HARRIS: We Can’t Rush Relaxing COVID-19 Restrictions

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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing we should lift coronavirus restrictions gradually instead of all at once. You can find a counterpoint here, where Marc Joffe argues that restrictions should be lifted immediately.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve focused on efforts to help keep healthy workers on the job and those with COVID-19 at home until it is safe for them to return to work.

This has involved innovation in the workplace on many fronts: Automating processes such as daily symptom screening and exposure risk assessments, providing various testing options, expediting return-to-work evaluations, and facilitating access to vaccination and verification. I’ve presented weekly national educational webinars, done dozens of media engagements, collaborated with employers on business sustainability and advised employees on ways to protect themselves, co-workers and loved ones.

No one would be happier to see a “return to normal” than me. However, as a clinician, business person and world citizen, I oppose abruptly abandoning the preventive measures that will help bring the pandemic to a close. We are just not there yet.

If all goes well, I estimate we are three to six months away from a return to relative normalcy with regard to rolling back all of the protections we have had in place since the pandemic began. However, all may not go as well as we hope. As we have observed, relaxed protection measures and low vaccination administration rates can quickly overwhelm health systems and precipitate the spread of disease far beyond a nation’s boundaries.

Why We Can’t Rush It

I am frequently asked: How can we move toward a wind down of processes with regard to the safety of our workforce? What is a reasonable threshold for a return to normalcy? What will it be like to get back to pre-COVID conditions? The answers lie with how soon and how many people will be vaccinated, including children who make up 26% of the U.S. population.

Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) support my recommendation to continue to take precautions:

  • There were 404 deaths from COVID-19 reported in the U.S. on May 4, 2021
  • The COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 Americans was 102.3 based on 32,267,958 total cases and 32,460 new cases
  • The daily rate of confirmed cases in the U.S. still outpaces the daily global rate
  • There were 48,493 new cases reported on a seven-day rolling average on May 3, 2021
  • As of May 4, about 41 percent of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated and vaccination rates are declining

The U.S. case rate is still far above the level that we had early in the pandemic, even with preventive measures in place. Meanwhile, we need about 80% of Americans to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity and significantly reduce exposure risk. (I am referring to immunity via vaccination as opposed to natural immunity from having had COVID-19 because of the level of protection vaccination affords in terms of  longevity and robustness.)

In addition, SARS-CoV-2 variants continue to emerge and create cause for concern. For example, we know the situation in India is critical to global herd immunity. The genomics of the SARS-CoV-2 India variant (B.1.617) appears to be different from variants we have seen elsewhere, although there is not yet enough data available to fully understand its role in India’s current COVID-19 wave.

The India variant is double-mutated, and until now, we have only detected single mutations, such as with the United Kingdom and South Africa variants. Features of the B.1.617 variant could make it more communicable and more deadly than other strains. It has already been detected in 18 other countries, including the U.S. Travel from India to the U.S. has been restricted, and the State Department has authorized voluntary departure for U.S. government, non-emergency employees on assignment there.

I urge everyone to consider the science behind recommendations for continued precautions and follow local, regional, national and global trends to realistically assess when we will hit a point, or threshold, that will return us back to normal. In many states and local jurisdictions, decisions to reopen without restrictions seem to be based more on political views and economic considerations than they are on science.

What is being asked of the public to stop the spread of COVID-19 – screening and/or testing, as needed, wearing a mask under certain circumstances, maintaining physical distance, avoiding crowds, limiting attendance at certain venues, practicing good hygiene and getting vaccinated – is it not asking too much when weighed in terms of lives that can be saved and all the jobs that can be done by healthy employees as the economy rebounds.

Dr. Anthony Harris is Chief Innovation Officer and Associate Medical Director, Onsite Clinical Operations, at WorkCare, Inc., a U.S.-based occupational health services company: www.workcare.com.