As of April 20th, nearly 316 million Americans – about 95% of the country’s population – are under a “shelter at home” or “shelter in place” order given by their state government. All non-essential businesses have been closed and everyone is encouraged to stay at home unless taking part in an essential activity, such as picking up food, groceries, or medications. Essential personnel continue to work though many do so under more stringent guidelines for sanitation and social distancing. The earliest states to enact stay-at-home measures have been operating this way for over a month.
Recent data indicate that these orders, along with social distancing precautions, have begun to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections throughout the country. President Trump announced on April 16th that the reopening of the country would be up to state governments and provided a set of guidelines that should be utilized to indicate when, how quickly, and in what order reopening should occur. Unfortunately, Americans across the country are suffering from cabin fever and many believe that the orders to shelter at home have gone on long enough. Tensions between the federal government and the states has been on the rise throughout the pandemic and now Americans have begun defying social distancing orders by gathering in large groups to protest.
Healthcare Workers Silently Block Protesters
One such protest took place in Denver on April 19th as a group of demonstrators gathered at the state capital to demand the stay-at-home order be lifted. Sources report that the long line of cars that filled the street blocked the entrance to a nearby emergency room. This, in combination with the blatant disregard for social distancing precautions, led several healthcare workers to take matters into their own hands.
A freelance photographer who happened to be in the area at the time reported hearing people shouting and cars honking as something disturbed the protest. When she arrived on the scene, she saw two individuals in medical scrubs and N95 masks blocking the line of cars from proceeding through an intersection. In a silent measure of counter-protest, the two healthcare workers stood resolute in the crosswalk while horns blared and protesters hurled insults.
Armed with homemade signs and American flags, the protesters heckled the healthcare workers and continued to demand action from their governor. Among the cars, a woman with a sign reading “Land of the Free” is pictured screaming at the healthcare workers blocking her path. Cell phone video of the incident captured her yelling, “Go to China if you want communism. Go to China!” This protest is just one of several that have been occurring around the country during the past several days.
The Repercussions of a Sudden Reopening
Governors of several different states have expressed a desire to reopen their economies and get things “back to normal”, but doing so requires achieving certain milestones and moving forward gradually. If history is any indication, reopening quickly and without the proper precautions in place will likely lead to a resurgence in the number of people who become infected. With the healthcare system already facing strain and lack of resources – including medications, PPE, ventilators – any such resurgence could prove too much and lead to healthcare system collapse.
The White House has since released a set of guidelines about how and when states can go about reopening. Before entering the first phase of reopening, states must show a downward trajectory of both influenza-like illnesses and COVID-like syndromic cases over a period of 14 days. They must also demonstrate a downward trajectory of documented cases or the percent of positive tests over a 2-week period. Hospitals must be able to treat all patients without resorting to crisis measures and have established a testing program for at-risk healthcare workers, including antibody testing. Only then can states proceed to the first of the three phases for reopening.
Currently, testing remains an issue in many states across the nation. States have consistently fallen short of testing goals since the pandemic began even after the batches of faulty tests were eliminated from circulation. In addition, antibody testing availability fails to meet demand and many of the tests being used currently have not been vetted or approved by the FDA. As this is an essential part of the federal government’s plan to reopen the economy, it’s likely that no state currently meets all of the criteria necessary to reopen. That, however, is not stopping some Governor’s from beginning the process later this week.
For the past several months, healthcare workers around the globe have been treating COVID-19 patients in less-than-ideal conditions and with limited PPE. Many of them have contracted COVID-19 and some have even lost their lives. Stay at home measures and social distancing have helped us flatten the curve, but we are not yet out of the woods. Avoiding a resurgence will require more time and more patience from every American as we develop and mass-produce more accurate tests and structure the reopening of our country.