Reopening after coronavirus is a 'much bigger' job than most Americans realize, Harvard study finds

David Knowles
·Editor
·4 min read

Despite President Trump’s assurances that the U.S. is “winning” its war against the coronavirus, and moves by some governors to end stay-at-home measures, a new Harvard University study paints a stark picture of what will be required for the country to emerge from the pandemic.

“What we need to do is much bigger than most people realize,” wrote the authors of the study conducted by Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics that was released this week. “We need to massively scale-up testing, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine — together with providing the resources to make these possible for all individuals.”

While the plan proposed by the researchers relies on proven methods of halting the spread of an infectious disease being echoed by the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force — a three-pronged strategy of testing, contact tracing and social isolation — the scale and urgency of the measures put forth in the study stand in contrast to the federal response to date.

“We need to deliver 5 million tests per day by early June to deliver a safe social reopening,” the report states. “This number will need to increase over time (ideally by late July) to 20 million a day to fully remobilize the economy.”

Since February, the U.S. has administered 4.2 million COVID-19 tests.

With Trump’s blessing, states like Georgia have already moved to ease social distancing guidelines, allowing nonessential businesses like hair salons, churches and tattoo parlors to reopen despite a lack of testing to show whether workers in those businesses have been infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

While social distancing has proven effective in “flattening the curve” of new infections, new cases are showing up at a rate of around 4,000 a day after peaking above 10,000 on several days in the last three weeks.

The Harvard study, titled “Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience,” lays out a daunting plan to “fully restart the economy by August.”

“If we rely on collective social distancing alone to tide us over until a vaccine is available, the economy will be shut down on and off for 12 to 18 months, costing trillions of dollars,” the study concludes. “We can instead fully restart the economy by August through a program of massive investment in public health infrastructure, especially diagnostic and serological testing, combined with effective contact tracing-and-warning programs, and supported individual quarantine and/or isolation.”

The report recommends that the federal government establish a “Pandemic Testing Board” that would be tasked with securing and deploying COVID-19 tests. State or federal agencies would need to hire up to 100,000 workers to carry out contact tracing. Peer-to-peer smartphone apps would trace the movement of infected citizens, under the supervision of a government board meant to guarantee privacy. Other steps required to try to return American life to normal include guaranteeing “job protections,” “material support” and access to health care for those placed in quarantine.

But that expense would still be a bargain compared with the cost of lifting restrictions too early and shutting down the economy a second time.

“The cost of such a [testing, tracing and social isolation] or TTSI, program — $50 to $300 billion over two years — is dwarfed by the economic cost of continued collective quarantine of $100 to $350 billion a month,” the report states.

While more than 20 million Americans have been put out of work during the pandemic, 40 percent of the U.S. economy is deemed “essential,” and is therefore still operating. This category includes sectors like food production and distribution, medical workers, police and firefighters. But the country has been slow to implement testing for them, and as a result they could still be spreading the disease.

“Currently we do not have sufficient capacity to test this workforce at levels that ensure that the virus is not propagating out of control within it,” the report states. “As a result, doctors and nurses have fallen ill, and 17% of the New York [City] Police force is sick or quarantined.”

An Associated Press/NORC poll released Wednesday found that 62 percent of Americans think the stay-at-home orders put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 “are about right.” Thirty-three percent said the measures in their states “don’t go far enough,” while just 5 percent said they “go too far.”

The Harvard study advocates a more wide-ranging effort to, as Trump put it, “defeat the Invisible Enemy.”

“We do not propose a modest level of testing, tracing, and supported isolation intended merely to supplement collective quarantine as a tool of disease control,” the authors of the study write in their summary. “We recommend a level of testing, tracing, and supported isolation ambitious enough to replace collective quarantine as a tool of disease control.”

Cover thumbnail photo: David Zalubowski/AP Photo

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