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GA DPH Health Director: The Danger of Ending Social Distancing too Early

April 11th, 2020 –

Dr. Gary Voccio – GA DPH

You may have heard about some recent national studies suggesting that our social distancing measures, or what I prefer to call safe physical distancing measures, appear to be making a difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Indeed, looking at our data for Northwest Georgia, we can see the beginning of what we hope may be a flattening of the curve.

That’s encouraging news, but we’re not out of the woods yet by any means. These studies, as well as what we know about pandemics, also tell us that we need to continue to stay strong with Governor Kemp’s shelter-in-place order if we are to continue to succeed.

People in Northwest Georgia deserve credit for making a real difference in the trajectory of this outbreak by staying at home and decreasing non-essential close contact with others. I understand how difficult this is. Everyone should know that these sacrifices are preventing many illnesses and deaths throughout our communities, including family members, friends and loved ones, and co-workers.

If some studies suggest that our efforts at social distancing are working to flatten the curve, why is it so important to stay steadfast with the shelter-in-place order and other social distancing measures?

Our success at distancing may have limited the number of people that have been infected, but that also means many of us remain susceptible to the virus.  If we go back to business as usual, many people will be infected relatively quickly because COVID-19 remains circulating in our communities.

We remain at risk for a larger outbreak that would overwhelm our hospitals and healthcare providers. That’s why these recent studies clearly state that we need to continue to stay strong with our distancing measures, especially the shelter-in-place order, for now.

No one should take these findings as an indication to relax our social-distancing strategy at this time. The threat of a rebound that could overwhelm our healthcare system remains if we let up too soon.

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, some cities put some pretty strong social distancing measures in place, and those cities fared much better than other cities at the beginning. But when victory was declared in World War One, people emerged from their homes in celebration, and then all the closures and prohibitions against mass gatherings ended. Shortly thereafter, there was a serious second wave of illness that lasted for several months.  It’s a sobering lesson about the danger of prematurely relaxing social distancing.

For now, people must continue to shelter-in-place.  If you must leave your home, assume that anyone you encounter could be infected and, conversely, that you could have the virus, not know it, and possibly infect others. Stay at home, especially if sick. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. If you must go out, avoid crowds and gatherings.

Here in Northwest Georgia, where we have significant community spread of COVID-19, you should wear a homemade cloth mask or some other non-medical grade mask or face covering when you venture into public settings, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, where it’s difficult to keep six feet away from others. This may help prevent spread of COVID-19. Earlier CDC guidance emphasized that anyone who is ill should wear a mask or face covering in public or around others – this guidance still stands.

Your sacrifices are helping. I wish I could tell you when the situation will improve, but that’s impossible right now. Stay strong. Be safe. We’ll get through this together.