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5 questions about reopening the U.S. amid COVID-19, answered by an expert

The coronavirus has infected more than 4.8 million people and killed more than 320,000 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, some states and individuals are pushing for businesses and other operations to reopen. But how should states reopen safely, and when? What role do case counts and testing play? And how does the U.S. response differ from that of other nations?

Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, and PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham, answered audience questions today on how to best reopen the country.

Watch in our player above.

Is the U.S. testing enough people?

The U.S. should be testing far more people than it is, Jha said. According to a recent analysis from Jha’s organization, the Harvard Global Health Institute, the nation tested roughly 300,000 each day. However, the country should be testing more than three times that many people — more than 900,000 — daily to adequately monitor the virus’ spread, the institute also suggested. Low testing capacity, including a lack of supplies and access to accurate tests, forced the U.S. to test only the sickest patients in many cases, meaning “we were probably missing 80 to 90 percent of the cases,” Jha said.

“I still think we’re missing a vast majority of the cases that are out there,” he said. “We need a broad testing strategy,” particularly before widespread reopenings happen.

Child care is ‘public policy problem that we have to solve’

As states begin to reopen, the availability of and access to safe child care is entangled with people’s ability to return to work, posing a “public policy problem that we have to solve,” Jha said. If cases again soar this fall, he predicted that need will become even greater if schools remain closed or open but then shut down again. While “there are no easy answers,” he said lawmakers must work to solve this problem, which could possibly include other job protections or financial support for working parents and caretakers.

“We shouldn’t force people to choose between their jobs and their kids, or their jobs and their own life,” Jha said.

Do we understand the role of antibodies?

While many questions remain about novel coronavirus, researchers have learned a great deal about the virus over the last six months, Jha said, including whether or not the antibodies produced by a person’s body after infection may offer some degree of immunity.

The best available data suggests that “almost everybody does produce antibodies, and that’s great,” he said. But can those antibodies protect you against future infection? According to Jha, more and more data suggests that could be the case, but he added that evidence so far has not convinced him, particularly because the virus is so new.

As our understanding evolves over the next couple months about how the virus behaves, Jha said there will be more certainty about how protective those antibodies are against future infections of COVID-19. While admitting that there’s still much to learn about COVID-19, Jha said he suspected that, for people who have caught the virus and survived, protection from being reinfected may last 12 to 18 months and is “probably good enough to get us to a vaccine.”

Lockdown delays cost lives during COVID-19

Throughout this pandemic, public health officials and researchers have used computer models to predict the trajectory of new COVID-19 infections and deaths, and many of those models “have been useful in this outbreak,” Jha said. But these models also offer another takeaway: If the country had moved more quickly to lock down communities to prevent the virus’ spread, “it would have made a big difference.”

What happened instead, as a result of those delays, was the exponential growth of the outbreak, Jha said. Since cases of the virus double every five days, Jha said that communities that took no action would have four times the number of cases and deaths after 10 days. A new study from Columbia University suggested that if the U.S. had issued social distancing orders earlier, at least 36,000 lives could have been saved.

“If we had closed 10 days earlier, we would have had a quarter of the deaths” that have occured in the U.S., Jha said.

’We are not done with this virus’

In a recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, 65 percent of Americans said they think it will take at least six months for life to return to normal, including 40 percent of respondents who said it will take a year or more. Politics appeared to affect how people saw that timetable, with 20 percent of Republicans saying normal life will rebound in a month, compared to 1 percent of Democrats, 12 percent of independents and 11 percent of Americans overall. Jha reflected on the public’s perceptions of when and how the country can reopen safely and the role of politics and science.

“At the end of the day, the science is going to be the science, whether you believe it or not,” Jha said. “All of the science and all of the data says we are in early days. We are not done with this virus.”

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