Former Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said she believes orders to reopen businesses throughout the nation are coming too soon and could negate gains made in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.
The purpose of stay-at-home orders, Wen told members of the Greater Baltimore Committee, was to provide the nation, and states, sufficient time to gather the resources to test, trace and isolate potentially infected residents. National benchmarks proposed by the Trump administration have not been met, yet every state in the nation plans to ease restrictions by the end of May.
“We’ve given up on our previous strategy,” Wen said.
The lockdown strategy, she said, was one of harm reduction, a theory that guides needle exchange, providing condoms for high risk people, or requiring motorcylists to wear helmets.
While health experts knew some people would not adhere to social distancing requirements, she said, enough people would, and as a result, reduce the danger to the overall population.
“The only thing keeping COVID-19 in check was social distancing,” she said.
Loosening restrictions at this point, she said, likely prolongs the struggle. The probability of a resurgence grows, and it’s likely to be multiple new waves of cases that hit the U.S. If a flood of new COVID-19 cases arrive in the fall – essentially a nightmare tag team when combined with the flu — it creates a problem of a whole higher magnitude, she said.
As businesses prepare to reopen, Wen said, she’d at least like to have specific guidelines for responses to outbreaks to the new coronavirus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As the city’s health commissioner, when faced with the potential threat of everything from the Zika virus to a cluster of measles cases, she had specific directions from the CDC on which measures to take in the event of an outbreak.
“Unfortunately the CDC has been hampered in their ability to respond for a number of political reasons,” Wen said.
There is still so much about the illness we don’t know, she said, such as whether a person gets immunity after exposure. There are also questions about the different lingering effects, such as the emerging potential for an inflammatory disorder in children who are infected.
Wen also said she doubts the potential for drugmakers to deliver a vaccine by the end of the year, despite positive results from early candidates, such as Moderna’s vaccine trial.
“Frankly I just don’t see how that could occur,” she said.
Donald C. Fry, GBC president and CEO, said Wen address members is part of the organization’s work to provide “reliable guidance and information” during a crisis unlike the business community in the region’s faced before.
“There is little doubt that we are at the initial stages of business re-openings and it is critical that businesses understand and are prepared to take the appropriate steps needed to re-open while keeping our employees’ health and safety top of mind,” Fry said.