Over the past few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed life for all of us. As a country, we have taken a series of steps that would have been unimaginable a few weeks ago. Millions of Americans are working from home. Colleges, schools, churches, gyms, libraries, stores and other public places have all suspended operations or gone virtual.
This massive transformation of everyday life has one goal: to decrease person to person interactions, and thus slow transmission of the coronavirus, which is now spreading widely among Americans from coast to coast. Coronavirus is extremely contagious, and social distance can thwart this proliferation: The virus can't infect those it can't reach.
Our goal at this point is to reduce the rate of infection, to "flatten the curve," as it has become known, so that hospitals aren't overwhelmed by severely ill patients or the impact on hospital and clinic staffing if our health care workforce becomes infected. Along with every other health care organization and health department in the country, Johns Hopkins is doing all it can to increase preparedness for a potential influx of COVID-19 patients. Nationwide, we've made important progress in this, increasing our supply of beds, staff and equipment. But hospitals and health departments can't do it alone. We need everyone to do their part to reduce infection rates.
Many millions of Americans have heeded this message, and are doing their best to self-isolate, minimize social contact and stay at least 6 feet away from others.
But unfortunately, we're still not doing enough. Too many of us are not taking social distancing seriously. As Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan pointed out Monday in announcing an order to close most businesses, people continue to socialize, to see friends and relatives in their homes and in the community — behavior he deemed "reckless and irresponsible." He is right. These activities may feel safe, but they significantly boost the risk of being infected, and of infecting others. This is a matter of life and death, for all of us.
Right now, social distancing is indispensable. Because we don't yet have a treatment or a vaccine for COVID-19, social distancing is one of the few effective tools we have right now to reduce the risk of widespread transmission. Social distancing is especially crucial because with COVID-19, many infected people have no symptoms, so they don't even realize they are spreading it. In this way the virus spreads invisibly, widely and exponentially.
Compared to other viral diseases such as seasonal influenza, COVID-19 has a high fatality rate. Many experts say that without strict measures to limit the spread of the virus, between 100 to 150 million Americans could eventually be infected. For older people, the risk is significantly higher, especially for people with chronic illnesses. And there is growing evidence that younger adults can also become seriously ill.
Of course, we don't want everyone to practice social distancing. Doctors, nurses and other health care workers, as well as police officers, firefighters, grocery store workers and others, must continue to have close contact with the people they serve. The importance of their work supersedes the need for isolation. But for everyone else, strict social distancing is crucial.
We understand that social distancing is a major disruption, socially and economically. It's also hard to grasp what it's accomplishing, because unlike with a hurricane or a terrorist attack, there is little obvious evidence that anything is wrong.
We are only at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., and what we do now will determine whether we suffer a worst-case scenario in which disease rates spike and a flood of severely ill patients overwhelms hospitals. Avoiding that will require systematic coordination between the public and private sectors, far beyond anything we have attempted. It will also require millions of individual Americans to change their behavior.
So what can you do? Here's a summary. Avoid groups and mass gatherings. Keep a 6-foot distance from other people, no hugs, no handshakes. Especially if you're over 60, stay home and avoid other people. Realize that if you break these rules, if your children or your parents break these rules, they are almost certainly exposing themselves, and whoever they are living with, to a wide swath of other people that they, and you, don't know.
Following social distancing rules will not be easy. It will not be fun. We can guarantee that. But we can also guarantee that it will help save lives — perhaps many, many lives.
Ronald J. Daniels is president of Johns Hopkins University. Paul Rothman is dean of the Johns Hopkins medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Kevin Sowers is president of the Johns Hopkins Health System. This piece was written for The Baltimore Sun.