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Making sense of mixed COVID-19 messages

The start of another COVID-19 week, and the end of what has been a very long and eventful month, brought mixed messages.

On the one hand, evidence is increasing that the strict containment strategies that are keeping us from interacting with one another are effective in limiting the spread of the highly contagious.

On the other hand, statistical modeling revealed Tuesday during President Trump’s daily briefing suggested that even using these extreme containment strategies, the battle to suppress the pandemic will be long, the cost in human suffering significant, and the economic damage unprecedented.

If the nation uses aggressive social distancing practices, the projections revealed by the White House show 100,000 to 240,000 deaths. That is now, unfortunately, the measure of success. 

But if governors in numerous states across the country had not led the way, and begun demanding social distancing, if life had tried to go on as normal, the nation would have been looking at a projected 2.2 million deaths, with a majority of U.S. residents infected.

In reconciling these messages of social distancing success, but still grim infection amd death estimates, we reach the conclusion that America must strengthen the containment strategy, knowing that it will not save us from a bad end, but cognizant that it can avoid a far more catastrophic outcome.

And then there is the economy.

In a phone conversation Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney of eastern Connecticut’s 2nd District said it is becoming clear the $2.2 trillion relief bill approved last week will be insufficient in some areas. In a conference call with Gov. Ned Lamont and other administration officials immediately after the bill’s passage, the congressman learned that more than 700 businesses had already inquired about how they can tap into the federal rescue program.

That is 700-plus businesses in one small state before the program has even been set up. Congress has set aside $367 billion for forgivable loans for small businesses that employ under 500 employees, money to be used to cover payroll, rent, and utilities. If staffing is maintained, the loan becomes a grant. The $367 billion will not be nearly enough given the scope of the economic damage.

The same can be said for the $130 billion for hospitals to secure resources and training to prevent, treat, and respond to COVID-19, including for personal protective equipment. That seemingly big number appears quite small against the scope of the challenge hospitals face.

Courtney said Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already begun discussions with the Democratic caucus in the House about yet another COVID-19 relief bill.

But, as you sit at home, disconnected from the routines and familial interactions of what was until recently our normal existence, take heart.

Kinsa Health, which produces internet-connected thermometers, and which has been getting up to 162,000 daily temperature readings since COVID-19 began spreading, has seen a rapid drop of fevers since aggressive social distancing began.

The greater Seattle, Wash. area, where the first known COVID-19 case in the United States surfaced, where the virus claimed 37 of its first 50 victims, has seen things improve as a result of the social separation policies. Public health officials there point to statistics that estimate each infected person was spreading the virus to an average of 2.7 other people in early March, a number now down to 1.4.

In New York City, where it took far too long for the citizens to take the threat seriously, where hordes that filled Central Park only recently have been displaced by massive medical tents, the late arrival of serious social distancing has also shown signs of success, with hospitalization rates slowing, but still alarmingly high.

And that is part of the story, too. The virus has a lag time of weeks, with the high infection and growing death rates largely the product of pre-containment. That is why it is such a concern that large swarths of the country remain largely business as usual, especially in the South, and why Trump should move to a national mandatory containment approach.

Locally, this region is seeing a gradual increase in COVID-19 cases, and now its first death, but given the area's relative proximity to the viral epicenter that is New York, the low numbers should be viewed as encouraging and an indication our social distancing efforts are working.

The next two weeks promise to be particularly difficult. And the challenge will then continue for some weeks after as other hot spots emerge.

The greatest danger, collectively and individually, is backing off from the social distancing efforts too soon. That would only prolong the agony. Everyone must do their part.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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