“This disease is no worse than the flu, and it’s the media just scaring everyone to stay inside.”
“If liquor stores and hardware stores are open, this shutdown isn’t about health — the government is trying to control us!”
Being in lockdown for as long as we have, you’ve probably found it hard to avoid social media. So, you may have seen the posts of family, friends, or long-lost acquaintances ranting against the coronavirus shutdowns across the country. They range anywhere from mere, understandable frustration to full-on tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories.
As the virus hits some areas harder than others, those who haven’t been directly affected start to wonder, “Why am I being forced to stay home?” For more than 30 million of us (including me), the question has become even more serious with furloughs and layoffs that have ensued.
However, it seems that one thing spreading even faster than COVID-19 is misinformation. Among those who argue most fervently against the various states of lockdown, a common argument is made over and over: That the government is claiming these measures are necessary to protect our individual health. That they are trying to stop each and every one of us from getting COVID-19.
That’s not the case. Because, in reality, nearly everyone is going to get infected at some point. The race for a “cure” or a vaccine will almost surely not outrace this highly contagious virus — for each of us, it’s not if we’ll get infected, it’s when.
So, why then have most of us across the country and in many parts of the world been confined to our homes for weeks, even months in some cases?
Simply put, we stay home to make sure that there will be someone to care for us when we are infected with COVID-19.
Left unchecked (as it was for a time in my home city of New York), COVID-19 can overrun even the best hospitals in the world. We’re proof. And grim reminders are everywhere, from mass burials on Hart Island to the daily sounds of ambulance sirens breaking the eerie quiet of our otherwise empty streets.
As a reminder, COVID-19 is a novel virus in which no one has immunity and, currently, there is no treatment. We will be infected. Some of us are more likely than others to have symptoms or to have it progress into a raging war inside our bodies.
We stay home to keep the transmission rate down, because if it were to run out of control, we could overwhelm our healthcare system. Then, it won’t just be that people are getting sick — it means more people are dying because there are not enough doctors and nurses to go around.
This is why we stay home.
The Goal: Lower the Transmission Rate
I walk past a field hospital in Central Park every day. I see weary hospital workers walking to and from work. Our hospital are running at capacity plus some. These are signs that our resources, and most importantly, our people are taxed. We stay home so that they are not more overworked than they already are.
In New York City, the rate of transmission (aka R0 or R-naught) as of May 4 is 5.43, which means every person with COVID-19 infect 5.43 people. This number is based on a combination of the virus properties and human behavior. It isn’t set but is malleable based on our actions.
Here, our healthcare has been able to expand. Unfortunately, there are parts of the country where there isn’t a healthcare system, let alone one that can expand. I have worked with companies who are trying to bring services to rural areas. In these places, there may not be a hospital in a town or even an entire county. When people get sick, there care is hard to come by — and the hospitals that are in the area can become overwhelmed quickly. Just look to the outbreaks in Albany, Georgia and Perry, Iowa.
So for those who say stay-at-home orders are “not about health,” you’re kind of right. Stay-at-home orders are about effectively managing resources during a public health crisis. It is the government ensuring that there are medical experts to care for us if this virus does make us sick, and ultimately, so people don’t die.
It is all about keeping the rate of transmission down; not keeping us healthy. Messages about staying safe and being well confuse this.
The R-naught goal for New York State is 1.1 or less—in other words, one person infects 1.1 persons at maximum. It is the same goal for New York as it is for Germany. Already, some regions in New York fall below this: Central Region, Capital Region, North County, and Southern Tier. And guess what? Those regions will move into Phase I of the unpause before NYC.
These regions will help us forge a new way forward into life with coronavirus—one that includes social distancing, working from home, and wearing face masks. And hopefully, they will continue to not overload their healthcare systems if they remain under the 1.1 transmission rate.
Because here in New York City, we’re a long way from seeing the end. As the Former CDC director Tom Frieden told the House Appropriations Committee today: “Even now with deaths decreasing substantially, there are twice as many deaths from Covid-19 in New York City as there are on a usual day from all other causes combined.”
And this is just the beginning.