Hong Kong was a COVID-19 success story.
The city appeared to have the virus under control, with just 100 cases at the beginning of March, and life there was returning to normal. People were going out again — back to their offices, to the gym. Residents stuck overseas began returning home.
Then the number of COVID-19 cases jumped, prompting Hong Kong to impose new restrictions. The city shut down movie theaters, gyms and other social spots, and barred people from gathering in groups of more than four.
On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined together with governors from throughout the region to announce plans to develop a strategy for reopening the regional economy.
With the U.S. unemployment rate now above 10 percent, I’m all for discussing what needs to be done to reopen the economy, and I think a regional approach makes sense.
But experiences like that of Hong Kong’s make it clear that there are risks to letting your guard down. Reopening the economy might lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases, illnesses and deaths.
Done right, reopening the economy will be a gradual process, with different approaches for different places and a readiness to shut things down again when new outbreaks flare up.
During his Monday press briefing, Cuomo hinted at this, even going so far as to suggest that upstate New York might reopen sooner than downstate areas more gravely impacted by COVID-19.
“Could I see a distinction in places that have different caseloads? Yes,” Cuomo said, when asked whether upstate might reopen sooner than downstate. “How do you calibrate that in a reopening plan? That’s what we have to think through.”
It’s been clear for some time that the New York City area has been much harder hit by COVID-19 than upstate New York. But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk to lifting upstate restrictions. One frightening possibility is that we see a second wave of infections that’s worse than the first.
Nobody wants that, which is why rushing to reopen the economy would be a huge mistake.
We need to ramp up our testing for COVID-19 before we can even think about reopening schools and businesses.
Increased testing capacity will enable public health officials to identify possible outbreaks quickly, by identifying those who are carrying the virus and contacting everyone they’ve come in contact with — a labor intensive process known as contact tracing.
The countries with the most successful responses to COVID-19 all have rigorous contact tracing programs; Wuhan, China, where the virus was first detected, had 1,800 teams of at least five epidemiologists working to trace tens of thousands of contacts each day. Blood tests, to determine who might be immune to the virus, are also a necessity.
Is the U.S. anywhere close to being able to test 750,000 people a week for COVID-19, as some experts believe is necessary?
Not that I’ve seen.
Right now, we’re struggling to test 100,000 people a week.
The sad reality is that it will be a long time before life can fully return to normal.
Reopening businesses and schools on a case by case basis doesn’t mean everything can go back to the way it was.
Until a vaccine is developed crowded restaurants, packed movie theaters and busy sports events might be a thing of the past.
Most of the concerts I was planning to go to this year have already been canceled. The summer vacation I was planning to take to the Midwest is on hold. I’m sure other disappointments are in store.
Our coronavirus recovery is going to have successes and setbacks.
We’re going to be able to go out and do things again, but it won’t be exactly like before.
At least, not for a while.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.