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How loosening restrictions too soon could lead to devastating second coronavirus (COVID-19) spike

U of M doctor’s research helps guide officials through pandemic

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – “Flatten the curve” has become the rallying cry of the efforts to fight the coronavirus (COVID-19), but now the University of Michigan researcher who came up with the phrase is cautioning against loosening restrictions too soon.

It’s been 14 years since Dr. Howard Markel, of the University of Michigan, conducted his research on the affects of social distancing. That research is helping to guide experts and politicians through the current pandemic.

Markel believes we are making progress in the fight against COVID-19, but he said we can’t let up now.

“When you’re in the fog of war, it’s very hard to see exactly where you are, but I think the preliminary data is showing that we are flattening the curve in that we are lowing the number of cases and deaths per day,” Markel said.

His research focused on 43 American cities and their actions during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

“Of those 43 cities, 23 cities did react early, and as a layered banner of the social distancing measures, but they released the break too early and then they had a second peak, which often was worse than the first peak,” Markel said.

That scenario could result in far more deaths and another extended period fo social distancing and shutting down businesses.

“All these measures are so disruptive, not only to our lives, our daily lives, but to the economy,” Markel said. “So you don’t want to risk a second peak and more social distancing measures, all for nothing.”

In 1918, St. Louis acted quickly to put strong social distancing measures in place. Deaths stayed low at first.

“They said, ‘Well, you know, it’s time to relax the measures,’ which is a normal response,” Markel said. “Then they saw the cases go right back up because it has not gone down enough to make sure it doesn’t circulate on a wide scale.

“If we open up too soon, we risk the coronavirus spreading even worse, and then we will have endured all of these restrictions for nothing.”

Markel said to make this progress stick, we need to hold on until new cases reach a low enough point that they can be managed without contact tracing and isolating just those who are sick or exposed. He said we’re not at that point yet.


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