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Consequences of trial and error in a pandemic

No one ever thought it would be simple to navigate the hazardous terrain of a pandemic. But surging numbers of cases show how many times over the relentless coronavirus has been underestimated since it appeared last winter.

Still, the longer the pandemic rages, the longer it takes to vaccinate people not just in the United States but worldwide, the more essential it is to scout a middle route between economic shutdown and the pretense of going about ordinary business, travels and leisure. With each new analysis of what measures work best to reduce the spread, state government has been responsive in loosening restrictions that could inhibit economic recovery and undermine mental health.

Yet here we are, in the weeks between Thanksgiving and the Christmas and New Year holidays, operating by trial and error and watching the numbers rise. The fearsome truth is that all the precautions taken by management — whether in a restaurant, a sports event, a college, a school, a church or on Black Friday — make the encounter safer, but not completely safe. There are no absolutes. As an organizer of Bubbleville, the college basketball series that started Wednesday at Mohegan Sun with no audience, told The Day's Brian Hallenbeck, he was "feeling good 'about the things we can control.'"

Using testing, social distancing, contact tracing and the concept of a "bubble" around all the participants, what they can control comes down to identifying who is already exposed and protecting others by not allowing those who test positive to participate. Nearly one-third of the originally slated teams never got to start.

What cannot be totally controlled is the successful compliance of individuals, meaning not just those defying the social distancing rules but anyone unlucky enough to be exposed to the virus because they cannot control whom they encounter. All the participating teams, like all the Thanksgiving travelers, had to get from Point A to Point B and back, increasing their chances of exposure.

The reality is that no measure can protect 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time. Spot cases lead to the cancelation or postponement of professional or collegiate games. They have led to a demand from teachers unions to close schools until mid-January unless safety protocols are improved and enforced. Clusters following social events have led to Gov. Ned Lamont increasing the fines for businesses that violate the capacity limits and break COVID-19 rules from $500 to $10,000 — an amount few businesses will be able to ignore.

The effort to allow as much normalcy as possible may be sending mixed messages. While the state fines businesses, the state university desperately tries to squeeze in a basketball season.

In the near future, the numbers may again make the decision for Connecticut, as is happening in some states where the rate of infection is higher. It may sound obvious, but the more infection there is in a community, the more there will be, until something blocks the spread — a vaccine, eventually, and staying apart until then.

If Thanksgiving travel warnings turn out to be true, in the next couple of weeks the numbers could rise dramatically. We surely hope they do not. But we are in a game of numbers that can be ignored only at everyone's peril. That message needs to be loud and clear.

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 Izaskun E. Larrañeta, 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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