If People Are Staying Home, Why Is Coronavirus Still Spreading?

Most of the U.S. has been under stay-at-home orders for the last two months, but COVID-19 cases continue to grow by 2 to 4 percent each day

Medical Workers Inside Maryland Hospital Work During Coronavirus Pandemic
Medical workers at busy hospital. Photo: Erwin Jacob Miciano/AP/Shutterstock

Two months in to near-nationwide stay-at-home orders, Americans are ready to get back to their pre-pandemic lives. Those who are non-essential workers (and followed the rules) have been at home all day, every day, save for trips to the grocery store or for socially distant walks. And yet, the number of new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. continues to go up each day, by about 2 to 4 percent.

While the number of new cases is decreasing in hard-hit areas like New York, Michigan and New Jersey, or small states like Hawaii, which is down to around just 1 new case a day, the numbers are spiking upwards in nearly half of the country, from Illinois to Texas to New Hampshire to Alabama.

There isn’t one single reason for the increases, but several, based on the way the U.S. shut down (or didn’t), the current push to reopen and the nature of the virus itself.

Essential Workers

While many Americans are able to stay home, essential workers are still heading in each day, to hospitals, nursing homes, supermarkets and factories — all places where they can come in contact with people with COVID-19.

Nursing homes, in particular, are dealing with large outbreaks of the virus. At least 10,000 deaths in the U.S. have been linked to nursing homes, where the older residents are highly susceptible to COVID-19, and workers are often surrounded by sick patients. One nursing home in New Jersey was so overwhelmed by the number of patient deaths that police found 17 bodies stacked in the facility’s morgue.

In the Midwest, several meat processing factories are dealing with large outbreaks among their workers that only began in the last few weeks. At a Tyson Foods meat factory in Perry, Iowa, 58 percent of the workers have tested positive for COVID-19, NBC News reported. Tyson, and several Smithfield meat factories, have had to temporarily close or slow down production as workers have gotten sick, leading to meat shortages nationwide.

Additionally, many of these essential workers are making minimum wage and can’t afford to stay home and quarantine, even if they get COVID-19.

“They are afraid of losing their jobs,” J. Luis Nunez Gallegos, an assistant medical director at a health center in Washington, D.C., told The Washington Post. “They are anxious their employers won’t respect the quarantine, or that two weeks seems too long, and they don’t always have the savings to get by.”

And as these essential workers continue to go to work, they also risk bringing COVID-19 home to their families and spreading the virus further.

The Push to Reopen

Now, with the economy struggling, many governors are starting to slowly lift stay-at-home orders in their states and allow non-essential businesses, such as hair salons, retail stores and gyms, to reopen. This is happening despite warnings from health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci who warn that reopening too soon could cause another spike in cases, and polls showing that most Americans are against easing restrictions.

Several states that have begun to reopen are now seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, The New York Times reported. Indiana, Kansas and Nebraska all eased restrictions on Monday despite spiking numbers, along with Iowa, Minnesota, Tennessee and Texas.

And while the White House was able to announce in mid-April that the projected number of deaths had decreased from 100,000 to 60,000 by the end of August, those estimates have now gone back up, and deaths are estimated to hit 100,000 by June. As of Wednesday morning, more than 71,000 people have died.

The Virus Persists

Another issue is the messaging — when social distancing was first emphasized in mid-March as a way to “flatten the curve” and limit the spread of COVID-19, it wasn’t a way to eliminate the virus completely, as people may have believed.

What social distancing actually does is slow down virus transmission to a level that is manageable for hospital workers and enables them to have enough hospital beds, masks and equipment to properly treat COVID-19 patients.

While the virus will eventually slow down in areas that are adhering to social distancing and other safety precautions, “there will be some places where it’s still circulating, so it never really leaves,” Dr. Robert Norton, a professor of public health at Auburn University and member of several coronavirus task forces, previously told PEOPLE.

Unfortunately, the virus will likely continue to persist until a vaccine is ready, in about 12 to 18 months at the earliest.

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. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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