States are grappling with how to reopen as coronavirus case numbers continue to climb and questions remain about how the virus spreads and whether testing is readily available.
The PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham spoke with Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, to answer some questions about what we’re seeing now and considerations for the weeks ahead.
Watch the conversation on the live player above.
Is it safe to send kids back to school?
As parents think about the start of the school year, many are worried that the pandemic will interfere with their kids’ education, making it difficult or impossible to send them back to school.
Jha said the two main questions that parents should weigh are how bad things are in your community and what the specific schools in your area are doing to keep everyone safe.
“If there is a large outbreak happening in your community, it doesn’t matter what your school does,” Jha said. “It’s not going to be able to keep teachers and staff and kids safe.”
The virus spreads easily in poorly ventilated indoor areas, like schools, Jha said. He also said current data suggests that while younger kids don’t contribute much to virus transmission, older students and adult staff do and it is impossible to isolate students from their teachers in school settings.
While it’s important to keep kids safe, Jha also emphasized that a school can’t run if the teachers and staff are also getting sick, so keeping the community safe as a whole is the quickest way to reopen schools.
“It would be awful if most kids sat out much of next year.” Jha said. “This is a thing we have to avoid at all cost.”
How does COVID-19 spread?
Since the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is relatively new, for a while it was unclear how exactly it spread within a community. Jha said we now have a better understanding that “this really is a virus spread through the air.”.
“Just through my talking, I can spread the virus,” he said.
While it was originally assumed that the virus spread through droplets that can hang in the air and land on surfaces, researchers now believe it is much more likely that the primary transmission method is through aerosolization from breathing, talking or, in some cases, singing or speaking loudly while in close proximity to others.
Because of this, Jha emphasized wearing masks or face coverings both indoors and outdoors in order to curb the spread of these small particles.
“You want a relatively good fit [for a face covering], you want to make sure it’s multiple layers and, no doubt about it, anything is better than nothing at all,” he said.
Can you get reinfected with coronavirus?
As the coronavirus continues to spread across the world, often resurging in areas that previously saw declines, many are worried about getting reinfected.
Jha assured that, so far, reinfection among those who have tested positive for COVID-19 is not a large concern.
“I suspect that it’s rare if it happens at all,” he said.
Most cases of reinfection are often just residual infections that haven’t completely left the body, he said.
That said, Jha pointed out that we only have three to six months of knowledge around this topic. He cautions that antibodies may not last forever and long- term infection may be possible.
How long should you wait to go out after recovering from COVID-19?
Officials have given a few different pieces of advice on when it’s safe to resume daily activities after testing positive for COVID-19.
Jha said “we’re still learning what the right strategy is.”
For the most part, it’s safest to wait five to seven days after symptoms disappear to leave your home, though some studies have suggested you can return to the world sooner than that.
It’s tough to give universal guidance since the coronavirus is relatively new and seems to be unique for each person.
“One of the really odd things about this virus is the sheer level of variation in how people experience it,” he said.
Jha said it’s best to talk to your doctor before making a judgement call.
How long does it take before a surge in infections affects death tolls?
As coronavirus cases surge in the Sunbelt region, the Trump administration has pointed to the declining death tolls as a positive indication the virus is under control. But Jha said this may be a deceptive statistic.
“The typical timeline, from the day [somebody] gets infected to the day somebody dies, is probably 3-4 weeks,” Jha said.
That means it takes a while for the two statistics to match.
He also cautioned that while national death rates appear to be flat, those rates vary widely between each state. New York, for instance, has seen a decline in cases and deaths while Arizona has seen a serious surge.
Can herd immunity work?
As many grow anxious about long-term closures due to the pandemic, some are pushing the idea of developing “herd immunity.”
Herd immunity is the idea that if a majority of people have been exposed to an illness and have gained some immunity, the community resistance will protect those who have not been exposed.
However, there have been some reports that people are intentionally trying to contract COVID-19 in order to develop a resistance to the virus. Jha said that approach is “a terrible strategy.”
“It’s striking to me how much misinformation there is about all of these things,” he said, saying separate claims that half of the country has already been infected with COVID-19 are also false.
In order to develop full herd immunity in the U.S., Jha said 60 to 70 percent of the population would need to be infected, which amounts to around 210 million people.
Right now, there are about 3 million people confirmed infections, though Jha said he believes the true number is closer to 20 to 25 million.
That means herd immunity would require 10 times more infections than we have now, which Jha said means 10 times as many people would likely die on top of the thousands of lives that have already been lost.
“This is a tough pandemic, and we’re gonna have to get through it,” he said. “But it’s gonna be much harder to get through it if we’re fighting [mis]information as well as a virus.”