The Agenda

OPINION | Coronavirus

How to Build a Post-Covid “New Normal”

It’s going to take much more than vaccines and plans from governors. A highly specific guide to what we’ll need next to keep society safe.

Coronavirus

As rates of coronavirus infection slow and death rates appear to plateau in certain regions of the U.S., the national conversation has begun to contemplate what life will look like once it is safer to gradually begin to return to pre-shutdown life. Political and business leaders are eager to reopen the country and restart the economy.

But rates of infection and daily death tolls don’t tell us the critical data point that we need in order to reopen shopping malls, sports stadiums, and schools: how many Americans have developed immunity to the virus. For a virus that can spread from people who may not show symptoms, this means that we won’t be safe to resume “normal” levels of social interaction until virtually all Americans are immune, either because they’ve been vaccinated, or have developed protective antibodies after natural infection.

At the heart of the “reopening” problem is that while large scale social distancing has helped to slow the spread of illness, the vast majority of the population still has no immunity and remains susceptible to Covid-19. Premature lifting of measures designed to keep people apart could rapidly derail the progress we’ve achieved and lead to a spike in infections and deaths. (This has already happened in Asia, where some countries that initially reduced their case numbers are now having to increase social distancing measures due to a resurgence of cases.)

A definitive solution requires the broad availability of one or more safe and effective vaccines. However, they won’t come soon enough. Once a vaccine enters clinical trials, we’ll need at least six months to show whether it works. And even if it works, it will need to be manufactured at large scale and more time will be needed before it is available to all.

Until that happens, we need to assume that Americans will continue to come down with Covid-19. Therefore, even if we can lift some of the more restrictive social distancing measures, we need to be prepared to continue some physical distancing between individuals for the foreseeable future.

What happens between now and then? There are many decisions, big and small, that will need to take place at all levels of society. Most attention so far has focused on the role of public officials and the medical community. And it’s true that researchers need to be focusing on vaccine development, federal health officials need to be finding ways to expand and improve testing, and public health officials need to develop operational plans for scaling up contact tracing.

But some of the most important measures will need to be taken in homes, businesses and schools. Here’s a rundown of other resources that need to be in place before social distancing can ease.

Covid Call Centers

Even before governments are able to scale up a public health workforce to conduct contact tracing, ordinary Americans who test positive for Covid-19 should do their own contact tracing, and that means they will need expert guidance. State health officials should establish call lines to help people who fall sick assess whether their symptoms are consistent with Covid-19, whether they should be tested, and how to conduct their own contact tracing so that they can notify their contacts of a possible exposure.

Although apps and digital health tools may help, people will need to be able to talk to a trained public health professional who can provide guidance, for instance, about how close and how long an interaction needs to be before it is considered a contact; how far back in time they need to go to trace their contacts; how long they need to remain in isolation; and whether they should advise their contacts to self-quarantine.

Face Mask Instruction

Although it is still not fully clear whether wearing homemade face masks help cut down on transmission, there is reason to think they may help if people learn to use them correctly. Some states are requiring people to use them in public spaces and it’s increasingly likely it will become the norm to use masks in public. In addition to encouraging their use, Americans will also need education from public health officials as to how best to use masks including reducing the possibility of contaminating themselves. The instructions should also reinforce the idea that masks are needed to reduce the possibility that a person who is unknowingly infected may transmit the virus to others.

Fever Screenings

Efforts to screen for illness, including checking body temperature, should be also ramped up. Businesses including Amazon, Home Depot and Whole Foods have already instituted fever screenings for their employees. These screenings should be implemented by other businesses and workplaces to protect both staff and customers. When schools reconvene, screening students for fever every day may help to reduce the occurrence not just of Covid-19 but other of infectious diseases as well. It is still not known what proportion of people Covid-19 do not develop fever, but in this era, people with a fever should not be out and about, regardless of its cause.

More Telework

Where feasible, businesses should continue to encourage telework as much as possible until vaccination is widespread, and non-essential travel should be limited. Those businesses that do require in person attendance should find ways to reduce physical interaction between employees. Space out employee work areas, close common areas, and eliminate in-person group meetings.

Keep Schooling Flexible

The decision to open or close schools has important implications for students, their families and the workforce. Communities that wish to reopen businesses may find they are effectively not able to do so if schools remain closed and parents need to stay home with their children. As a result, an effort to reopen schools should be flexible and tailored to the needs of the local community, students and school staff. For instance, children and teachers who have risk factors that make them especially vulnerable to this virus should be given the tools to continue to work and learn from home. In many communities, distance learning was put in place in haste and needs improvement in order to serve the needs of students (and their parents).

The Department of Education should work with states and on-line education experts to develop resources for e-learning that are developmentally appropriate and aligned with grade level standards. Other countries have implemented creative approaches to reopening schools--such as increasing physical space between students, alternating attendance days to reduce class sizes, and staggering lunch times—and we should learn from their experiences.

No Public Events

Restaurants and stores should plan to continue to offer pick-up and curbside services to limit the number of individuals within closed spaces. Sports events, when they resume, will probably go on without fans at the stadium. Sadly, movies, theaters and other forms of entertainment will have to wait longer as Americans will be rightly fearful of densely population closed spaces.

Americans are eager to return to life as it was before the pandemic. That won’t happen anytime soon. At least until we have widespread immunity, what we need to establish is a new “normal” built on new routines and new resources. Some things may have changed forever: Handshakes may become a thing of the past, curbside pick-up of goods may stay with us, more schooling may be done at home. But regaining a bit of pre-shutdown life is possible if we all adapt.

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