Physical Distancing Was Just Supposed to Buy Us Time. Was It Enough?
- Physical (social) distancing definitely helped us get control of the coronavirus, which was spreading rapidly throughout March. But alone it wasn’t enough to bring transmission to a halt.
- The new data demonstrate that physical distancing shouldn’t be relaxed unless a substantial decrease in daily cases of COVID-19 has been observed.
- All but three states, which saw the slowest transmission of the coronavirus in the country, saw a huge reduction in the doubling rate of new infections.
A new study from researchers at Cornell University and University of Rochester found that physical distancing (social distancing) measures stabilized the transmission of the new coronavirus (the virus that causes COVID-19).
However, it didn’t cause the number of daily reported cases of COVID-19 to decline.
Physical distancing definitely helped us get control of the new coronavirus, which was spreading rapidly throughout March. But alone it wasn’t enough to bring viral transmission to a halt.
States that were hit particularly hard — New York, New Jersey, and Michigan — saw the greatest impact from physical distancing measures.
And all but three states — North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, which had the slowest transmission of new coronavirus in the country — saw a huge reduction in the doubling rate of new infections.
In theory, strict physical distancing could have caused infections to decrease just as fast as they had increased in March.
Though evidence is still limited on the impact of physical distancing, early data suggests that it didn’t decrease the number of COVID-19 cases reported daily.
Instead, it stabilized, or flattened, how many new infections we were seeing each day.
The new findings show that we don’t have much “wiggle room” when it comes to relaxing physical distancing measures, according to the researchers.
“If we are on the cusp of increasing cases now, then any relaxation, in the absence of other countermeasures, will presumably lead to a renewed increase in new infections with the attending threat of overwhelmed healthcare systems,” the study’s first author, Aaron Wagner, PhD, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University, told Healthline.
Why flattening the curve was so crucial
When researchers saw how quickly the number of COVID-19 cases was growing across the nation, they feared for what was in store for our healthcare system.
They looked at the crisis rapidly unfolding in Italy — where doctors had limited personal protective equipment (PPE) and had to choose to save one patient’s life over another’s — and knew if the United States didn’t take action fast, Americans would face a similar fate.
“Flatten the curve” became the new motto in our fight against the coronavirus mid-March. By staying home and physically distancing, we could slow the spread of disease and avoid overwhelming the country’s healthcare system.
The distancing was implemented to help buy more time to ramp up testing and get hospital workers more PPE.
“‘Flattening the curve’ is a concept that implies controlling the rate of new cases to prevent overwhelming the health system,” said Dr. Andres Romero, an infectious disease specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
“If the virus is able to spread rapidly and infect increasing numbers of people in a short period of time, hospitals will not be able to treat the surge of cases.”
This new evidence shows physical distancing played a big role in flattening the curve, bringing the number of cases of COVID-19 to a plateau.
What will happen if physical distancing is relaxed too soon?
The new data demonstrates that physical distancing shouldn’t be relaxed unless a substantial decrease in daily cases has been observed.
“Since a systematic relaxation of social distancing will presumably increase the doubling rate, from a public health perspective it is advisable to relax such measures only when there is evidence that the spread has become subcritical,” the researchers stated in the study.
Currently, physical distancing measures will need to stay in place for some time in most regions.
Romero said that because coronavirus activity in each city and county is so different, local health authorities will have to tailor and implement distancing precautions per the number of local cases.
“It is paramount for local health leaders to work with local government in order to achieve a balance between opening the economy and avoiding overwhelming the healthcare system,” Romero said.
The virus is unpredictable, and if restrictions are relaxed without caution, there could be a spike in new infections, Romero noted.
Contact tracing, testing, and masks are also crucial
Physical distancing alone isn’t enough to decrease the number of new daily cases, according to Wagner.
“We should be looking for other measures that we can employ in addition to, or in place of, social distancing,” Wagner said.
One option Wagner mentioned is widespread mask wearing, which was recently enacted in Los Angeles County.
Another is widespread testing and contact tracing — or identifying the people who’ve been in contact with a person who has developed COVID-19 and requiring them to also quarantine in case they also get sick.
Together, these strict safety measures will likely be strong enough for daily new cases to decrease.
Transmissibility does tend to fall over time, Wagner noted, but to get there, we need to adhere to strict physical distancing and consider introducing new measures to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus.
“Social distancing is very costly, and it seems to have helped substantially. But social distancing alone has not taken us to the place we want to be,” Wagner said.
The bottom line
New research has found that physical distancing (social distancing) stabilized the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. But it didn’t cause the number of daily reported cases of COVID-19 to decline.
Physical distancing helped us get control of the coronavirus, which was spreading rapidly throughout March. Alone it wasn’t enough to bring the transmission to a halt, however.
Health experts say that relaxing physical distancing measures too soon could result in a surge of new cases. We need to continue adhering to physical distancing and consider introducing new measures to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus.
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