As you enjoy the summer, please stay focused on maintaining physical distance from people outside your home. We managed the first surge, but if we are careless, COVID-19 could return in force to Massachusetts.
Many people I talk to are nervous about the Governor’s reopening of Massachusetts. On the other hand, some whose businesses have been closed feel that the reopening is too slow. One thing is clear: whether COVID-19 surges again in Massachusetts depends mostly on how we as citizens choose to behave.
Do we allow ourselves to get packed together in crowds where disease can spread rapidly? Do we consistently maintain six feet distance from others? Do we consistently wear masks? Do we keep our masks on when we speak? So often I see people leaning in towards each other and pulling their masks down to make sure they are heard (defeating the purpose of the mask).
The mathematics of disease spread is simple. If each person who gets sick infects more than one other person on average, then the number of infected people grows exponentially. If through social distancing, accumulated herd immunity, or vaccination we can keep the transmission rate low enough, the epidemic will wane.
Right now, most of the population still has not had COVID-19 and there is still no vaccine. Our protection comes entirely from distancing. There is likely at least as much COVID-19 virus spreading in Massachusetts communities as there was in February before the virus emerged — we reported 290 new cases on Friday, July 3. Case numbers are staying low only because we have been maintaining enough distance from each other to keep transmission low.
But that could change as we reopen more crowded venues or as people get less committed to social distancing. Phase 3 of the reopening, effective as of July 6, involves opening many venues where people can get close to each other – casino gaming floors, fitness centers and gyms, museums, movie theaters.
All of these businesses bring people closer together in larger numbers than the businesses that have opened so far. The risks of transmission will start to rise. These businesses are opening subject to strict orders that require them to physically separate their customers and employees. For example, casinos must space slot machines four feet apart and separate them with plexiglass and only three players will be allowed at each card game table. These measures will make it possible for people to maintain distance on the floor – but will they do so?
While no one can predict with confidence how the epidemic will respond to reopening, we do have data to know how the epidemic is trending in any given week. We will be watching the data closely. The moment that disease indicators start moving in the wrong direction, we will have to back off on reopening.
Many of those currently unemployed as a result of the business closures were barely making it in the good times and the job loss has had devastating consequences for them. It is necessary to try to reopen businesses, even though it is a gigantic experiment and the consequences are largely unknown.
All of us need to keep in mind that our own actions will determine the success or failure of the experiment.