By Jonathan Meilaender
Depending on where you live, you may still be facing very severe movement restrictions. Maybe, on the other hand, your state is already talking about “reopening.” What that reopening looks like and when it comes is obviously very important for everyone, but for college students in particular, because it will determine whether we are facing another online semester.
The pandemic came to America later than many other countries (at least in its most severe form – recent studies have shown that the first deaths actually came about a month earlier than reported). Consequently, the best way to assess what reopening could look like is to examine other countries who were hit earlier and are now starting to ease restrictions. That way, we can also begin to establish a timeline for how long it might take for the US to return to a state that’s at least somewhat “normal.”
Two countries are especially relevant: South Korea and Italy. South Korea is the only country with a major outbreak whose pandemic response has been an almost unqualified success. Despite being one of the first countries in the world with confirmed cases, South Korea has fewer than 11,000 total cases, along with just 240 deaths. In recent days, daily case totals have typically come out to 10 or less.
"Until we find a vaccine, our lives won’t be the same – but they won’t be on hold, either."
South Korea has achieved all this without a complete shutdown. Public transportation is still running; most businesses are open; and students have returned to school. They’re even holding elections. Social gatherings are limited, though, and borders closed. How did it work?
Testing and contact tracing. During the initial outbreak, South Korea set up numerous drive-through and walk-in testing centers, The Guardian reported. The country built up test processing capacity to such an extent that results could be delivered to test subjects’ phones within 24 hours. Those testing positive are isolated, and their previous movements traced. Cell phone alerts are then sent out to those who may have come in contact with Coronavirus victims.
Where South Korea succeeded, Italy failed. Italy lacked such testing and tracing capabilities and was caught unawares when the virus first entered the country. Eventually, lacking any alternative, Italy imposed a nationwide lockdown. The lockdown has now been in place for a month and a half. In many places, citizens weren’t even allowed to exercise outside, and, after initial laxity, the police provided vigorous enforcement.
The results? Mixed. Initially, cases and deaths skyrocketed. But then the lockdown measures began having an effect. Both Spain and the US are far worse-off, now, than Italy, and Italian cases have been on a steady decline for weeks. Unfortunately, that decline, though steady, has not been rapid. Daily case numbers still hover between two and three thousand; deaths usually around 400. And the overall estimate of deaths/cases? A staggering 13.5% – even worse than SARS.
But that high death rate actually offers a clue as to why cases refuse to plummet. It’s so high that it seems wrong – and indeed it probably is. It’s wrong because numerous cases have probably gone unreported. We have known for some time that many cases are asymptomatic. Naturally, Italian testing couldn’t account for those. Moreover, Italy’s limited testing capacity meant that even many sick people couldn’t get tests. The numbers have remained high partly because Italy has dramatically ramped up capacity to prepare for reopening and is now catching more cases with limited symptoms. Even that may be just the tip of the iceberg.
"What should we expect? Testing. Lots of testing. And temperature taking."
The best way to assess how many people had the virus and recovered is to use antibody testing – to test blood samples for antibodies to the virus, produced when someone is infected. New York state has begun a comprehensive program to see how much of its population has been exposed. Early figures suggested that 13.9% of New York’s roughly 21 million people have already had the virus. That comes out to a death rate of roughly 0.7%. Iceland tested 10% of its population at random. They found numerous asymptomatic cases, bringing the country’s death rate to about 0.6%. South Korea’s death rate is about 2%, again thanks to widespread testing.
Applying these figures to Italy, then (and some preliminary antibody tests there offered similar results), the country probably has at least 1.3 million cases, and perhaps up to 4.5 million. (About 200,000 have been officially reported.) The downward case curve is so slow because there are hundreds of thousands, or millions, of unreported cases.
Now, if there were enough such cases, we might be close to seeing herd immunity, or when a large enough portion of the population has antibodies that a disease can’t spread freely. Unfortunately, though high, the numbers aren’t nearly high enough for that. Italy would probably need at least ten times more cases to achieve even limited protection.
All this paints a rather grim picture of reopening. It’s going to take a while for cases to come down – even in New York, with a strict lockdown and comparatively good testing, numbers are still hovering at about 1300 new hospitalizations (and many more cases) daily. It also means that reopening will probably come before the US is anywhere close to virus-free. That means a “reopened” America with substantial social distancing measures still in place.
"Reopening will probably come before the US is anywhere close to virus-free. That means a 'reopened' America with substantial social distancing measures still in place."
What should we expect? Testing. Lots of testing. And temperature taking. When (or if) students return to Saint Vincent in the fall, chances are that anyone showing flu-like symptoms will be tested immediately. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see most stores checking temperatures before allowing customers to enter. Anyone with a fever will be turned away. These are the kinds of measures we’ve been seeing in China, and it’s hard to imagine anything else, as long as we need to operate with much higher numbers of COVID cases than desirable. Don’t expect masks to go away, either.
But that doesn’t mean the fall semester will go online. There’s still four months until it starts – twice as long as this pandemic has ravaged the US. There is still a lot of time to build testing capacity, figure out how to trace contacts, and learn how to best manage the virus. New York, especially, is doing very well, and other states will surely catch. Countries like South Korea show us that it can be done, that we can live with this virus, and so there is hope that America can do so as well. Until we find a vaccine, our lives won’t be the same – but they won’t be on hold, either. Expect a South Korea scenario – restrictions and inconveniences, but life will go on.
Jonathan Meilaender is a junior political science major and senior writer for The Review, who plans to pursue graduate studies in international relations.