Our Opinion: A new stage in our fight against the coronavirus
Frustrated with our interminable lockdown yet?
The weather has been really nice. Many other states and European countries are "reopening." Live baseball — albeit broadcast from South Korea — is on ESPN for the first time in months.
What's more, many of us have been sheltering in place, only rarely leaving our homes, for weeks. Some of us have lost our jobs or had hours cut. Some of us own businesses that are looking into the abyss without a lot of spending very soon.
It feels like this ought to be over.
But it's not.
The price of vigilance
While we've been inside, the novel coronavirus hasn't been getting appreciably less dangerous. Our "flattening the curve" has been effective in preventing the kind of astronomical death toll we've seen in places like New York and New Jersey — but it's only been effective so far, with no guarantee that the curve will stay flat as we begin to ease off social distancing.Here's what we have done:
• By adhering to emergency orders, such as the "Stay Home, Safe Safe" directive, we have sharply reduced viral transmission in Oregon. That means hospitals haven't been overwhelmed, which means those Oregonians who have been infected and developed complications from COVID-19 have been able to receive medical attention, as have Oregonians with other medical emergencies.
• We have bought ourselves some time to scale up testing, learn more about the virus, and stock up on personal protective equipment for first responders and healthcare workers. Many Oregonians have purchased or made face masks, which public health experts now agree are useful in slowing the spread of the virus.
• We know this virus is capable of exponential growth when it's left unchecked. Because we've taken steps to stay off that exponential curve, we have a baseline now in May that is a manageable number of new cases and hospitalizations per week, instead of an overwhelming high tide that will take weeks to recede, as it has in places like Italy, Spain and New York.Here's what we haven't done:
• We haven't found a way to totally prevent viral transmission from occurring. The most effective methods we've identified so far are to practice good hygiene and avoid close contact with other people, but even people who have isolated themselves to the best of their ability have still gotten sick.
• We haven't developed a treatment, cure or inoculation for the coronavirus. Despite hype over some experimental drugs, so far, the best result studies have shown was a modest reduction in the time an average coronavirus patient has to stay in the hospital when treated with remdesivir, an antiviral. Although some Americans have turned to desperate measures like ingesting bleach or other home remedies, these do not stop the virus and can be harmful or even fatal.
• We haven't developed a national testing and tracing program, or an effective plan for stopping outbreaks, or even an equitable system for distributing financial assistance, medical equipment and other vital forms of aid to states, local governments, businesses and households. While many other countries have seen infections peak and now recede, new cases and deaths in the United States have plateaued, no longer rising at an alarming rate but not showing a pronounced decline, either.
Our early progress
The Brown administration has struggled at times to articulate a coherent message and policies on the coronavirus. The governor has often been a step behind her counterparts in Washington and California, and especially in the early days of the outbreak, the tonal whiplash was jarring — the day that Brown announced in the morning that the state was recommending schools stay open, then announced late that night that schools would instead close, was one for the history books. Even last week, Brown struggled to explain her guidance on important issues like mask-wearing — "strongly recommended" but not required in public, apparently — and when certain types of businesses will be able to reopen.
But despite these hiccups, Brown has been quietly successful in presiding over one of the best and most effective responses to the coronavirus pandemic outside of South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand.
Positive test rates have been very low in Oregon and continue to decline. Hospitals have been spared the "spike" that many of us feared. Thanks to Oregon's Work Share program, employees who have been furloughed or had their hours reduced have a safety net not present in many other states.
Times are very tough right now for many of us. And while Oregon's death toll is a miniscule fraction of the total U.S. and worldwide fatalities, every loss is tragic and painful. But we can take heart in that things could be much, much worse, and they would be if not for the vast majority of Oregonians' compliance — even if just begrudgingly — with social distancing guidelines.
And now, as some of those guidelines are being relaxed, it's on all of us to ensure that Oregon's effective early response is not squandered.
The pandemic, despite our wishful thinking, is not "over." Public health officials have been clear all along that their goal isn't to eradicate the coronavirus in Oregon, because that's not possible without widespread immunity, and even then, there is no guarantee that there won't be flareups or another mass outbreak as immunity fades or the virus adapts. Viral transmission will increase as more people come in closer contact with one another.
Starting this week, some stores will be able to reopen: furniture stores, boutiques, art galleries and some others. We hope this injects some economic vitality into our downtowns and commercial districts in places like Forest Grove, St. Helens and Tigard, and as always, we encourage you to do what you can to support small business and shop local.
Restrictions at state parks, including Trojan Park, are gradually being lifted as well. While the science isn't completely established yet, most experts do think that being outdoors presents a lower risk of viral transmission, provided that people keep apart and observe proper hygiene. So that's something you can do, with appropriate care and caution, as well.
But other aspects of life won't return to anything close to normal for months, if not years.
Our beloved festivals, sporting events and concerts can't be held right now. The best we can do is cross our fingers and hope that experts devise a way to bring back some of these mass gatherings later on with modifications and restrictions that can effectively avoid "super-spreading," in which dozens, hundreds or thousands of people are infected as the virus is passed around at a single venue. But for many events, that might not be possible, and we should be prepared for the possibility that we'll have to live without them until there is a vaccine.
Masks and gloves aren't going anywhere anytime soon. The virus will continue to circulate, and any time you leave your home, you are assuming a greater risk of coming into contact with it and potentially being infected. Hand and face coverings can significantly reduce your risk of catching or transmitting the virus. If you're getting tired of having to "scrub up" just to leave home, we hear you — but we need to start thinking of these common protective items as accessories, like a handbag, ballcap or sunglasses, rather than something we're putting up with for a little while. They're going to be a part of daily life for a long time.
In general, we will need to continue being very careful about close contact: handshakes, hugging, and even standing or sitting less than a minimum six feet apart. Experts say this is probably the best opportunity for the virus to spread. While you usually can't see them, you and every person you know vents what are called respiratory droplets from the mouth when talking, singing, coughing, sneezing or even breathing. While typically harmless in healthy people, these tiny droplets can carry germs that allow virus to spread if the originator is infected. And as we now know, you don't have to experience COVID-19 symptoms to be carrying — and shedding — the coronavirus.
All of this is worse than an annoyance. Observing these restrictions means certain activities just aren't possible, and won't be until there's a vaccine. Workers and businesses will continue to suffer. Interpersonal interactions will need to remain distant, or at least more distant than we consider natural.
And even with all of this, it's still entirely possible that the case count will rise quickly enough once more for Oregon to clamp down again, and we'll have to figure out a new path forward.
We see the signs and hear the protests that it is "time to open up" or that "COVID-19 is over." But it's not, or at least not quite. Through great sacrifice, we've put ourselves in a position where we can begin to take baby steps toward social and economic activity. But if we speed up too quickly, then so will the virus, and we'll be back where we started or worse.
For now, we're winning the battle, but we haven't beaten this thing yet. As Winston Churchill once said at a pivotal point early in another worldwide crisis: "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
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