The United States gained a grim distinction in the world this week when it officially overtook Italy and China as the country with the most confirmed cases of Covid-19. Time is not on our side in the fight against this sweeping pandemic. As physicians, nurses, and the entire health care community work courageously to turn the tide against Covid-19, our singular goal is to save as many lives as possible.
In suggesting that people could begin returning to their normal routines around Easter, President Trump has set up a false choice by pitting the health and safety of the American people against the economy.
The choice we face in this crucial moment is not between public health and the economy. The choice is between listening to science and saving lives or ignoring science and losing lives. The choice is between working together across the country to defeat this virus or letting it kill our grandparents, parents, and neighbors.
If we do not act in a sustained way to stay home collectively — following the counsel of trained physicians, nurses, and public health officials — we will overwhelm our already taxed health system. Choosing drastic measures to flatten the curve of this virus is a stark choice.
This isn’t to suggest that economic considerations aren’t important in a health emergency or that people aren’t already experiencing serious financial hardships because of this pandemic.
But a national directive to send people back to work early would not only create confusion with existing policies adopted by the states, but would likely apply disproportionately across race and class lines, sending some of our most vulnerable populations back to work and imperiling their lives.
It would expose more people to the dangers of Covid-19, require the need for more hospital beds and ventilators, and ramp up pressure for more protective equipment for health providers. Such a scenario is frightening to consider and would inevitably result in more death and suffering.
Simply put, the best long-term strategy for economic recovery is to stop the spread of the virus. A healthy economy relies on a healthy workforce.
We’ve reached a critical stage in the battle against Covid-19 and health experts have laid out a number of scenarios that can alter the trajectory of the outbreak depending on how society commits to physical distancing. Public health experts indicate that strict physical distancing is our best chance to slow the pandemic.
Relaxing physical distancing too soon represents the most serious and direct threat to public health and would likely result in far greater the number of deaths.
Fifteen days of physical distancing is not enough to defeat Covid-19. We cannot rush this effort. There is no skipping the hard work it will take to fully recover from this immense health emergency.
Public health experts, physicians, and scientists know that physical distancing works. More than 100 million people in the U.S. are already adhering to their local and state guidelines to shelter in place or stay at home. They’re still maintaining meaningful connections with friends, family, and loved ones through video chats, social media, or simply by phone. Physical distancing doesn’t have to mean the end of socializing; we just need to do it at a safe distance.
While some states have been leaders in this effort, many have not yet put such physical distancing restrictions in place, which threatens to prolong the battle against Covid-19. We need everyone in this effort, committed to ending this pandemic as soon as possible.
Our only chance to win this fight is to slow the spread of Covid-19 and give health professionals the necessary time and resources to care for those who need it. We must unite as a country around this effort. We have no other choice.
Patrice A. Harris, M.D., is an Atlanta-based psychiatrist and president of the American Medical Association.
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