- A group of international researchers has published a new analysis of how countries around the world can best get the coronavirus pandemic under control in their areas.
- The basic idea is an on-off cycle of lockdowns and relaxation. Specifically, an alternating cycle of 50 days of strict lockdown followed by 30 days of easing, which the researchers think is an ideal solution for reducing the number of COVID-19 deaths.
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Early on in the coronavirus pandemic in the US, back in early March, a Medium post went viral that offered a way forward in terms of what the best and least onerous response to the COVID-19 outbreak should be. The writer used the following images to describe it: The hammer, and the dance.
The hammer refers to the all-at-once, abrupt, dramatic lockdowns in response to a spike in cases, a spike that could threaten to overwhelm an area’s health care resources. Once that surge begins to subside, then you can begin “the dance” — the less-precise, more open-ended return to normal that lets people and businesses get back to what they were doing before, albeit within strict limits. And if the surge returns? You guessed it. The hammer comes back down again. Rinse, repeat. “Strong coronavirus measures today should only last a few weeks, there shouldn’t be a big peak of infections afterward, and it can all be done for a reasonable cost to society, saving millions of lives along the way,” the piece argues — and a new study from international researchers is now pretty much calling for the same thing.
The researchers, from the Global Dynamic Interventions Strategies for COVID-19 Collaborative Group, modeled three scenarios across 16 countries, and they published their findings today in the European Journal of Epidemiology. Their assessment, in summary, finds that “An alternating cycle of 50 days of strict lockdown followed by 30 days of easing could be an effective strategy for reducing the number of COVID-19-related deaths and admissions to intensive care units.”
Dr. Rajiv Chowdhury — a global health epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge and lead author for the group’s research — explains that the group’s modeling shows that the on-off cycles lower the number of deaths “significantly” for every country studied over an 18-month period. But here’s the rub. Populations and their national economies can only be allowed intervals in which to “breathe” when they’re combined with the following: Strict social distancing, efficient testing, case isolation, contact tracing, and shielding vulnerable populations.
The US, as is no secret, has not been performing well across a number of those categories. Things were so bad on the testing front in Maryland, for example, that the state’s governor negotiated with South Korea to obtain test kits that couldn’t be obtained in the US. A number of public figures have also cautioned that the US is reopening too soon. And even if the US does gradually improve to get closer to where it needs to be on all these fronts, a bigger question has to do with that “hammer and the dance” cycle —
All 50 states have basically dealt with quasi-lockdowns for the past couple of months. “Quasi-” in the sense that they’ve been nothing like the harsh measures taken in China to control the pandemic. But when you consider the intense protests that have started to multiply around the country in recent days in response to lockdown measures, it makes you wonder whether it will be much harder politically to implement “the hammer,” should that need arise again. And as if all this wasn’t enough of a minefield, don’t forget — a presidential election season is now getting underway, which is the kind of place where good ideas go to die.
“There’s no simple answer to the question of which strategy to choose,” professor Oscar Franco from the University of Bern, Switzerland, said. “There’s no simple answer to the question of which strategy to choose. Countries — particularly low-income countries — will have to weigh up the dilemma of preventing COVID-19 related deaths and public health system failure with the long-term economic collapse and hardship.”