We can reopen safely — now is not time to let up

Social distancing is working. So is only leaving the house for essential trips, working from home and limitations on non-essential businesses. And as we think about gradually reopening components of our society and ramping up some of the clinical services in our hospitals and clinics, it will be important to remember that this doesn’t — and shouldn’t — happen at the flip of a switch. As many have suggested, it truly needs to be more like a dimmer. Doing this deliberately and thoughtfully, without getting complacent in our precautionary efforts, will be keys to protecting against a COVID-19 resurgence in our communities.

It is not lost on us that COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges in Pennsylvania and beyond. Small businesses are the drivers of our local economies and they are unquestionably feeling the brunt of this virus’ impacts. While we’ve seen early signs of COVID-19 leveling off in our communities, we have to maintain a healthy dose of vigilance as we plot the steps toward re-opening while keeping up our prevention and mitigation efforts. Such an approach will help ensure that businesses, the economy at large, and the health of our communities will be protected — especially as we prepare for the eventual beginnings of another flu season cycle.

Like so many other segments of society, health systems have also faced significant economic challenges as a result of this pandemic. It will take months, if not years, for healthcare systems to recover from COVID-19’s impact. These challenges will only be amplified if we reopen society too soon and suffer from another wave of the virus.

So, what do we know about reopening society?

We know that researchers and experts agree that testing needs to be more widely available to truly understand how prevalent the virus is.

We know that according to an Associated Press poll most Americans support social distancing measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.

And we know modeling from scientists at MIT warns that relaxing social distancing measures could lead to “an exponential explosion of the infected case count.”

As we begin to watch the curve flatten in areas like New York, the Poconos, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia, now more than ever, it’s important to heed the warnings of public officials and reopen society in a way that takes into consideration how to prevent a resurgence or a more prolonged surge of COVID-19.

For our daily lives, this means the gradual return to normal still might look different. Lunch breaks might be staggered. Gatherings like sporting events and concerts might still be put on hold. Restaurants may have restrictions on the spacing between patrons. And working from home might be the new normal for a lot of people who used to commute to an office.

For healthcare providers, we have to look at returning to more normal operations as well — most notably elective procedures and routine office visits — but do so with care and caution. As we do this, we’ll be carefully monitoring things like our supplies, our bed capacity, and our staffing.

Much like society and the economy as a whole, the healthcare industry will be relying on data, science and the virus’ activity to make sound judgements about when we can start taking steps to return to normal. Coming down from this virus’ peak is a gradual decline. And just as COVID-19 slowly makes its way down to a sustainable manageable pace, as a society, our incline up to a place of normalcy must progress with measured, steady strides.

As healthcare professionals charged with advocating on behalf of our communities’ health and well-being, we urge everyone to practice patience and safe social distancing while listening to the advice of our public health experts. We will get through this. But we can only do that together.

We’ve come this far. Social distancing is working. Let’s not give up before the battle is won.

Dr. Jaewon Ryu, M.D., J.D., is president and CEO of Geisinger Health System.


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