Second Shutdown May Be The Only Way To Control The Virus : Consider This from NPR The spread of the virus exceeds our capacity to test, contact trace, and isolate those who test positive. Some public health experts say the only option that remains is a second shutdown. NPR's Rob Stein reports on what that would look like.

Derek Thompson, writer and editor at The Atlantic, says there's another part of our virus strategy we may need to rethink. He calls it 'hygiene theater.'

Email the show at considerthis@npr.org.
NPR logo

The U.S. Has Lost Control Of The Coronavirus. What Now?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/897093131/897432139" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The U.S. Has Lost Control Of The Coronavirus. What Now?

The U.S. Has Lost Control Of The Coronavirus. What Now?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/897093131/897432139" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

On Wednesday, at least 1,400 people died of coronavirus in the United States. That is the most in one day since the middle of May. One of the people who died this week was Herman Cain, a Republican who once ran for president. Also this week, another U.S. congressman tested positive and a bunch of Major League Baseball players. We are talking about pro athletes in a multibillion-dollar sport with a manual of safety protocols more than 100 pages long. None of this makes people optimistic about opening schools in the fall or more businesses. Bottom line - the U.S. has not been able to get this right, and now the virus is out of control. So what are we supposed to do? The same things we were supposed to do all along.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KRUTIKA KUPPALLI: We need to get testing right. We need to get contact tracing up and going. We need to get isolation and quarantine going so we can get things right for our country.

MCEVERS: But if we can't get those things right, Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious disease expert and professor at Stanford, says that right now the best option the U.S. has to really control the virus and fix the economy is another shutdown - not everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KUPPALLI: No, we don't need to do this everywhere. We need to do this in places where things are not looking good. So...

MCEVERS: She's part of a group of doctors, scientists, teachers and nurses who made that argument in an open letter published this past week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KUPPALLI: Our core argument is that, unfortunately, the first time we did this, we didn't do it right. So we really need to consider shutting things down again and using this time to do a reset.

MCEVERS: Coming up, what that reset could look like. This is CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It is Thursday, July 30.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: We always knew that shutting businesses down would be really bad for the economy. Now we know just how bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We saw a historic contraction in the second quarter.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The worst performance for any quarter in American history.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Just a devastating indicator of how painful this pandemic has been for the U.S. economy. We just learned this morning...

MCEVERS: New government data shows that the economy shrunk so fast over the past three months that if it continued in the same way for a year, America's GDP would drop by almost a third.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NARIMAN BEHRAVESH: We've never seen anything quite like it.

MCEVERS: Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Markit, called that number horrific. He said things could get better later this year but not a whole lot better.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BEHRAVESH: I mean, our view right now is that we're not going to get to the prepandemic levels of economic activity until sometime in 2022. So it's going to take us a while.

MCEVERS: And the thing to remember is that the economy won't get better unless the pandemic does, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BEHRAVESH: Until the economy has time to recover, until we get the virus under control, we're going to need more help. I don't think there's any doubt about that.

MCEVERS: More help, which is to say more money from the federal government. It should be coming soon from Congress. But Republicans spent weeks debating with each other to come up with a proposal. Democrats in the House voted on their plan in May, and they say the Republican plan isn't nearly enough. Now they're up against a deadline, and unless Congress agrees to a deal, federal unemployment benefits for millions of Americans are about to expire, which means things are about to get even harder for a lot of people. And in the long term, large parts of the economy can't reopen until the virus is under control, which brings us back to that idea that a shutdown might be our only option.

Here's NPR's Rob Stein.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROB STEIN: When the pandemic began, public health experts had high hopes for America. After all, the U.S. literally invented the tactics that have been used for decades to quash outbreaks around the world - quickly spot everyone who gets infected, track down everyone they might have infected, test everyone, isolate and quarantine to stop the virus from spreading, like quickly dousing every ember from a campfire.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Right now we are experiencing a national forest fire of COVID...

STEIN: Michael Osterholm is an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota.

OSTERHOLM: ...That is readily consuming any human wood that's available to burn.

STEIN: So that strategy that everyone hoped would prevent a viral conflagration - by relentlessly testing, tracing, isolating and quarantining - it's just too late.

OSTERHOLM: When you have something like this happening, there's no way that traditional testing and tracing is going to have any meaningful impact. I liken it to trying to plant petunias in the middle of a Category 5 hurricane.

STEIN: But why? Why is it too late? I asked Dr. Jeffrey Engel that question. He's at the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. They're on the front lines of fighting the virus. I got this beleaguered, almost resigned response.

JEFFREY ENGEL: It's just this massive effort, you know? Test, test, test, test and quarantine and contact trace. And, you know, it's just not feasible. So...

STEIN: Because there are just too many people getting infected too fast now. There still aren't enough tests, so it can take days to get results. By that time, anyone who's infected probably already spread the virus to who knows how many other people, and half the time, the test results don't even include the basic information needed to find them, like phone numbers or addresses. And even if you do get to them in time, Engel says good luck convincing their contacts to quarantine.

