As I was riding my bicycle around Manhattan last weekend, I encountered too many disturbing examples of people in denial, and not just against COVID-19. While almost all the cyclists wore masks, few wore helmets — as though to say they were only capable of one health safety action at a time. Most of the pedestrians did not wear masks at all and, worse, were huddling close together.
At the outdoor restaurants I passed, the waiters wore cloth masks but none of the customers did, as though they believed the myth that this virus could not be spread outside. This was not a city with a consistent protective response against the potential resurgence of COVID-19, but rather one rejoicing in the good weather and having broken free of the restrictions of the past three months.
Unfortunately, the viral storm could return here at any time. We are doing well in New York, with only 1% of those tested coming back positive, but things are far worse in the South and West, with almost 15% of Texans and nearly 16% of Floridians who are tested receiving positive results.
Florida just broke its daily coronavirus record with almost 10,000 new cases on Saturday. A day earlier, at least 45,300 people had tested positive for COVID-19 across the United States — the most ever.
COVID-19 is back, so are closings
Even though hospitals in the new hot spots have not yet reached their surge or intensive care unit capacities, a problem is emerging that is almost as concerning. Several states are pausing their reopenings.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas is not just closing down bars and restricting restaurants again, he is being compelled to cancel elective surgeries in different areas of the state as the hospitals fill up.
This is because COVID-19, even when mild or moderate, requires strong infection control precautions and respiratory isolation, neither of which can be done without disrupting normal hospital function. Unfortunately, so-called elective surgery is not always elective. It is frequently lifesaving or life altering, as with a growing cancer or a suffocating heart or a painful hernia.
Young people congregating at bars and beaches are spreading the virus, and it is correct for the government in these states to shut down the source of spread. I wish there were a better way to teach our children and our young adults how to behave so that they could see their actions directly affecting others. A contagious virus is not a subject for a debate over personal choice but only over the extent of public health measures that are necessary to control it.
Ready, set, outbreak: Young people and bars are a recipe for coronavirus
If the hospitals in these states haven’t reached their surge capacity yet, it is only a matter of time before they will. Abbott and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida are right to close down the bars, and to stall reopening and even to consider moving backwards. Legal and illegal travelers bringing the disease across the border from Mexico must also be considered.
In New York City on June 24, 2020.
Bad behavior means more lockdowns
I am not a fan of full lockdowns because of the damage they do to the economy, and to our mental and physical health. But if we can’t get the population to behave in a socially responsible manner, we might have no choice.
Travel restrictions may be limited by the Constitution, but keeping in mind that this is a national disaster, the best public health measure would be to temporarily shut down travel from hot spots while authorities there work to contain the spread. Simply imposing a two-week self-quarantine on visitors from those areas, as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is doing, could be ineffective as too many will evade detection.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is right to suggest pool testing, where everyone in an area around a positive case is tested, accompanied by isolating all who are positive. Detection is the first step in containment.
National Institutes of Health director: ‘The virus is very much out there’
Since the death total for COVID-19 remains very low across the United States — 340 on Monday — we can only hope that early diagnosis and evolving treatment and management have helped us to limit the damage. There is also the fact that the illness is moving to our younger populations, who frequently have milder or asymptomatic cases. And there is even the possibility that the virus itself, as it adapts to the human host, is becoming milder as a survival mechanism. Viruses that kill the host can’t spread as easily.
We can certainly hope all this is the case, but we can’t take it for granted. I had hoped that we had learned the benefits of physical distancing, hand washing and clean mask-wearing as a way of showing responsible public health toward all respiratory viruses, especially this one. Unfortunately, I was proven wrong, at least for now, out on the New York bike trail.
Dr. Marc Siegel, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and a Fox News medical correspondent, is a clinical professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. Follow him on Twitter: @DrMarcSiegel
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus spikes: Mask up and socially distance or face new lockdowns