COUNTERING COVID-19 HAS become a worldwide challenge. In Science, March 20, 2020, Jon Cohen and Kai Kupferschmidt discussed responses in “Countries Test Tactics in ‘War’ Against COVID-19.” They quote World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: “Not testing alone. Not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all.”
Here are tidbits about these tactics, their rationales and inevitable consequences.
Social Distancing. Cohen and Kupferschmidt write, “There’s little doubt that social distancing—keeping people from getting physically close—can greatly reduce virus transmission…. But there’s also confusion about what works best, and how to balance what is necessary with what is reasonable, especially for an extended period.”
The Science writers continue, “South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore seem to hold important lessons, having turned their epidemics around without the authoritarian tactics used in China.”
However, humans are pack animals and consequences are both social and economic. As an example, the writers note, “School closings have sent more than half a billion children home, according to UNESCO. Whether this makes sense is under debate.”
The lives of parents now employed in health-care, public-safety, and other essential endeavors are complicated. And, ironically, kids cared for by grandparents expose a group that’s most in need of social distancing.
A mitigating economic influence: Those affected by shutdowns can find employment in expanded child care, delivery, and other essential services.
Testing. Testing of those showing possible symptoms helped flatten South Korea’s curve. By March 16, South Korea had tested more than 270,000 people. Cohen and Kupferschmidt note that, by this same date, the U.S. “had done only 74 tests per million inhabitants, compared with 5200 tests per million in South Korea.”
“A woman gets swabbed at a drive-through testing site in West Palm Beach, Florida, on 16 March.” This and a following image and caption from Science, March 20, 2020.
The WHO’s DIrector-General Tedros is quoted: “Countries cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded. They should know where the cases are.”
Contact Tracing. Marcel Salathé is a computational epidemiologist at the Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne. He said on March 16, “At this point, 100 percent of nations that got it under control did so based on testing and tracing, isolation, and quarantine.”
École Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne.
That is, for testing to be effective, there must be followup of those who might have caught the virus from a positively tested individual. Note how social distancing is crucial to this subsequent activity: There are potentially fewer people in any contact group.
“China’s outbreak has come to a halt and South Korea has flattened its curve. However COVID-19 case numbers are still rising rapidly in many Western countries.”
Quarantine. Once the affected people are identified, their quarantine reduces the risk of transmission. Salathé says the goal would be “a determination to find every single infection and follow up on every potential exposure and break every possible chain of transmission.”
Immense challenges call for carefully thought-out responses. ds