Turn back the pandemic

Turn back the pandemic
© Getty Images

Can we as a people come together to turn back an attacking enemy? It is a simple question; most would answer emphatically “yes." But in this era, it is an inherently more complex question.

The enemy is not easily recognized. It is an unseen, unliving biological enemy that stealthily invades, using our cells to replicate itself so, with renewed forces, it can continue its silent march to spread.  The manifestation of its attack comes later, sickness and death. The attack is not happening in some faraway place that can be forgotten, but right here in our social gatherings, bars, restaurants, long-term care facilities, and homes.

Yet, the unseen enemy is easy to ignore. The casualties of its attack are not bloody bodies on a battlefield. They are isolated, out of sight in hospitals, easy to disregard for all but friends and family. Casualties are presented as cold numbers in daily reports. One can easily believe that they have never known any infected person, so it is an easy threat to deny.

Would we be at ease in a crowded bar if we knew there were indiscriminate armed assassins sitting amongst us? The enemy, like true evil, has surreptitiously convinced many that it is not real, not a threat. And our leaders, like pawns to nefarious forces, have supported this notion, putting forth misinformation, denying or minimizing the threat. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The threat of COVID-19 has been denied by those who find it inconvenient, although some acknowledgment of heightened risk must be seen in the cancellation of political rallies in COVID-19 hotspots. The virus will spread no matter what we believe, how much we deny it, or how hard we close our eyes to it. SARS CoV-2 is a highly contagious virus that is attacking a population with no pre-existing immune defense. And, as younger people have denied the enemy as a risk for only the elderly, infections and hospitalizations now surge among 20-29-year-olds.

Many state governments continue to press forward on opening despite a rapidly increasing surge of COVID19 cases and deaths. The gains made by lockdowns that curbed the spread in March and April are largely lost. The true devastation of COVID-19 is now manifesting itself due to premature and ill-planned reopening, and the full devastation will not be realized for months. 

The president and vice president as well as many governors attribute the rise in COVID-19 cases to increased testing. This is simply not true, as cases are increasing at a much faster rate than tests. In a recent week in Arizona, one of the worst-hit states, diagnostic testing increased by about 18 percent while cases rose by 138 percent. Additionally, increased testing cannot account for a flood of serious COVID-19 cases in hospitals, which may require activation of surge plans to increase ICU capacity. 

Can we as a people come together to turn back an attacking enemy?  Yes, there is much we can do to slow COVID-19 spread, even in the context of reopening. States should vigorously promote, mandate, and enforce the simple, well-established protective measures of social distancing and face coverings in public. And it is important that we avoid uncontrolled gatherings of ten or more people where the risk of exposure is increased. Instead, narrow social networks to close family members and friends who have agreed upon a plan for safe engagement with the greater community. These are the best defensive weapons we have to turn back the enemy until offensive weapons, anti-viral drugs and vaccines, become available. 

These actions make a real difference that could keep numbers of COVID-19 cases low enough that workplaces and schools could reopen. Safely opening schools so children learn and parents work is critical to preserving mental health and the economy. Finally, state governments must establish a set point to re-impose restrictions on activities

ADVERTISEMENT

The numbers speak the simple truth. The COVID-19 surge is dire. As viruses spread exponentially, decisive and fast action is required to control the spread. Yet, in the face of this problem, the hardest-hit states have few contingency plans. As one defeated state health official stated, “We are not going to be able to stop the spread…”. To ignore this surge in cases is reckless and irresponsible.

Many countries and states have successfully slowed the spread. Several states are modifying their reopening strategies as cases surge. But, the patchwork response and the resulting gains made across the US and world is fragile and will not be maintained when travel resumes and restrictions are lifted. 

We cannot accept a half-hearted fight against this deadly enemy. Stopping the surge will take a concerted, data-driven scientific and public policy plan and leadership, that ideally would be internationally coordinated. In the absence of that leadership, We the People must come together to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and the vulnerable. 

James Alwine is a virologist, a fellow of the American Academy for Microbiology and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania and a visiting professor at the University of Arizona. Felicia Goodrum Sterling is a virologist, president-elect of the American Society of Virology, and a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. She is a professor and scientist at the University of Arizona.