The U.S. needs to be able to test most Americans before reopening the country, experts say

By Julie Mazziotta
April 08, 2020 09:00 AM
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Six weeks after the first confirmed case of “community spread” of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, the U.S. may be headed to “the hardest and saddest week of most Americans’ lives,” Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams said April 5.

As the week began on April 6, there were more than 350,000 confirmed cases and 10,000 deaths in the U.S., and those numbers — which are likely far lower than the reality due to a lack of available testing kits — are expected to grow significantly through the next seven days.

“This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized,” Adams said. “It’s going to be happening all over the country.”

With nearly all Americans under stay-at-home orders, the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak is entering a pivotal phase. Here, experts answer questions about the pandemic.

Is social distancing working?

It’s too soon to tell at this point, but “if people are staying home and limiting their contacts with other people, it will make a difference,” Dr. Emily Gurley, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells PEOPLE.

For more on the new coronavirus and the lives lost, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

With all but nine states now under full stay at home orders, those places “should see a slowdown in transmission two or three weeks later,” she says.

“We’re not really in a position to see many benefits yet across the country because most people haven’t been under stay-at-home orders for that long yet. But we should see an impact.”

Why are we now being told to wear masks when experts previously said not to?

Earlier guidance from the Centers for Disease Control said that the average person did not need to wear a mask to prevent COVID-19, as they only protect a person with the virus from spreading it to others — plus medical masks are needed for frontline workers.

On April 3, though, the CDC reversed their decision and advised wearing a non-medical mask (like a bandana) when going out in public, based on new data showing that “between 25 and 50 percent” of people may never show COVID-19 symptoms. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the hope is that any kind of mask can help asymptomatic people from unknowingly spreading the virus.

Who can actually get tested for COVID-19?

With testing kits still in short supply, “the focus now is on testing people who are very sick and need to be hospitalized, and health care workers,” says Gurley.

The continued lack of tests, she says, is due to a myriad of reasons — errors with the first kit from the CDC, long-held restrictions on who could develop tests, the Trump administration firing the pandemic preparedness team — and now “it’s unclear when we’re going to catch up.”

The newly-approved tests that give rapid results are encouraging, but “it’s a race, and the virus is way ahead of us,” she says.

There’s talk of antibody testing — what is that, and how can it help?

This type of test looks for antibodies that work against this virus in a person’s blood. It can help in a few ways — antibody testing can indicate immunity levels, it can better identify how many people have had COVID-19 and it can aid in the development of new treatments, which is what scientists at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City are working on now.

After asking recovered COVID-19 patients to donate blood for antibody research, thousands volunteered, and a team at the hospital is injecting plasma from patients with high amounts of antibodies into people who are currently hospitalized with the virus for an investigational drug research project, in conjunction with the FDA.

“Usually in about three, four, five days later, they should start showing improvement more rapidly than people who did not get it,” Dr. David Reich, President and Chief Operating Officer at Mount Sinai, tells PEOPLE. “Of course, we have to prove that.”

The researchers will monitor the patients who received the plasma — they’ve had at least 10 volunteers as of Friday — and compare their symptoms and reactions to other COVID-19 patients.

“I just think it’s really a beautiful thing that people are volunteering to try to help other people with the disease,” Reich says of the donors.

If a tiger could get COVID-19, is my pet at risk?

The prevailing thought was that COVID-19 could only be passed from human-to-human, so the tiger who tested positive was a surprising development, veterinarian Dr. Douglas Kratt, President-Elect of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells PEOPLE. But pet owners should not be worried, he says.

“It’s highly unlikely we’re going to transmit it to our pets, and it’s even more unlikely that our pets would transmit it back.”

But worried pet owners who have COVID-19 can pass off pet duties to another family member, or if that’s not possible, make sure to wash their hands before caring for them.

President Trump is touting hydroxychloroquine as a treatment—is it safe?

Hydroxychloroquine is currently being tested by the FDA as a possible treatment and some hospitals are using it in limited cases under strict observation. But it has not been approved, nor proven to be effective.

“Until we have good, solid evidence that something works, we shouldn’t use it [widely],” says Gurley.

Plus, she adds, the drug is also used to treat some cases of lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and if people are stockpiling it as a possible medication means that “other people who need the drug may not be able to get it, which is another form of harm.”

Is it true that men are developing more severe cases of COVID-19 than women?

Recent data has found that men are more likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19 than women, and “we don’t know exactly why,” says Gurley. However, “we do know that men and women have biological differences in their immune responses, and women’s immune responses in general tend to be stronger,” she says.

“So it could be just down to natural differences in an immune response between men and women.”

How can the country reopen after cases start to slow?

If the U.S. returns to normal life without any protections in place, “transmission will take off again,” says Gurley.

Currently, the stay at home orders help to slow the spread of COVID-19, and “it also buys us some time so we can try to get ahead of it,” she says.

“If we can do serologic tests to understand who’s been infected, if we could really get a handle on transmission when and where it’s happening and get those testing systems up and running in a very robust way, if we have quick testing, maybe that’s our way out.”

Fauci also said Monday that he’s encouraged by the ongoing research into vaccines and treatments. He said he hopes that with those, “we will never go back to where we are right now.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.