Planning during the pandemic has, at times, been a fool’s errand.
Over the last month, plans drawn up in one meeting might have been scrapped 15 minutes later after a new announcement about a closure or policy change.
Even with the uncertainty and the still-chaotic present, health officials have to think about the future.
What does the road to recovery look like? How should health departments try to prevent or prepare for a resurgence of cases? What more can be done to get through this emotionally?
Carlo Nevicosi, the deputy director of Walworth County’s health department, said in an interview that relaxing stay-at-home restrictions needs to be gradual.
And testing needs to be robust enough to catch mild cases that health officials currently are not testing because of the limited availability of tests, he said.
If everyone had all the testing they wanted, Nevicosi said turning a corner would look like decreases in case counts for 14 consecutive days. It’s also worth keeping an eye on hospital capacity.
Those three areas—testing, case count and hospital capacity—will help inform the path to recovery and reopening.
Additionally, he said it is worth figuring out ways to protect more vulnerable populations—the elderly and those with respiratory problems, for example—while letting others resume their normal life as safely as possible.
With incremental relaxations of restrictions, Nevicosi said businesses might need to stagger employee shifts more, for example. Or perhaps a restaurant opens with fewer tables.
It might be best for businesses that have been functioning OK with employees working from home to keep operating that way, he suggested. Some restrictions on nursing homes, such as on dining in groups, should probably remain in place longer, he said.
But he said relaxing stay-at-home orders is not a one-way street.
Health departments also have to consider ways to prevent another wave of infections. If measures are relaxed and another spike of the disease shows up, restrictions might need to be reinstated.
Nevicosi expressed some hope about topics such as herd immunity, achieved when a large majority of a population contracts a disease, recovers and develops immunity so the disease can’t spread as much.
But more research is ongoing about how much those who have had the disease are protected and how long that protection lasts, The Associated Press has reported.
Additionally, the World Health Organization said Friday, “There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.”
Vaccines are in the works, too, but that could take a while.
For now, it appears that physical distancing measures are working, Nevicosi said. When the health department can’t rely on the number of positive cases to assess the spread because of limited testing, he said the department looks to the hospitals.
And as of the middle of last week, he said Walworth County’s hospitals still appeared to be doing alright.
The measures to ensure public safety can come with other costs.
Nevicosi shared some concerns with how the state’s extended stay-at-home order is affecting mental health. The county saw a recent 15% increase in crisis contacts, he said.
“People are experiencing an increase in mental health symptoms. People are depressed. People have lost employment,” he said. “Our sheriff, anecdotally, is reporting that he’s seeing increases in domestic violence.”
He said the county is coming up with ways to beef up their crisis services, which can be accessed by calling 262-741-3200 and asking for the crisis intervention team.
Nevicosi said it is understandable if people get bogged down in all the negative news that comes with the pandemic.
But he is still showing optimism.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “This is terrible right now, but we’re going to get through this.”