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As restrictions are lifted, medical experts advise people to keep in mind that they’re still at risk for COVID-19 and need to protect themselves — as well as others. Getty Images
  • After weeks of stay-at-home orders, all 50 U.S. states are beginning to open back up in some form.
  • However, the risk of COVID-19 still remains.
  • Experts urge people to continue wearing masks, avoid gathering in large groups, and frequently wash their hands to help protect themselves and others.

After several weeks of stay-at-home orders, all 50 states are currently in the process of reopening to some degree. But the lift on restrictions doesn’t mean the risk of COVID-19 has diminished.

State lockdowns weren’t ever meant to be long-term solutions to the pandemic. They were intended to give hospitals a chance to prepare for an influx of patients, give researchers time to learn more about the new coronavirus, and slow the spread of COVID-19.

However, the reopening of businesses, parks, and beaches in some areas have led many people to return to unsafe behaviors, such as gathering in large crowds, potentially contributing to a surge in cases.

Experts advise continued caution as we try to move forward and urge everyone to keep in mind that they’re still at risk, no matter how much of their state has reopened.

Dr. Richard Pan is a pediatrician, a former UC Davis educator, and one of two physicians currently serving in the California legislature, working hard to keep his constituents safe.

He says that while some goals of stay-at-home orders have been met, we’re still lagging behind in other ways.

“We always knew when this outbreak happened that we would have to establish a testing regimen that would be able to identify who has the infection, as many people are asymptomatic,” Pan explained.

From there, Pan says we need to be able to do contact tracing for those who have had an infection — essentially identifying everyone those people have been in contact with during the times they may have been contagious.

He also points out that we need to be able to isolate those who are sick or have been exposed.

“That’s a containment strategy,” Pan said. “When you look at Asian countries, they’ve been able to do that. Kids are going to schools, restaurants are open. Unfortunately, in the U.S., we did not have the tests or contact tracing. So flattening the curve was also to buy us time.”

Because this virus has only been recorded in humans for 5 months, Pan says that every week we’re able to gain is valuable; it’s one more week of information and strategizing we didn’t have before. This time allows public health officials to implement protocols that may save lives.

However, Pan says we’re still behind on where we should be to achieve those goals.

“We haven’t had the leadership to use that time as wisely as we’d like: taking care of the supply changes, getting new tests invented. We need to recognize we haven’t really used that time to solve our logistical problems, like getting PPE and testing supplies. You can invent a test, but you still need the supplies to make it,” he explained.

To that end, Pan says that while hospitals are better prepared to handle the patients that may be coming in, we still haven’t done enough to protect our healthcare workers.

And that’s a problem. If our healthcare workers get sick, there’s no one left to take care of anyone else.

Dr. Kellee Randle is board certified in internal medicine and is currently working in a hospital setting (UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas) where she’s directly providing care to patients with COVID-19.

She says she’s worried about states pushing to reopen, mostly because she wants people to understand that it doesn’t mean the risk of COVID-19 has simply gone away.

“I think it’s really important that people realize that our risk level is still there,” Randle said. “This is still a viable threat to our community. And so while supporting businesses and going to work are all great things that definitely need to happen, we also need to remember the fundamentals.”

Those fundamentals, she says, involve avoiding prolonged exposure and close contact with people who don’t live inside your home.

Right now, Randle says hospitals are seeing multiple members of extended families with infections, and even dying, because they broke stay-at-home orders and had large family gatherings.

As a doctor, she reveals it’s a heartbreaking thing to watch — but also entirely avoidable.

Pan shares similar sentiments.

“This virus is still with us. It’s still around. This is a disease that has shown itself to be able to spread quickly if people aren’t taking precautions. That’s why we can’t be complacent. People still need to be staying home as much as possible,” he said.

When this all first began, the consensus seemed to be that only older adults and those with preexisting conditions were at risk. That’s no longer the case.

“It’s absolutely not true that you’re in the safe zone if you’re not elderly and don’t have chronic conditions,” Randle said. “There are people who have died and have no known reason to have been susceptible.”

She tells the story of a healthy 17-year-old girl who died from COVID-19 in Dallas County just a few weeks ago.

“At the end of the day, we have to treat this virus as if it’s a threat to everyone. Everyone across the age spectrum. The idea that there are those who are not at risk is absolutely a misnomer,” she said.

Pan agrees, adding that while the death rate is still highest among older adults and people with preexisting conditions, the hospitalization rate remains high for young people.

“And when the hospitals get too full, that’s when people who would have survived this disease die because of an inability to get the care they need,” he said.

Pan says one of the goals we need to be focused on now is keeping disease spread down — ideally to the point where every person with an infection passes it to less than one other person.

“It’s kind of like dominoes,” Pan explained. “If each person knocks down one other person, the infection is going to keep spreading and getting larger and larger. But if it’s less than one, the infection rate is going to get smaller, and we can be successful in containing the disease.”

So, how do we help prevent that spread?

Both Pan and Randle offer this advice:

  • Stay at home as much as possible.
  • Avoid large gatherings.
  • Limit contact and exposure to people from outside your home.
  • Wear a mask whenever outside your home.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Avoid touching your face.

“People have to return to work,” Randle said. “But there are certain things we don’t have to take a risk on. I’m going to have a hard time making a case that we have to go to a movie theater with recycled air and sit next to people we don’t know.”

Even eating out at restaurants right now, she says, is too much of a risk. “You can order your food and they’ll bring it to your car. You eat, they get patronized, and we lower the spread of the virus.”

Though many people are following the advice and guidelines of medical experts to slow the spread of COVID-19, some people have resisted engaging in measures meant to protect themselves and others.

They claim public health officials are treading on their rights and freedoms.

However, Pan pointed out, “When you or your loved one have coronavirus and they’re in the hospital on a ventilator, what kind of rights do you have? People talk about the mask being hard to breathe through, and as a doctor, I get it. But believe me, it’s a lot harder to breathe when you have a tube down your throat.”

Reflecting on the argument of personal rights versus community responsibility, he said, “Rights come with responsibilities. The founders of our country knew that. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that all people should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he started with life.”

He also points to the use of “e pluribus unum” by our founders. The phrase translates to “out of many, one” — essentially a call for us to look out for each other, not just ourselves.

“We just celebrated Memorial Day,” Pan pointed out. “That was the celebration of people who gave their lives for us. Are we really being asked to do too much right now?”

Pan encourages everyone to wear a mask, avoid contact if you can, wash your hands frequently, and have empathy for your fellow citizens.