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Breaking the Chain of COVID-19 Transmission Begins at Home

Isolation of Mild Cases Can Save Lives by Breaking the Chain of COVID-19

In recent days, the rhetoric around the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted, from this being a problem that will solve itself to urgent calls to “flatten the curve.” That is, save as many lives as possibly by slowing the uptick of new infections to prevent health systems from becoming overwhelmed over a short period.

In the short history of this crisis, only two countries have successfully flattened the curve of new infections, thus breaking the chain of COVID-19: South Korea and China. Because they were prepared to take extreme measures that other countries are still not courageous enough to do.

One of those steps was to dramatically expand free testing and refine procedures for reporting new cases. The other key strategy was to isolate people with mild COVID-19 illness cases in hotels and dormitories instead of sending those sick and infected people back into shared accommodations or their family homes.

Household transmission is very difficult to prevent, and in multigenerational living situations, it threatens those populations most likely to die from the virus. Breaking the chain of household transmission is key, according to the World Health Organization. Isolation of infected people is one leg of a three-legged stool that also includes testing all suspected cases and properly quarantining close contacts.

Rapid Testing, Isolation Key to Breaking the Chain of COVID-19

Isolation of mild cases is a hard sell for families, friends and partners.

At a time of stress and uncertainty, we want to be with our loved ones. Isolating alone in an unfamiliar place can be painful, lonely and boring, especially if your symptoms are mild. You may even feel fine. But it is a critical step for interrupting transmission and ultimately saving lives.

Isolation seems to be working in South Korea and China, where COVID-19 transmission rates are declining. In Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, no new daily infections were reported for the first time.

Here in the U.S., we are weeks behind–in both the curve of the outbreak and the response. Cases of COVID-19 are about to surpass South Korea, and our rate of new infections now closely follows countries where thousands have already died from the virus. Testing is still not universally available, as both anecdotes and data have shown.

Here in the USA, aggressive isolation of mild cases is something we can do right now. It’s tough, but temporary.  And it’s logistically feasible and affordable.

People with mild cases can be housed comfortably in university dormitories, hotels, or other available locations currently sitting empty.  Both public and private universities, and potentially the hospitality industry, could contribute to this effort while also freeing up urgently needed medical resources to be deployed for those at greatest risk. Leaders at all levels of government should immediately develop plans to launch this strategy as fast as possible.

We have the means, but do we have the will? Now is the time to be courageous. And courage requires both sacrifice and optimism, as I explained in my recent prescription for the troubled times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We must believe in the best of ourselves as humans and members of a shared society. And that means believing that the hardest, most counterintuitive human response—going it alone­—will ultimately be the best choice for saving as many lives as possible.

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