Mayor Muriel Bowser issued new restrictions on gatherings, restaurants, and gyms amid rising cases in the District. The question is are they enough?
The immediate question that comes to mind for Dr. Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is enough to do what exactly? Moderate the epidemic? Get new cases down as quickly as possible? “It’s all about what you are trying to achieve,” Lessler says. “When we look at control in this country more broadly, I think that is arguably one of the failures that we’ve had. It’s not so much the specific things we have done. It’s not having as clear of a goal as we maybe we should in our control.”
“I think that inconsistency leads to a lot of the frustration with policy,” he adds.
Lessler describes D.C.’s new restrictions as moderate. “These are the levels of restrictions that were adequate I think in the summer to keep the epidemic either flat or decreasing,” he says. “I think the evidence suggests that it’s harder to keep it under control now that things have gotten colder.”
So if the goal is to bring cases down fast, Lessler says there is no substitute for shutting down indoor dining and gatherings. “I think with a vaccine on the way, there might be a stronger argument to get to zero because there is an end date,” he says. “It starts making more sense to be more aggressive now I think because you don’t have to do it for long.”
The director of state health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation, Jennifer Tolbert, authored a report on coronavirus restrictions state-by-state and believes the District’s are pretty consistent with what other localities are doing. Some states have enacted stricter measures, she says. D.C. limits indoor gatherings to 10 people effective Nov. 25, while six states effectively prohibit them if they are not among household members. And D.C. limited indoor dining to 25 percent capacity effective Dec. 14, while four states ended indoor dining altogether. Tolbert adds that not all of D.C.’s restrictions are backed by evidence, like the 10 p.m. alcohol curfew for restaurants.
“What some of this is about is this effort to balance the need to impose restrictions to stem an outbreak or stem the spread of the virus to protect the public’s health while also recognizing that stricter stay-at-home orders that many jurisdictions issued back in March have an economic impact,” says Tolbert. “With the failure of Congress to act to provide more coronavirus relief, it’s making it harder for state and local officials to enact these stricter measures.” (Lessler echoed this, and added that officials are also considering the public’s willingness to adhere to restrictions.)
D.C. is handing out another round of financial aid to businesses hardest hit by coronavirus restrictions, including restaurants, but, if aid and restrictions are indeed linked, it does not appear to be enough for officials to impose the strictest measures.
When introducing restrictions, Bowser says D.C. is trying to flatten the curve but offered no further goalposts. Presumably, D.C. is trying to get out of the red in our daily metrics. Experts say it ultimately remains to be seen whether restrictions actually bend the curve.
Would Bowser ever issue a stay-at-home order like she did in late March to flatten the curve? The United Kingdom, for example, entered a second lockdown after restrictions failed to abate the rise in cases. “I don’t know how effective it is for one jurisdiction to have a stay-at-home order when the entire country is open,” said Bowser in response to this reporter’s question during Monday’s press conference on new restrictions. “I wouldn’t want to suggest to somebody that that is what will keep us safe without a national mandate to do the same.”
If the big reason to shut down in late March was to not overwhelm the hospital system, then D.C. is undoubtedly in a different position than it was during the first wave of cases. Treating patients with COVID-19 was uncharted territory then, and older residents, who generally are at a greater risk of complications, made up a greater share of total cases. The percentage of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 has only moderately increased in recent weeks, and is nowhere near the rate it was during the height of the pandemic. Residents between the ages of 19 and 30, who generally are at lower risk of complications, now make up a significant number of new cases. But they interact with older residents and can infect them, as DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt has said before. Younger residents are also not immune to complications, and residents in their 30s have died of COVID-19. So containing the spread is still critical.
Given the news of restrictions, along with the promising prospect of a vaccine, City Paper wants to know what you miss and how you’ll know things are back to normal. Is it when you can see your grandmother? Or when you can return to the 9:30 Club? Be as detailed or vague as you’d like! Write us by replying to this newsletter or email me directly, and we will share with readers in a later newsletter.
Also, the newsletter team is off after today, so plan to hear from us next week. Happy Thanksgiving! Stay safe.
—Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
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