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Jonathan Patz: Reason for hope against the novel coronavirus
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Jonathan Patz: Reason for hope against the novel coronavirus

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COVID-19 distance

Keeping your distance while venturing outdoors will help slow the spread of COVID-19, prevent sickness and save lives over time.

Jonathan Patz

Jonathan Patz

Despite the grim headlines about the escalating health, economic and social toll of COVID-19, recent news from California provides reason for hope. Estimates this week from the first state to mandate a shelter-in-place directive show more then 600,000 hospitalizations from COVID-19 will be avoided by mid-May for California. Similar good news from a British study showed that at least 59,000 lives — and perhaps as many as 120,000 lives — were saved by physical distancing.

While the human costs of COVID-19 are clear, so are the steps we must take to protect our families, neighbors and community. Physical distancing (also labeled social distancing) must be our top priority to stop new cases of COVID-19 from overwhelming our health care system.

Wisconsin’s “safer at home” order went into effect March 25. Unless you are an essential worker, or doing essential tasks such as shopping for groceries and picking up prescription medications, stay at home. When you go out — only when absolutely necessary — maintain a physical distance of at least 6 feet from others. And wash your hands. Often.

Missing the window to conduct early and broad testing and tracking, we are already witnessing widespread community transmission of this novel coronavirus. Adherence to physical distancing prevents the virus from finding another warm human to infect, thereby slowing the spread of the disease. Because COVID-19 is twice as contagious and far more deadly than seasonal flu, physical distancing is critical in our fight to save lives and prevent suffering. This is why so many U.S. governors, including Wisconsin’s Tony Evers, have declared statewide orders to stay home.

We must, as a state and as a nation, get this right, and without delay. As the COVID-19 spreads across the globe, the United States has the world’s highest number of confirmed cases, and infections are expected to rise sharply over the coming weeks. If we act now and fully comply with “safer at home,” we can save lives and avoid catastrophe.

This coronavirus has taken a large toll across Asia and, more recently, Europe. The European experience precedes our own situation by several weeks. Nationally, our rate of increase in COVD-19 cases mirrors the rapid rise that occurred in Italy, and now Spain. When strict distancing measures were enforced, those countries’ rates of rise diminished.

Scientists at UW-Madison, in collaboration with state and local agencies and other universities in our region, are working around the clock to predict the spread of COVID-19 and the demands it will place on our health care system. This research team has created data dashboards and visualizations for the public and health scientists.

How long will we need to adhere to physical distancing policies? The data tells us we will likely see a peak number of COVID-19 cases in a few weeks. From my vantage point as a public health scientist (with specialty boards in preventive medicine), I caution anyone who thinks we can relax once we pass this peak. This coronavirus is silently spreading within communities. Individuals who have no symptoms whatsoever can shed the virus. Also, prior to developing symptoms including fever, cough or fatigue, people are contagious for several days.

The invisible, insidious nature of this virus is why universal physical distancing is of the utmost importance. It is also why, until we can conduct massive, population-wide testing, we must hold the line and continue to practice physical distancing.

In short, there’s no turning back or ignoring COVID-19. We must reach full compliance with distancing measures. If we all do our part and stay apart, we can go the distance together. Spread the word about physical distancing so we can reduce the spread of this virus and save lives.

Patz, of Madison, is director of the Global Health Institute at UW-Madison and a professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences and The Nelson Institute: patz@wisc.edu and @jonathanpatz.

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