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Social distancing works, but how long must it remain in place?

WASHINGTON (China Dailty/ANN) -- After embracing the scientific terms of flattening the curve and social distancing, the US public wonder when life will return to normal. But experts say the physical distancing practice may need to remain in place for the next two years.

A sign encouraging social distancing is pictured as Trystan LaBrasseur of Fresh Bucks unloads apple cider at the Ballard Farmers' Market which reopened Sunday with new safety measures as efforts continue to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Seattle, Washington. --Photo agencies

"It factors in importantly the physical distancing measures that are absolutely essential," said Jonathan Fielding, professor at schools of public health and medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles."And it's important that we keep everybody compliant with these measures if we don't want things to get worse."
Experts say protective measures like social distancing are the key to flattening the curve of infection so the total number of COVID-19 cases is spread over a longer term, preventing an influx of patients from overwhelming the health care system.
While bracing for a surge of coronavirus cases, the hospital of the University of California San Francisco, or USCF, has kept caseloads low. The hospital's COVID-19 unit with 600 beds had only 20 patients, according to an NBC News report on April 11.
The UCSF and its doctors took to social media to note that the new cases in San Francisco seemed to be flattening as a result of the city's early adoption of social distancing measures.
Robert Wachter, the chair of the Department of Medicine at UCSF, created a graphic and posted it on Twitter to illustrate what San Francisco and California have done right in the pandemic.
According to the graphic, San Francisco had declared a public health emergency on Feb 26 before the first US death was reported in Seattle on Feb 29.
The city and six surrounding Bay Area counties announced a "shelter in place" order on March 16, the first of its kind in the country. Three days later, California ordered all residents to stay at home, the first US state to do so. New York went to "shelter at home" on March 23, four days later than California.
Huge difference
The graphic indicates a huge difference between the death tolls of the two states. As of April 10, San Francisco and California had recorded 13 and 554 deaths respectively, compared with 5,820 deaths in New York and 7,844 deaths in New York State.
The key to San Francisco's "lighter hit" includes big tech companies' early action to allow employees to work from home, then bold steps by elected leaders and the "crucial part"-people following the guidance, Wachter said.
Another early adopter of social distancing measures was Washington state, the early epicenter of COVID-19 in the US. It has not had the same spike as New York.
The physical distancing strategy also seemed to work in the hardest-hit New York State, as Governor Andrew Cuomo said last week.
"The increase has slowed down; it flattens out for a period of time," he said.
However, the latest Google community-mobility report analyzing location data from cell phones estimates that physical distancing has reduced national movement to retail and recreational locations by only 49 percent, with deep differentials between states that have implemented stay-at-home orders and those that have not.
Arkansas shows only a 36-percent drop in retail and recreation behaviors, the lowest rate among all states, while Iowa has a striking 134 percent rise in park visitations, the highest rate in the country, the report says.
Acknowledging the economic burden that prolonged social distancing may impose, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health warn of "the potentially catastrophic burden" on the health care system if distancing measures are not implemented effectively or for long enough.
"Intermittent distancing may be required into 2022 unless critical care capacity is increased substantially or a treatment or vaccine becomes available," the researchers said in a study published in the journal Science on Tuesday.

(Latest Update April 21, 2020

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