Is It Really Time to Reopen?

So here we are at the end of May 2020. Our town has been closed since mid-March in an attempt to save the hospital system from total collapse due to the Coronavirus pandemic. And now, today, we are starting to come under mounting pressure to “reopen” our local economy.

It’s hard to know what to think about this issue and what information sources to believe. Many people are misinformed and even the most informed people don’t know enough about this pandemic. This issue has become political and the stakes are high for the current government and for our collective future.

So I wanted to take this time to try to dispassionately analyze the situation based on what we know and don’t know today. I’m doing this is because I need to figure out how to respond to all this considering I have an at-risk family member in my household.

Rewind to March

Let’s take a second and remember where we were right before the lockdown started. And let’s remind ourselves of what we hoped would happen after we decided to shut down our economy and quarantine.

On March 13th, we had 588 confirmed cases of Coronavirus in the United States. We had 9 reported deaths (Source Coronavirus (COVID-19) Global Data Tracker). The narrative was mainly that the virus was spreading on cruise ships and a nursing home.

Most people didn’t consider Coronavirus to be a serious threat in March. However, health officials soon learned that if the virus got out into the community then so many people would become infected that the hospital system would become overwhelmed. This is because the infection rate for Coronavirus is very high. Every person that has Coronavirus will infect at least two people.

This meant that within weeks, hundreds of thousands of people would get this virus. Eventually, millions of people would become infected within months. Statisticians showed that the virus would spread exponentially if unchecked and predicted that millions of Americans would die as a result.

So we closed our schools, our towns, offices. Some of us started working from home. Our kids became home schooled. We only went outside to exercise. We avoided neighbors. Did our family gatherings on Zoom. So what happened?

Social Distancing Worked

During this period, cases went dramatically up and many people died. However, because we quarantined the number of cases did not go up exponentially and overwhelm the hospital system. Except in New York. However, even New York was able to treat all their patients. But New York’s hospital system was on the verge of collapse. Here is what the virus looked like during that time:

Source Coronavirus (COVID-19) Global Data Tracker

The left side is number of cases and the right side is the number of deaths. The steep curve that you see is New York’s infection rate and the second largest is New Jersey’s infection rate (essentially the New York metro area). You can see the exponential curve in New York, while the rest of the states just have linear and then flat curves.

Why New York? Scientists found that in January and February 20% of New Yorkers had become infected with Coronavirus that was imported from Italy. So New York had wide community spread before anyone really knew the virus was there. New York also has a dense and large population that uses shared spaces like subways and enclosed buildings often.

Basically, New York is a case study in what happens when the virus is left to spread unchecked. The other states show flattened curves on the graph because they were able to put social distancing measures in place in time.

And Here We Are Today

Yesterday was May 27th, and we have 1,699,024 cases and 100,415 deaths in the United States. The US has only 4% of the world’s population but almost 30% of the world’s Coronavirus deaths.

Source Coronavirus (COVID-19) Global Data Tracker

Yesterday alone, we had 1,505 new deaths and the average daily death rate is 900 people per day. The economic consequences have been devastating and we are now essentially in a new Great Depression with over 36 million people unemployed (Source, New York Times).

As of today, we New York appears to be having less and less deaths each day, but they are still losing 90 people a day. Other states have smaller numbers but are seeing daily increases in numbers of cases. Many places are seeing the same number of new cases each day. Essentially, we all appear to be experiencing an extended peak were constant numbers of people are getting infected and dying.

So after two months of extreme social distancing, we have gone from a place where we had a few outbreaks and a few deaths to an enormous number of cases and a catastrophic number of deaths.

What’s Different Today?

There are three major differences between today and pre-quarantine March: (1) the virus is circulating in every state and every day people are dying from Coronavirus, (2) many people are wearing face masks and social distancing in public, and (3) most non-essential mass gatherings and businesses remain closed.

Things feel that they are under control because over the past two months living with the virus has become normalized. The exponential explosion that we feared did not happen but that was only because she stayed inside and apart.

The so-called “flattening of the curve” is happening, we are seeing a steady but not overwhelming number of cases.

Still, it seems like we are still sitting on the same tinderbox today as we were in March. It’s actually much more dangerous because the virus is now much more widespread. In March, we were at risk of seeing this exponential explosion in a handful of places. Today, every state and very county in this country are at risk of an exponential explosion of Coronavirus cases.

The Pressure to Open

Above I said that 3 things are different today than they were in March. But, there is a fourth big difference now. This difference is the urge to reopen the economy and get life back to normal.

People are pointing to the fact that our numbers of cases have remained constant as evidence that the crisis is over and that we should get back to normal.

The problem is that the only reason that our numbers of cases are constant is that we haven’t been going out. But, there is an alternative theory that this virus is seasonal and that infection rates would go down in the summer.

As as we sit here and get ready for a hobbled reentry into society we really don’t know what to expect. What we do know is that life is not going back to normal. I know that we are not planning on going on vacation, eating out, going to the pool, or to the beach. We don’t know for sure if we will have jobs in the Fall.

What Happens Next?

The question of whether we “reopen” is mute at this point. In reality, we were never really “closed” in the first place. We merely adapted and now we learned what can can do safely and what we can’t. Takeout food is now delivered to your home or picked up curbside.

But, the things that are not safe are on hold. People are not going to go on cruises or eat out in large groups if it’s not safe, regardless of what politicians eager to get the economy going say. I think we will most likely see a depressed economy and a steady but no exponential amount of corona in the months to come.

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Matt is the author of five Apress books including Learn RStudio IDE, Quick, Effective, and Productive Data Science, Objective-C Recipes, Swift Quick Syntax Reference, Objective-C Quick Reference, and the upcoming Pro Data Visualization with R and JavaScript. He has over 20 years of experience in technology, psychometrics, and data analytics working in major higher education institutions such as The College Board and Educational Testing Service. He has earned a Master’s degree in Information Systems Management and a Bachelor’s degree in Quantitative Psychology.