials implementing a phased approach. The purpose of the phased plan was for a more predictable and manageable pattern of cases.
In fact, the incidence of COVID-19 had been fairly stable in the month of May, when Texas began its first phases of slowly reopening and returning to a modicum of normalcy.
However, based on new data, Texas, for instance, has frozen its efforts to reopen the state and closed bars.
Florida and California also closed bars, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis citing “widespread noncompliance” with rules regarding capacity and social distancing.
In addition, local officials in Tarrant County implemented a face mask ordinance, and officials in Dallas, Bexar, Harris, and several other counties in Texas have ordered businesses to require masks for employees and customers. Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered hospitals to suspend elective or nonessential procedures in four counties with the greatest surge of cases.
State officials are carefully monitoring hospital and intensive care unit capacity to adjust measures to prevent health systems from being overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, those steps are needed because many individuals seem to have forgotten and disregarded concerns and precautions for the virus.
Those steps are not a failure of the reopenings, but rather an example of policymakers leading an active process of reopening and reacting to real data as it comes in and obviating the need for a lockdown.
In fact, several Texas hospitals in the Houston area are confident of their ability to handle a new increase in cases and have released a joint statement:
Each hospital system has prepared for months to address the anticipated needs of this pandemic and has surge plans in place to successfully manage its own capacity to continue treating COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients.
Additionally, our hospitals are working together to manage capacity levels and ensure the highest-quality care for all who need it. We will continue to work closely with state leadership and public health experts to help maintain statewide visibility on acute capacity issues and other critical concerns.
According to many Texas hospitals, there’s sufficient capacity. State officials and hospital systems around the country have learned from the failures in New York and are rolling out emergency plans that adjust the flow of COVID-19 patients to ensure available hospital beds and rooms, and personal protective equipment, and to preserve capacity to meet the demand of a COVID-19 surge.
Critically, it’s important to take a measured assessment of who is getting sick, and how likely they are to die if they get sick.
Public health measures are focused on protecting the most vulnerable from dying of COVID-19, so those who are elderly or have preexisting conditions such as obesity or diabetes get the care they need.
Flattening the curve was never about ensuring that no one gets sick from COVID-19, but rather an attempt to prevent increased deaths due to an overwhelmed health care system.
And early data shows us that people getting infected this time are less at risk of death. For instance, in Florida, the median age of COVID-19 cases went from 65 in March to 36 in June. That’s significant because 80% of mortality due to COVID-19 has been in the 65-and-older age group.
The surge itself appears to be caused by complacency and disregard for the ongoing threat of the pandemic.
Going forward, Americans need to be absolutely clear: We must all take steps to protect the most vulnerable Americans as we reopen. Achieving that goal requires social distancing, mask-wearing, limiting social gatherings, and staying at home when possible.
Extra mitigation and containment strategies, such as aggressive testing, contact tracing, and voluntary isolation, must continue, and any new interventions must be targeted to communities with high infection rates or particular vulnerabilities to the virus.