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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: What to expect when you're expecting (a pandemic)

Rajee headshot

Opinion writer Rajee Ganesan poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Rajee Ganesan.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If the coronavirus has proven anything, it has been exactly that. The virus, known as COVID-19, has revealed flaws in almost every bureaucratic system in the United States: in legislative and governmental decisions, in healthcare proceedings and in how public health officials have handled the pandemic. 

State and local governments have largely been forced to take leadership in decision-making surrounding the virus. In North Carolina, this has led to closings of non-mandatory businesses, state-wide stay-at-home orders and the encouragement of indefinite social distancing. But the question that everyone is asking is, 'when is this going to end?'

There are two things that are going to mark the end of social distancing. One, enough of the population will have caught the virus and developed antibodies against it. Two, a vaccine will have been developed and available to the public. Although the first option would likely result in more fatalities, the second option isn’t exactly the go-to choice at the moment. 

To begin the vaccine discovery process, a candidate must be first identified, which can be done in weeks or months based on things like virus sequencing and protein visualization. However, once this is completed, all vaccines must go through three phases of clinical testing to ensure that the vaccine is safe for public use. These three phases combined could take anywhere from a year to 18 months, and this timeline doesn’t even include final approvals that must be made by governmental agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Scientists have come to the general consensus that a vaccine for the virus likely wouldn’t be available until the summer of 2021 at the earliest, even with dozens of pharmaceutical companies leading their own efforts. Although the process could theoretically be accelerated, there have been previous cases in which drugs have created or exacerbated public health problems, which is the last thing officials want to happen with a COVID-19 vaccine.

For this reason, social distancing seems like the best option for the time being, but it comes with a cost. Economists predict unemployment rates could soon reach over 20 percent, and with many individuals depending on health insurance through their employers, it could pose a dangerous threat to public health and safety. 

President Trump’s current timeline to attempt and reopen the economy by Easter poses huge risks to not only the general population, but also overwhelming the healthcare system. In addition, it threatens extending the virus’ effects, regardless of any social distancing, past the summer and into the autumn of this year.

Time is of the essence when dealing with this pandemic. Although the current administration has been largely incompetent in this aspect, it’s not too late to change. State and national governments must take the lead in enforcing stay-at-home orders across the country, and not just in certain states and counties with a large number of cases. 

In addition, social distancing must be taken seriously statewide. Statistical models have predicted that in order to prevent overloading of the current healthcare system, stricter intervention (such as Wuhan-style lockdown or state-wide sheltering-in-place) must be implemented by late April. 

Finally, tests must be manufactured rapidly and made accessible to the general public. By testing individuals frequently, it makes it possible to identify and isolate someone who could potentially be infectious before they even present symptoms. This can allow life to return to some sense of normalcy, with individuals who are immune or have tested negative regaining the ability to return to work.

There are a variety of things that need to occur in order to effectively contain COVID-19, and to allow individuals to phase out of social distancing by early summer (at the earliest). However, for this to even be a possibility, both state and national governments must spearhead legislation and make country-wide decisions that make the well-being of its citizens the priority.

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