PULLMAN, Wash – The upheaval created by the coronavirus 2019 outbreak, or COVID-19, is already transforming our society. Some of those changes may need to last a while to get through this and future outbreaks, according to Washington State University infectious disease epidemiologist Eric Lofgren.
Those include a continued ban on optional large events and perhaps modified forms of remote work and education. New measures also might need to be adopted like improving the design of healthcare systems for emergencies and instituting better sick leave policies.
“These are some things that we should think about as a society,” Lofgren said. “There is a real question about how we approach these societal level problems, and how we protect people and our way of life. We will have to learn from this outbreak because it will happen again at some point.”
Yet, Lofgren warns, many extreme social distancing measures in place now – such as shelter-in-place orders and all out closures of businesses and schools – may prove unsustainable.
“Epidemics are not made worse by acting early and slightly overreacting,” he said. “But many people are treating things like there are only two options: either this very intensive lockdown or going back to normal. I think what we’re going to see for a long time are some sort of intermediate steps.”
Lofgren’s research focuses on the use of mathematical and computational models of disease transmission. Early in his career, he published a 2007 study of a virtual outbreak among characters within a popular online computer game called World of Warcraft, which Lofgren says gave him good insights into how people react to epidemics. Today, his lab aims to produce guidance that informs real-world policies with a current focus on how hospitals are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
His team is working to understand how COVID-19 will impact healthcare demand, and what mitigations can be put in place. They are studying such pressing issues as how to keep people from being infected while they’re in the hospital for other reasons and preventing infection of the doctors and nurses themselves. There is also the ongoing concern of hospital capacity and limited resources like ventilators and ICU beds.
“We are learning that a fast response is important and that our hospital capacity is definitely designed around what is normal and not around emergencies,” said Lofgren. “Social distancing will help slow the epidemic, but it won’t actually stop it. What we’re attempting to do is essentially buy time to increase hospital capacity in places where we can, and for researchers to work on vaccines and treatments.”
By some estimates, it may take as much as 18 months for a viable COVID-19 vaccine to be ready for distribution, which is a long time to practice extreme social distancing. Lofgren thinks there are some less drastic measures and policy changes that might help society weather this pandemic in the months ahead.
For instance, a study of school system pandemic preparation strategies, led by Lofgren, suggests that maybe not all K-12 schools need to close indefinitely. He said that in the future, school officials could look to bring back some in-person learning for elementary school children, who often need more interaction with teachers than adolescents do, but cancel “common mixing activities” like crowded recess and lunch times.
Lofgren also recommends cancelling all optional big events for the foreseeable future, such as academic conferences, and holding sports and entertainment events without live audiences, much like World Wrestling Entertainment is doing now.
Employers should look to adopt more long-term remote work for some employees, and perhaps more importantly, adopt generous leave policies, so if people become infected with the virus, they can stay home.
Lofgren also emphasized one thing that the COVID-19 experience should change permanently: how we wash our hands.
“You should never stop washing your hands,” Lofgren said. “The level that you’re washing your hands now is just how you should do it from now and into the future.”