Why canceling events makes sense in the age of COVID-19

Across the nation, cities, states, and businesses are mobilizing to take drastic measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. This level of action hasn’t occurred since the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed more than 50 million people around the world.

Public health officials say the steps are not just necessary but critical in order to stop the spread of the virus. The difference between fast action now and further delays, they said, will determine if the disease has a low, relatively flat “curve” of infections, as in South Korea, or whether the infection will overwhelm the health care system, as it has done in Italy.

“We have to make those hard calls about canceling conferences, telling people to work from home, telling the elderly to stay home, don’t come out,” said Aledade CEO Farzad Mostashari. “We have precious few days to prepare, in the worst case of this.”

Before Aledade, Mostashari was the national coordinator for health information technology at the Department of Health and Human Services.

And many areas are responding aggressively. In Washington and Oregon, state governors have banned gatherings of more than 250 people in key virus outbreak areas. In three virus outbreak areas in Washington, public schools are closed for at least six weeks and Seattle’s public libraries have closed at least until mid-April.

New York has limited movement and closed community and religious institutions near a synagogue that has been the epicenter of a cluster of COVID-19 cases. The NBA, Major League Soccer, and NHL have suspended their seasons, and other sports leagues may do so as well. The “March Madness” basketball tournament season has been canceled. Major events, conferences, and meetings all across the country have been canceled as well.

Unfortunately, the same urgency does not seem to be happening at the federal level. Although President Trump announced at a news conference on Wednesday that he has imposed travel restrictions for some European countries, he didn’t lay out any plan to address the rising number of coronavirus cases in communities across the country.

Epidemiologists say a virus that has spread as widely as coronavirus has is likely to infect a vast portion of the population, whether fast action is taken or not. The difference, however, is the rate of infections: if infections happen all at once, as in Italy, health system capacities will be overwhelmed. However, if infection happens more slowly, as it has in South Korea, the system has the resources to treat the sickest patients.

Unfortunately, case counts in the U.S. are closely tracking Italy’s trajectory, and the Trump administration hasn’t shown any signs of issuing the kinds of emergency orders issued by Italy.

“If you think about exponential growth, every day for the past couple of months the number of cases outside of China has grown by 15 percent day over day over day,” Mostashari said. “What that would imply for the U.S. is that 16 days from now we would have ten times the number of cases we have today. And 16 days after that, we would have 100 times the number of cases we have today. That kind of puts it in perspective.

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