So — when?
The answer is: nobody knows.
How — and when — we can resume our comfortable past routines is rife with uncertainty because public health officials still have no idea how many people in the country are infected with the novel coronavirus, including those who may be asymptomatic and unknowingly spreading the virus to others.
Without this information, it’s impossible to predict when it will be safe for us to venture out again, joining the essential health-care, grocery and delivery workers who have soldiered on during these risky times, caring for the sick, keeping food in the stores and getting it to us, and running other critical services.
“We will have to reopen, but not having this information will make reopening much more difficult,” says William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases and preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “I think there will have to be a staged — not sudden — reintroduction to normal life, which gives us the option to pause if there is a resurgence of the virus.”
President Trump, who wanted the country to reopen May 1, has since said he would leave the decision to governors. Some states are working on plans now for businesses to resume work, and as they do, many of us will be faced with difficult decisions to make about our personal risks and how we should behave. This is a daunting prospect for anyone coping with the individual pressures wrought by a national economy in turmoil, or the emotional pain of not being able to spend real time — not Zoom or FaceTime — with loved ones who live elsewhere, especially in hard-hit cities.
Nevertheless, if you ask public health officials what to do, most of them would agree that early May is too soon to forgo social distancing — and to stick close to home if you can. This is true for everyone, but especially for those at high risk.
“Yes, it will be very challenging,” says Michael T. Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s center for infectious disease research and policy. “But it could save your life.”
David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, who is advising presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on covid-19, agrees.
“The virus is not gone,” he says. “It is lurking in people who are unaware that they carry it. The vast majority of us — an overwhelming percentage of the population — is still susceptible.”
This makes it dangerous to relax social distancing, even if the curve of cases starts to flatten, or the numbers decrease with the onset of warm weather, experts say.
“If the virus returns in the fall to the same extent it did this spring, people who never got infected will be in the same boat as they are right now,” says Robert T. Schooley, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of California at San Diego.
This is disheartening to people like Kimberly Allen, 67, from Takoma Park, Md., a former strategic planning officer for the Law Library of Congress, who enjoyed an active retirement until mid-March.
She went to dozens of Nationals home games, including those during the World Series. She regularly rode the bus to New York City to attend the theater. She met friends for lunch and dinner, and joined them for movies, shows and concerts. She did water aerobics at the YMCA. She participated in political protests. She drove to her second home in West Virginia for long weekends in the woods.
Today, she rarely leaves the house. At her age, and suffering from high blood pressure, she risks severe covid-19 disease if she becomes infected. She hasn’t had any symptoms, nor been tested, but she assumes she is negative. But that also means she has no immunity, which worries her almost as much as the thought of becoming ill. No immunity — and with no vaccine likely for a year or probably longer — portends the likelihood of an indefinite solitary confinement.
“Will I be trapped in my house for what seems like forever waiting until there’s a vaccine?” she says. “The whole thing seems so surreal. I feel like I’m in the middle of a science-fiction story. I like certainty. I like to know when something is going to end, whether it’s a movie or a show, or this. When I know, I can deal with it. It’s very hard for me to cope with all these uncertainties.”
She speaks for many of us, although most health experts believe she needs to stay home until we know how many Americans have been infected.
“Massive testing is essential,” Kessler says. “The only way to avoid secondary waves and peaks of the virus is with massive testing, and markedly reduced person-to-person contact.”
Even in the absence of studies, experts believe that fewer than 5 percent of the more than 330 million people in the U.S. population have already been infected. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tallied nearly 747,000 cases of covid-19 as of Monday.)
“Even if this 5 percent estimate is off by a factor of two, that would mean that 90 percent of the population has not yet been infected and would be at risk for infection if the virus comes back once we ‘start up’ . . . and the virus could spread just about as easily as it does now,” Schooley says.
To further complicate the picture, they also don’t know how many asymptomatic people are infected, or whether those who became sick and recovered are truly immune — or for how long.
“In theory, the more people previously infected, the fewer left to infect should the virus come back,” Schooley says. “But we will need to know with more certainty whether those who have recovered are truly protected from becoming ill again.”
The bottom line: Even apparently healthy 20- and 30-somethings, as well as the elderly or chronically ill, probably should stay home as much as possible for now, experts say.
“It’s the only way we can keep this virus in check, and the only way we can reduce our risk,” Kessler says.
Moreover, even when daily life resumes, don’t expect it to be the way it was before.
“We will still have to make serious readjustments,” Schaffner says. “Supermarkets will need to keep those marks on the floor for a long time. We’ll still be wearing masks and face coverings outside. Engaging in social activities, whether religious services or bridge club, will have to be with great caution. My wife can’t imagine wearing a mask to her bridge club, but she may have no choice. Maybe, at some point, we can go to the movies again, but we’ll probably be wearing bandannas or masks.”
People are resilient at finding ways to adjust. Allen takes walks and watches shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime. She sits on her screened sun porch with her four cats, watching the birds. Although she misses the ballpark this time of year — and a season that in normal times would have been underway — she is scared to go back.
“I’m not sure I’d want to be sitting in that stadium right now with 30,000 other people,” she says. “I can’t imagine I will ever feel comfortable going out again until there’s a vaccine.”
Still, she keeps telling herself things could be worse.
“There are plenty of events in history that remind us how millions of people who were also forced to remain confined were far less fortunate,” she says.