ENGEL: It's voluntary, and they have other things to do, like their lives. Whatever the situation, they may be essential workers. They may need to get to work. You know, life takes over.

STEIN: So if that won't work, what now? Well, Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins says the short answer is a word no one wants to hear.

JENNIFER NUZZO: Given our basic failure to fix the gaps in testing and the bottlenecks, that really puts us on a path where there is no viable alternative beyond shutdowns.

STEIN: Now, there may be some places where there still isn't a lot of virus that could avoid shutting down, but Nuzzo says probably not many. But Nuzzo hopes the shutdowns won't have to be as draconian this time and can at least be less dramatic in some places than others.

NUZZO: Because I do really worry about forcing, you know, an entire state or country to retreat to our homes for extended periods. These are harmful measures in themselves. They may be necessary, but I hope that we can take action to do everything in our power to avoid them.

STEIN: Like finally get everyone to wear masks, stay away from other people as much as possible - especially indoors - and keep testing and contact tracing as much as possible. It is still working in some places and can help target shutdowns at the places where the virus is spreading the most, like crowded bars, where people who've been drinking often end up infecting each other. Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota hopes more measured lockdowns may work in some places, too. But in the hottest of the hot spots, he's not so sure.

OSTERHOLM: If we want to be like other countries in the world that have successfully contained this virus, then we have got to take the medicine now. We will not get there. We will not get there unless we bring this virus level down again. And there is just no other way to do it, literally, but a kind of second lockdown. And this time, let's get it right.

STEIN: That could knock the virus back enough to let kids safely go back to school, get some people back to work and give the nation time to hopefully, finally get enough tests, hire enough contact tracers to get off this deadly, miserable roller coaster and regain at least some version of our old lives.

MCEVERS: NPR science correspondent Rob Stein. There is one other part of our virus strategy that we might need to rethink. We've all seen businesses and restaurants that have reopened go out of their way to say they are keeping things clean.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: At Planet Fitness, we're committed to keeping the judgment-free zone cleaner than ever. There's no surface we won't sanitize, no machine we won't scrub.

MCEVERS: And, yeah, keeping your hands clean is good. Keeping surfaces clean definitely isn't a bad thing. But there's more and more research that suggests it's not what we should be focused on. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic recently wrote about why. He talked to my colleague Jeremy Hobson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JEREMY HOBSON: Well, let's start with the science. Everybody's talking about how clean their surfaces are. But what do we know about how the virus actually spreads on surfaces?

DEREK THOMPSON: So the CDC has come out and said that touching a surface, quote, "isn't thought to be the main way the virus spreads." It is thought to spread via airborne, via large droplets or smaller droplets that linger in the air in unventilated indoor spaces. Other scientists that I spoke to came to an even more forceful conclusion. Emmanuel Goldman is a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. And he told me that surface transmission of COVID-19 is just not justified at all by the science. So we are still learning more about this disease. Our knowledge about it is incomplete. And I definitely don't want to suggest that it's impossible to contract this disease from services. But it seems far, far more likely that we catch it from other people through airborne transmission.

HOBSON: Well, you've called these cleanings an act of hygiene theater and compared it to some of the stuff that was done with airport security after Sept. 11.

THOMPSON: Right. So we're all familiar with security theater. After Sept. 11, the TSA took it upon themselves to pat down grandmothers and children for possible explosives. And lots of people, including people at The Atlantic, like my colleague Jim Fallows, called this security theater. Well, I think that America's newfound obsession with deep cleaning is a kind of hygiene theater. We are obsessed with ads like that Planet Fitness ad about cleaning every single possible surface to an inch of its life in order to stop a disease that's actually not traveling mostly from surfaces in the first place. It's traveling through the air. We have misallocated our attention and should be focused on unventilated indoor spaces, not on soap obsessions.

HOBSON: Is there a problem with this excess cleaning or should we just say, you know what, if it helps people think that they're being safer, then what's the problem with it? Let us do everything possible to stop this virus.

THOMPSON: If someone listening likes washing their hands, I say keep doing it. Keep washing your hands. If you want to scrub down your kitchen counter, that's fine. Keep doing it. The problem isn't so much individuals. It's when companies use their deep cleaning regimens as an excuse to allow people to come into spaces they shouldn't be in the first place. You know, take precautions, but still understand the three most important ways to stop this epidemic - masks, distancing and moving activities outdoors. That's really it. That is how one scientist said, we can beat this thing, and deep clean so often are just an expensive distraction.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Derek Thompson, writer and editor at The Atlantic, talking to my colleague Jeremy Hobson. Additional reporting in this episode from our colleagues at All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Here & Now and from NPR's Scott Horsley. For more news, download the NPR One app or listen to your local public radio station. Supporting that station makes this podcast possible. I'm Kelly McEvers. We'll be back with more tomorrow.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.