Social distancing flattens coronavirus curve, but outbreaks might not be over: Expert

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After an initial reluctance, many European countries now seem to have adopted social distancing and lockdown procedures to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

However, since countries can't afford to shut down indefinitely, COVID-19 is highly contagious and even those without symptoms can transmit the virus, these measures cannot offer a long-term solution to curb the curve of the infection, experts said.

Once the social distancing measures are loosened, or removed altogether, the virus is likely to make a comeback, as long as there is not a vaccine to protect the population, they warned.

Long term social distancing is a critical method of intervention in fighting the spread of the disease, said Brian Wahl, epidemiologist and faculty member of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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“Social distancing will help reduce the number of infected people needing medical assistance in hospitals at a given moment, to allow the healthcare system to better cope with it,” he added. “But that might not be all. When those measures are lifted, if there isn’t sufficient herd immunity in a community, due to either natural immunity or a vaccine that’s developed, then there is a very high likelihood that the epidemic starts up again.”

Social distancing until vaccine is made available

The findings of a study published by Imperial College London (ICL) this week corroborate this. According to the ICL experts, the only way to effectively curb the contagion would be to keep social distancing in effect until a vaccine is made available - which might take up to 18 months if everything works as it should. This would clearly have an unbearable social and economic cost, which the study proposes to mitigate by implementing a ‘waveform’ social distancing: When the spread of the disease seems to decrease, the quarantine measures would be loosened, to be tightened again when the contagion reaches dangerous levels.

Although lab testing is underway in the US, and the World Health Organization has said that more than 20 potential vaccines are in development, none are near completion. This means that people will have to contract the virus naturally, rather than through a controlled vaccination process, and survive it if they are to develop immunity.

There are a lot of questions that remain about what natural immunity may look like as a result of being infected with the virus, Dr. Wahl said. “There is research to be done in this area. Even if we see an immune response, we don’t know whether that’s a long- or short-term immunity”.

The solution must come from people

For a population to see a pandemic slow down, the majority need to develop protection against the virus.

“The solution cannot come from the hospitals where we receive people who are already sick,” said Dr. Jean Pierre Ramponi, Director of the hospital of Chiari in the Brescia area of northern Italy.

“The real solution must come from people. If they stick into their head the importance of social distancing, this would hugely help to slow down the spread of the disease,” he added. “I see too many people still out and about for no reason. This must end. This is the real medicine for now, and it’s not a banality”.

“My recommendation is to prepare in good time. This enemy must not be underestimated in any way: it is sneaky, but extremely powerful,” warns Dr. Paolo Terragnoli, Director of the Emergencies Department at the hospital.

“Hospitals all over the world need to prepare, otherwise it will be a disaster. Italy was derided in Europe (for its hard containment measures), but it will serve as a lesson for those countries which still do not have an accurate perception of the danger,” he says. “Underestimating (this danger) will result in an extremely high human cost that will be paid later.”

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