There's A Middle Ground To Stopping COVID-19—Let's Talk About It

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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Most people assume that we’ll solve the COVID-19 pandemic in one of two ways. First, like the BBC reports that New Zealand beat it, we’ll take drastic measures to socially isolate everyone, close all non-essential businesses, and ban the entry of foreigners into the country. Others assume that stopping COVID-19 will happen because of herd immunity: the vaccine will inoculate enough people to drive the disease into extinction, or at least into dormancy, much like the measles.

But there’s a middle ground to stopping COVID-19. It’s not an either/or prospect, but rather a combination, and we’re going to have to prepare for both.

Stopping COVID-19 With a Vaccine?

As NPR reports, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief of the National Institute of Health and Infectious Disease, has said that a vaccine may be only 50-60% effective. That means that out of those vaccinated, 40-50% will still be susceptible to COVID-19 infection. But physician Bill Miller of The Ohio State University College of Public Health points out that this isn’t that bad. It’s like our current flu vaccine, whose ultimate goal is not just to stop the flu, but to mitigate the severity of influenza infections. “It may mean that people are less likely to be hospitalized, require ICU care or die,” Miller says.

Stopping COVID-19, therefore, requires a huge number of people to obtain the vaccine: 80% of the population, says NPR. Considering that 35% of Americans have said they would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine, that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

Stopping COVID-19 via Herd Immunity?

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According to research journal Nature Reviews, herd immunity happens when a certain proportion of a population is immune to a disease, therefore preventing large outbreaks. Without a vaccine, they estimate that in order to achieve herd immunity, the US would have to suffer 500,000–2,100,000 deaths.

The National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America conducted an epidemiological study in which they predicted that were the virus simply allowed to “run its course,” current hospital capacity would be overwhelmed, and anything less than that wouldn’t result in herd immunity.

Moreover, as the Journal of the American Medical Association points out, we’re not even sure what the herd immunity threshold is, and there’s evidence that a COVID-19 vaccine, unlike the measles vaccine, wouldn’t gift a person with lifelong immunity. It might only last a year.

We Need a Two-Pronged Effort

Stopping COVID-19 isn’t an either/or. It’s a both/and. Yes, we’ll need to maintain distancing measures of some kind. We’ll also need some kind of vaccine to help boost our immunity. Stopping COVID-19 without both isn’t possible.

No, this doesn’t mean you can never leave your house; it means sensible distancing needs to take place. And no, it doesn’t mean that herd immunity alone will stop it via vaccination— since we don’t know how effective a vaccine will be or what the herd immunity threshold actually is (obviously, letting the disease run rampant through the population isn’t an option, considering the high death toll it would take, and the ensuing overwhelm of hospitals nationwide).

Stopping COVID-19 via Personal Measures?

It doesn’t look like holing up in your own personal bunker for two months. It’s possible to go places and do things— with reasonable precautionary measures. First and foremost, people must wear masks. The Mayo Clinic states that cloth masks are effective at stopping COVID-19 by “trap[ping] droplets that are released when the wearer talks, coughs or sneezes.” These masks prevent people from transmitting the virus, and when everyone wears them, they help stop the spread of COVID-19. But, the Mayo Clinic cautions, they shouldn’t be used as a substitute for social distancing measures.

What’s social distancing? Staying at least six feet away from other people. You may be wearing a face mask, but that doesn’t mean you should get within six feet of other people. Yes, it makes shopping a pain. Yes, it means telling people to stay away from you. However, it’s necessary in order to stop the spread of the virus.

But you can still go out. You don’t have to live in your house 24/7. You only have to take reasonable precautions when you’re out— and so does everyone else. Translation: people can’t stick their noses out of their masks or browse within two feet of each other at Target. This kind of social distancing is only effective when everyone pitches in and cooperates.

Basically: stopping COVID-19 requires community effort. No one is exempt.

Other Important Steps To Take

Don’t want to live in your bubble? Other than everyone taking reasonable precautions towards stopping COVID-19, there are other steps to take. Most important? Ventilation. We all know that staying outdoors is safer than being indoors. As Kimberly Prather, PhD, an atmospheric chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography tells Elemental Medium, the risk is lower primarily because “there’s just such a large volume of clean air.” Moreover, “It’s not about one inhalation,” but about prolonged exposure to viral particles over time. So while we need to maintain distancing protocols (wear a mask, stay six feet away from people), a well-ventilated space like the outdoors is safer than an indoor space.

However, it’s not just about being outside or inside. It’s about how far you are from viral particles. People who are talking, shouting, or singing are spewing the virus in greater numbers, and “you wouldn’t want to be just downwind from a group of people who are singing or shouting,” says Elemental Medium. Prather tells them you even need to take into account walking behind a group of people who are talking.

Without proper ventilation, Elemental Medium says, “virus-infected aerosols can spread throughout an entire room,” creating a cloud that’s constantly replenished as people keep talking, yelling, and singing. Dr. Donald Milton, an environmental health professor at the University of Maryland and an expert on airborne infections, tells Elemental Medium that if you’re indoors, in a poorly ventilated area, particularly one where you need to shout to be heard, the six-foot rule wouldn’t be effective.

Stopping COVID-19: You Don’t Have To Live In A Bubble

Here’s the basics. We need a decent number of people in the community to be immune, or partially immune, to the virus. Then as a community, we need to wear masks, keep proper social distancing measures, and stick to well-ventilated areas. These three personal measures are absolutely vital: you can go out. But you have to wear a mask, you have to stay six feet from people, and you have to stick to areas where air circulates well.

This requires everyone pitching in to help. We can’t politicize mask-wearing. We can’t stick our noses out of the top. We can’t walk within six feet of each other, and we can’t go places where air doesn’t circulate well. We have to wash our hands and use sanitizer religiously. We have to make smart choices when it comes to when and where we socialize.

If you can manage those things, go out. If you can’t, stay home. It’s that simple. Coupled with a vaccine, it’s the only way we’re going to have a fighting chance at stopping COVID-19.

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