Health expert explains why ‘reopening’ plan amid COVID-19 outbreak remains tricky

Town Hall - Dana Hawkinson
Posted at 1:07 PM, Apr 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-22 14:56:51-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The big question surrounding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is when things can return to “normal.”

When can restaurants reopen or movie theaters?

When will the Royals and Sporting Kansas City resume?

When can offices welcome employees through the doors again?

When can we reclaim our lives?

But the answer remains a mystery.

“There’s no good answer (for when things can reopen),” University of Kansas Health System infectious disease expert Dr. Dana Hawkinson said Wednesday during a 41 Action News virtual town hall. “It is a day-to-day equation that you have to look at. ... There are definitely more infections that we’re diagnosing. So far, the number of hospitalizations is remaining flat, but that could turn very quickly if we are able to open up and people have more contact.”

Medical experts continue to gather information and learn about the virus, hoping to piece together the picture for lifting stay-at-home orders and other restrictions.

“It starts with the virus,” Hawkinson said. “This is a virus that spreads very efficiently. ... We have to look at the exact data from day-to-day to see how many infections we’re having and how many hospitalizations.”

Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have remained relatively flat in recent weeks, but that doesn’t mean the Kansas City area should be lured into a false sense of security and reopen too soon.

“We’re still seeing cases continue to rise,” Hawkinson said.

The “clinical efficiency with which the virus spreads” is what makes COVID-19 more dangerous than the seasonal flu or even past coronavirus outbreaks, including SARS in the early 2000s.

“Most people, 80%, can recover at home,” Hawkinson said.

That’s good news and so is the fact that it doesn’t appear especially harmful to children, who are often a vulnerable population when it comes to such infections.

But children can be carriers and the asymptomatic spread within a community could be devastating from a health perspective — potentially overwhelming hospitals and ICUs, burning through already stretched-thin supplies of personal protective equipment, and risking a second wave of the pandemic.

“How safe is it right now? I would say it’s not safe,” Hawkinson said about re-openingl. “But again moving forward, I don’t know how safe it’s going to be.”

Currently, there’s a relatively small percentage of population infected, but projections have that changing dramatically before the pandemic ends.

“It spreads so easily, there is probably going to be half of the population or more infected in the United States, and that’s here in this area, too,” Hawkinson said. “When will that happen, and at what rate, and at what speed or velocity will that happen?”

It would be easy to have a lot of new cases in seven to 14 days after reopening, Hawkinson said, but he understands that the current situation isn't sustainable long-term either.

“The answer to everyone wanting and needing to get back to work is yes — we need to get back to work, we need our economies to thrive, we need our kids to be getting their school lunches,” Hawkinson said.

He said he doesn’t have a good answer for when that can happen, but that’s why reopening society and the economy require “a thoughtful and meticulous” approach.

“Moving forward, we need to put out a plan to be able to do them, but we don’t just know the best way to go about doing that at this point,” Hawkinson said.

Whenever that time comes, Hawkinson said “individual responsibility and vigilance” will be required to keep the wider community as safe as possible.

Here are recommendations for taking that personal ownership:

  • Only go out when necessary
  • Don’t go out in public if you’re sick
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow
  • Wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizer
  • Most importantly, don’t touch your face even if you’re wearing a mask

“If you do those things, your chance of getting this infection will exponentially decrease,” Hawkinson said. “That will protect you from getting sick or getting your loved ones sick.