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How long can quarantine measures be maintained?


This Vox piece points to a basic problem with social distancing and other quarantine measures:

A sobering new report from the COVID-19 Response Team at the Imperial College of London underscores the need to keep social distancing measures in place for a long period.

It outlines two scenarios for combating the spread of the outbreak. One is mitigation, which focuses on “slowing but not necessarily stopping epidemic spread.” Another is suppression, “which aims to reverse epidemic growth.”

In their analysis, isolation of confirmed cases and quarantine of older adults without social distancing would still result in hundreds of thousands of deaths, and an “eight-fold higher peak demand on critical care beds over and above the available surge capacity in both [Great Britain] and the US.”

(Remember, all projections of possible deaths come with uncertainty and are greatly dependent on how we respond. Estimates can change based on variables that are not quite yet understood: like the role kids play in transmitting the virus, and the potential for the virus to show seasonal effects.)

Suppression, which requires “social distancing of the entire population,” can save more lives and prevent hospitals from becoming extremely overburdened. But it needs to be maintained “until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more),” the report states. And it warns “transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed.” Make no mistake: Suppression comes at a huge cost to our society, economy, and perhaps even personal well-being.

This doesn’t touch on the fact that social distancing measures simply can’t be undertaken by large numbers of people who have to do jobs that require regular interaction with the public, or society would pretty much collapse.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that in that a matter of a month or two at most the pandemic becomes normalized, to the point where people become fatalistic about its continuing presence. Note: I’m definitely not advocating for this response, I just think it’s nearly inevitable. (It will be, um, interesting to see how China and South Korea deal with the issue of avoiding further outbreaks as restrictions get loosened now that the first wave of the epidemic seems to be over in those countries, which both engaged in far more stringent quarantine measures than anything that seems likely to be enacted in the USA. ETA: Several commenters have pointed out that in fact South Korea hasn’t enacted stringent quarantine measures, unlike China, and that their success in containing the epidemic is almost wholly attributable to an extremely efficient testing regime).

Basically, I think we’re looking at a couple of years of chaos until a vaccine is available.

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