- The White House released a proposed roadmap for easing social distancing restrictions in place to combat the coronavirus at a briefing on Thursday.
- The plan relies heavily on the assumption that testing symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, and contact tracing for the coronavirus will increase. At the moment, the U.S. has yet to sufficiently scale up these methods.
- The plan would be implemented at the discretion of each state’s governors.
- It consists of three phases, each of which gradually lift restrictions for individuals, employers, and venues like theaters and houses of worship.
- But vulnerable Americans would still need to shelter-in-place until the final phase of the plan, meaning millions of people will likely need to live in lockdown for months to come.
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The White House released proposed guidelines for relaxing the current restrictions aimed at slowing the novel coronavirus, but many limitations would need to remain in place for vulnerable Americans, a population that could number in the millions.
Trump formally announced the proposal at a coronavirus task force briefing Thursday evening.
“My administration is issuing new federal guidelines that will allow governors to take a phased and deliberate approach to reopening their individual states,” Trump said, noting “some states will be able to open up sooner than others.”
The document lays out criteria for relaxing stay-at-home orders and business closures, and guidelines for employers and individuals to operate safely in the new COVID-19 reality. But the plan also relies heavily on an increase in testing both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, as well as contact tracing, methods of tracking the coronavirus that the U.S. has not managed to robustly ramp up yet.
Testing has ramped up in the United States over the past few weeks. For the week beginning April 12, the U.S. has conducted an average of about 147,000 tests each day, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
But testing will need to increase drastically, accordiong to varyinge stimates. Depending on the analysis, Vox reported, the U.S. could need to issue anywhere from 750,0000 tests per week to 30 million tests per day.
At the moment, due to still-limited capacity, testing is primarily reserved for patients who are severely ill or who have enough symptoms of the coronavirus to qualify, and there’s a massive backlog to process these tests. Some medical experts are also worried about tests returning false negatives, with new tests being developed at such a rapid pace.
On Thursday, Trump repeatedly assured there would be enough testing.
The plan is broken into three phases during which restrictions would gradually relax. Throughout the plan, however, people would still be discouraged from gathering in large groups and urged to take precautions in public settings.
The plan has some parallels with a separate roadmap proposed in early April by a team at the American Enterprise Institute that includes Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb.
Gottlieb tweeted that the White House plan was a “sensible set of broad guidelines on gradually restarting social activities, work in stages; with new protections at workplace, eye toward measuring impact to adjust if cases spike.” He added it was “broadly consistent with state plans.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, cautioned that each state would likely go through the process on a different time frame, depending on each state’s outbreak, and that some states could backtrack.
“Even if you are in phase 1, 2, 3, it’s not okay, game over,” Fauci said. “It’s going to be a way that we protect ourselves because as we know,” noting that there was still a possibility the virus could have a resurgence in the fall.
To activate the elements of the plan, the White House sets out three “gating criteria” to set off a de-escalation of restrictions, with the caveat that individual states and cities may need to tailor it.
- Symptoms of COVID-19 as well as symptoms of influenza-like illnesses must decline for 14 days.
- A downward trajectory of cases within a 14-day period, or a decrease in the percentage of positive tests within that timeframe.
- Hospitals must be treating all patients without crisis care, and have a “robust” testing process available for vulnerable workers.
Once those criteria are met, states can move onto the phases of reopening their societies. Everyone will still be asked to maintain necessary hygiene, including washing hands for at least 20 seconds, wearing masks in public, and avoiding touching their faces.
Before moving onto additional phases, states would need to again meet the gating criteria for cases, testing, and hospital capacity, Fauci said.
“There are multiple checkpoints of safety there,” Fauci said.
However, in all but the final phase, vulnerable populations are asked to continue to shelter in place. About 4 in 10 U.S. adults, or 92 million people, are especially vulnerable to contracting a serious case of COVID-19 because of their age or a health condition, according to an analysis by Kaiser Family Foundation. The data suggest that even with a perfect rollout of the White House’ plan, life will still remain on lockdown for a significant portion of America’s population.
The document makes it clear that they are to be implemented either statewide or by county at each governor’s discretion.
- In Phase 1, individuals are still encouraged to avoid groups of more than 10 people, minimize travel if possible, and adhere to Centers for Disease Control isolation guidelines if they do need to travel. Employers should encourage telework, close common areas, and minimize travel, though attempt to return to work in phases. Some public venues may open up with “strict social distancing” guidelines, but day care and camp would remain closed and visits to senior living facilities would be forbidden. Sit down restaurants, but not bars, would be permitted to ease into opening.
- In Phase 2, individuals should avoid groups of more than 50 people and continue social distancing techniques. Non-essential travel can resume. Companies should continue to encourage telework and keep public spaces closed, but non-essential business travel can resume. Some cornerstones of everyday American life, including bars, gyms, and schools, can reopen with physical distancing protocols. But visits to senior living facilities is still prohibited.
- In Phase 3, vulnerable individuals can ease back into public life, while taking precautions. People could go back to work, and visit their loved ones in senior living facilities and hospitals. Large venues such as houses of worship and theaters could resume operations, with physical distancing protocols. And more people will be allowed into bars.