Fireworks, pool parties and drinking at bars with friends — that’s how many Americans would liked to be celebrating the Fourth of July this weekend. But many local leaders and health officials hope things will be a lot less festive this year.
Just a couple of months ago, the coronavirus outbreak in the US was serious, but it wasn’t such a different picture in Europe. Now, once hard-hit European nations like Italy, the UK, France and Spain have got their outbreaks under control while the situation in the US is still grim.
Despite lockdowns in many states, the US never really got a grip on the virus and now cases are rising faster than ever. On Thursday, the country reported more than 51,000 infections, the highest number in a single day yet.
There’s a lot to learn from the impacted countries that managed to turn things around, as well as those that were so quick and organized that they all but eradicated the virus.
Florida, Texas and Arizona have among the most dramatic spikes in infections, and much of the country has ordered shut the businesses they had reopened. But there is still hope the US can bounce back. Preventing more spikes this holiday weekend could be key to finding some relief later this summer and fall.
Here are some tips from abroad on how Americans can move forward.
Don’t party like it’s 1999
It can be tempting to spend the Fourth of July with dozens of friends in a bar, or a pool, or at a house party. But from what we know about how the virus spreads, meeting in large groups, especially indoors, could be dangerous.
In South Korea, celebrated for delivering a model response to the virus, reopening nightclubs in the capital, Seoul, led to a spike in cases in May. The city was forced to shut all bars and clubs down soon after.
The difference is, South Korea had the virus so well-controlled, and had such a well-oiled test-and-trace system in place, that authorities were able to get in touch with most affected people and contain the cluster of cases.
In the US, surges in case numbers have also forced shutdowns, but many states don’t have enough contact tracers in place to ensure that same containment.
We know too, even from the US experience, that bars and nightclubs can be a breeding ground for the virus to spread. More than 150 cases have been linked to one bar in Michigan.
Reopening plans have varied state by state, but on the whole, America has reopened far more quickly than impacted countries in Europe. In the UK, for example, pubs are only set to begin reopening on Saturday, 15 weeks after they were ordered shut and as the UK’s curve is clearly flattening. You can no longer say that about the curve in the US, and bars in many states have long been open.
Arizona shut hospitality venues on March 20. But as restaurants were allowed to reopen on May 11, many bar owners in metro Phoenix found a loophole by serving food so they could reopen too. Essentially, there was just a seven-week shutdown of bars there, compared to the UK’s 15. Arizona now has one of the country’s most dramatic spikes in cases.
So holding off on visiting indoor venues with large crowds this weekend will no doubt help prevent the spread of the virus. In many states, crowd numbers are limited to below 100, or 50, or even 10, and some have forced bars closed again.
Wear that mask
There has been much mixed messaging on whether wearing a mask protects you from transmitting or catching the Covid-19, with the World Health Organization (WHO) initially not recommending use of face coverings. In the US, the issue has also been politicized –— President Trump is never photographed wearing one and he has been reluctant to tell Americans to do so.
But the tide is turning. Health experts now largely agree masks are helpful, particularly when a virus is widespread in communities. WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommend mask use in public spaces.
Several studies show the wearing of face coverings to be effective, but these are yet to be peer-reviewed and there simply isn’t any existing data on how successful they have been in this pandemic.
Nonetheless, it has been pointed out again and again that some Asian countries more accustomed to responding to infectious respiratory disease have widespread mask use in their populations, a practice that studies show helped prevent transmission during the SARS outbreak in 2003. SARS is a respiratory illness also caused by a type of coronavirus.
Outside of Asia, Germany was one of the quickest countries to adopt mandatory nationwide mask wearing, while much of the world was still debating its efficacy. There are many reasons for Germany’s success in keeping its death rate low and slowing its infections, but at least part of its success has been attributed to the wearing of face coverings.
Even Trump’s most loyal supporters, including Vice President Mike Pence, are starting to wear face coverings. Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Thursday ordered most people in the state to mask up in public, as the state experience’s one of the country’s worst surges in infection numbers. Other states, like California, have also issued public service announcements encouraging people to wear them.
Even if your state hasn’t made mask wearing mandatory, if you know there are cases in your community, you could still wear one. There are even easy ways to make them yourself.
Get tested if you think you should
At the beginning of the outbreak, it was virtually impossible to get tested in the US unless you had been hospitalized. That’s changed, and while there can be obstacles, tests are more accessible than they once were.
President Trump has made the debunked argument that the country should decrease testing to keep its case numbers down. WHO has reiterated that testing is key to keeping the virus under control. Places that have had some of the most successful responses — South Korea, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Australia — among others, have all tested at a high rate.
The CDC advice is that if you have symptoms, you should call your health practitioner and ask if testing is advised. Even some asymptomatic people should be tested in some specific circumstances.
As cases in Florida spike, for example, White House coronavirus coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx urged all Floridians who had been to mass gatherings in the last four weeks to get tested, even if they don’t exhibit symptoms.
Quarantine when you’re asked to (and sometimes even when you’re not)
Widespread testing goes hand in hand with effective trace, track and quarantine systems.
The idea is that anyone who has come into recent contact with an infected person will be notified by authorities and asked to quarantine, usually for 14 days. That means that if you’ve been infected, even if you don’t have symptoms, you won’t likely pass it on to anyone outside your home.
The US as a whole is struggling to get enough contact tracers in place to have an effective system up and running, as are some other countries, including the UK. The CDC aimed to have 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 people in the country.
According to Nephron Research, an independent health care research firm that has been monitoring contact tracing across states, only six states and the District of Columbia have passed that threshold. They are: Utah (37), South Dakota (39), New York (49), North Dakota (46), Nebraska (38), Massachusetts (36) and District of Columbia (42). Every other state is under-served, meaning cases are likely going undetected.
That’s particularly concerning for eight states that are hotspots for Covid-19: Nevada (13), Florida (7), Arizona (5), Idaho (14), Texas (11), Tennessee (9), Georgia (2) and South Carolina (8).
If your state hasn’t established an effective contact tracing system yet, there’s no reason you can’t request a test if you suspect you might have come into contact with an infected person.
In the meantime, it might make sense to keep your Fourth of July plans modest, and keep practicing social distancing until the US has the virus in check.