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As outbreak wanes in Washington, there’s only one ‘real solution’ to reopening

Seattle continues to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak. (Getty Images)

As the coronavirus pandemic has begun to level out in parts of the United States — including Washington — a discussion has begun to surface regarding when exactly the nation can begin to reopen.

UW modelers working to figure out when country can reopen

President Trump has intimated that he hopes the country will be ready to reopen by May 1. Dr. Anthony Fauci — the leading U.S. expert on infectious disease — also stated Sunday that part of the economy could be ready for “rolling reentry” at some point next month.

That said, health experts also agree on one thing: It’s going to take a lot for that scenario to even be feasible.

“Let me be very, very clear: There is no cheap or easy way out of this pandemic,” said Dr. Emma Hodcroft, who works with Switzerland’s University of Basel studying how viruses spread.

That’s a message that’s been consistent from the University of Washington’s pandemic modeling team to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, all emphasizing the need for an expansive system of testing and contact tracing the U.S. has yet to fully implement.

Essentially, the United States has three paths to choose from in the days ahead, the first being the lifting of restrictions sometime in the very near future. The second involves a gradual reopening of the country months from now, paired with a robust “test, trace, and isolate” system experts have been pushing for.

“The most important part is our ability to do testing and find out who’s infected,” UW’s Dr. Ali Mokdad told KIRO Radio last week. “Our public system has to be able to trace these cases, who they came in contact with, and do the proper isolation.”

“I see #TestTraceIsolate as the only real solution to the problem we’re facing,” Fred Hutchinson scientist Trevor Bedford agreed.

The third option is to continue strict social distancing guidelines until a vaccine can be produced, which is still roughly a year to 18 months away. While safer from a health standpoint, it’s also not thought of as a feasible long-term strategy.

“While this may contain the virus, it’s simply unsustainable,” said Dr. Hodcroft. “People will start breaking lockdowns, and the economic cost will grow unbearable.”

So, what would a timeline for reopening even look like should an expansive testing and tracing system ever get on its feet? At this point, it’s still unclear.

The more positive outlook from UW’s pandemic model assumes that “full social distancing” measures are maintained all the way through May, making President Trump’s May 1 target date that much more precarious.

Should states like Washington — where the outbreak has started to get under control — reopen in two weeks, we could end up right back where we started.

Understanding how researchers are predicting spread of coronavirus

“The first testing we’ve done on this is if you opened up the entire country May 1, then we would very clearly have a rebound,” UW’s Dr. Christopher Murray told CBS News’ Face the Nation. “We don’t think the capability in the states exists yet to deal with that volume of cases. And so by July or August, we could be back in the same situation we are now.”

“Preliminary projections show ending our distancing measures in 2 weeks would bring this virus right back,” Gov. Jay Inslee echoed over the weekend. “That would not only bring more loss to our state, it would continue to hurt our economy.”

That all being so, CDC head Dr. Robert Redfield advocates for “a careful, data-driven, county-by-county approach” for reopening. He also qualified that by pointing out that the U.S. still needs to “substantially enhance our public health capacity to do early case identification, isolation and contact tracing.”

In the meantime, the question of when Washington — and the rest of the U.S. — can begin to resume business as usual is one that will likely remain unanswered without significant improvements to a testing system that has yet to be fully realized.

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