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We have to protect each other from the coronavirus

The best way to slow down Covid-19’s resurgence is to protect yourself and others.

States are letting businesses reopen after the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdowns. But we must stay vigilant about social distancing to keep the virus at bay.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

The news from America’s emerging Covid-19 hot spots did not get any better over the weekend. Florida hit a record high in new cases on Saturday. Texas just missed doing the same, but the direction in that state and several others is clear: Cases are going up.

An ICU nurse in Arizona warned their wards are filling up with “the sickest patients I’ve ever taken care of,” according to this Facebook post shared by Reuters reporter Yahaira Jacquez. “I barely see my family because I’m scared to give it to them.”

Current Covid-19 hospitalizations in the state topped 1,400 on Saturday, nearly doubled from a month ago. More coronavirus patients are in the ICU there than ever before. Arkansas, Texas, and North Carolina also saw new highs in Covid-19 hospitalizations over the weekend. Red flags have been raised all over the country.

That post from the Arizona nurse ends, after restating the health care workforce’s resolve to give the best care to their patients, with a plaintive plea: “All I ask is that you WEAR a damn mask in public!”

It is truly the least any of us can do. With states relaxing their lockdown orders, it will be incumbent on all of us, as individuals, to take a few mildly inconvenient but helpful steps to slow the spread of Covid-19.

The stakes are high, as should be clear by now. Death rates may be falling overall, but that is partly a reflection of New York City finally enjoying some relief after a traumatic couple of months. Remember: Deaths are the most lagging indicator once spread starts up again. We don’t yet know what the final toll will be, in human lives, of rushing into reopening without taking the necessary precautions to protect ourselves and others.

But we are already beginning to see the tragic consequences of cavalier attitudes. Houston Chronicle reporter Jenny Deam tweeted Sunday that a 42-year-old hotel worker she had met had died from the coronavirus. The man had told his doctor that he had served a large party on Memorial Day weekend.

“Doctor said he told him it was packed, very ‘touchy feely’ and few if any masks,” Deam shared. “The guy died [Saturday] afternoon after doctors and nurses worked for hours to save him.”

From that description, it seems this event violated every one of the CDC’s new guidelines on staying safe post-lockdown. You’re supposed to wear masks, you’re supposed to maintain your distance if you can, and you are supposed to limit your time with other people.

As Vox’s Brian Resnick explained:

People should think about Covid-19 risk in four dimensions: distance to other people, environment, activity, and time spent together. More distance is better, outdoors is safer than indoors, activities that involve lots of exhaling (like singing or shouting) are more dangerous than quieter ones, and a longer time spent with others is more dangerous than a shorter time.

Perhaps a helpful way to think about the risk is this: Imagine everyone is smoking, as Ed Yong suggested in the Atlantic, and you’d like to avoid inhaling as much smoke as possible. In a cramped indoor space, that smoke is going to get dense and heavy fast. If the windows are open, some of that smoke will blow away. If fewer people are in the space, less smoke will accumulate, and it might not waft over to you if you’re standing far enough away. But spend a lot of time in an enclosed space with those people, and the smoke grows denser.

The denser the smoke, the more likely it is to affect you. It’s the same with this virus: The more of it you inhale, the more likely you are to get sick.

We can’t assume this Houston man would still be alive if every precaution had been taken. The uncomfortable truth is we are all going to live with Covid-19 risk until there is a vaccine or a treatment.

But it does seem safe to say that the people around him did not do everything in their power to keep themselves and the workers serving them safe. If we are going to start reopening the economy, people have to be willing to accept a little inconvenience to slow the virus down.

Americans have done a good job of social distancing so far: According to a recent AP/NORC poll, 90 percent of people say they are wearing masks, as of early June, up from 78 percent in early April.

But while most people are also still avoiding crowded places and contact with high-risk people, adherence to those preventive measures is starting to dip a bit, according to the survey. That is worrisome. We have to stay vigilant.

That doesn’t mean eternal lockdown. It’s simply unrealistic to shut down society for six months or a year and, besides, there is of course a real and measurable cost to people’s financial stability and physical and mental health.

But the trade-off for some resumption of normal life should be tolerating a few impositions in order to protect ourselves and others.

The evidence is pretty persuasive that wearing masks reduces Covid-19’s spread, as Lois Parsley covered for Vox. If you’re worried about how constant mask-wearing might affect your skin, Vox’s Terry Nguyen has some tips for that. As Vox’s German Lopez and Amanda Northrop reported, we should start thinking about our behavior in terms of harm reduction. Hanging at home with your housemates is, of course, the safest option. But outdoor activities can also be thought of as a moderate risk, especially with some easy precautions like wearing a mask and washing your hands.

Even outdoor gatherings can be acceptable once in a while, so long as you are careful. It’s really indoor gatherings, the highest-risk events, that should be avoided as much as possible.

The government can of course do more to make reopening safer. It can increase funding for contact tracing, it can be cautious in relaxing its social distancing guidance, it could even provide more money to help reduce the financial pain of the crisis and relieve some of the urgency about reopening.

States and the feds could also do more to protect older people in nursing homes, where so many lives have already been lost due to a poor response. Despite the federal government’s promises to send more protective gear to those facilities, the workers at nursing homes report much of what they have received from the feds is unusable, according to a new Wall Street Journal report. That needs to be fixed.

But we can’t depend on the government entirely. Reopening is upon us, and it’s the responsibility of each person to do what we can, for our sake and everyone’s, to be safe and prevent Covid-19 from growing out of control. The early signs are troubling. There is no time to waste.