Last Monday, April 20, Gov. Brian Kemp announced the limited reopening of sectors of Georgia’s economy, effective April 24. The rationale includes the fact that documented cases of COVID-19 appear to have flattened, leading people to wonder: has the danger passed? The answer is simple: no.
Georgia is familiar with the risk associated with natural disasters. About two weeks ago, a string of tornadoes passed through the state causing multiple fatalities and significant property damage. We understand that when a tornado has passed on in a fast-moving storm front, the danger has passed. But this is not how it works for a respiratory virus spreading in an immunologically naive population.
Right now, the vast majority of us remain susceptible to COVID-19. That means we can be infected, potentially severely or even fatally, and infect others, who themselves may be severely or fatally infected. If we move back towards business as usual (or an approximation thereof), we will, in effect, pull the tornado back towards us. Cases will go up, and soon thereafter hospitalizations and deaths. The effects will fall disproportionately on low-income workers, those unable to work from home, those with limited access to health services, the elderly, and those with pre-existing co-morbidities.
As a result, Georgia may face a second wave of cases or else enter a long plateau phase, where new cases are sustained at high levels for weeks or months because we did not put in the safeguards now or act sooner to drive the caseload to levels that can be managed with scaled-up public health interventions. Indeed, instead of trending downwards, COVID-19 associated fatalities have held steady for multiple weeks, typically with 30 or more fatalities per day. That’s a disaster equivalent to a tornado a day; day after day after day.
The governor has announced widespread testing and contact tracing initiatives that will help to reduce risk. These are great ideas. However, where is the hard evidence that such initiatives are shovel-ready now? Can anyone who wants a test get one? Do we know what fraction of the state has been infected? If you are in close proximity to someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19, would you be informed? We must be able to answer each of these questions affirmatively, if we are to move ahead safely and strategically.
Social distancing imposes real socioeconomic costs; but failures to directly support people hard-hit by shelter in place orders should not be compounded by ill-advised plans to reopen without adequate public health infrastructure. If we move ahead, the onus will be on all of us to work individually and in our communities to decrease the spread of this devastating disease.
In his press conference announcing the plan, the governor remarked that he doesn’t “give a damn about politics right now.” The way to put politics aside and to focus first and foremost on the health of all those who live and work in Georgia is to wait until the science, evidence, and infrastructure suggests we are ready to open-up the economy – safely.
Joshua S. Weitz, Ph.D., is a professor of biological sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founding director of the Quantitative Biosciences Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech.
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