It's been three months since Oregon's social-distancing and stay-home orders came down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Especially with the recent caseload spike and Gov. Kate Brown's order to pause reopening, sometimes it feels like nothing will be like it was before.
People have been wishing family members a happy birthday through a window, eating out on mostly-empty restaurant patios, or going to protests in masks.
The science around COVID-19 is changing so fast that even the valid-but-evolving research findings seem to blend in with the misinformation coming in from all sides. So we wanted to answer some of your questions, update you on the latest science, and answer everyone’s top question: when can I get a hug again?
Reopening is inherently dangerous. The more people mix at work, church or socially, the more transmission there will be, and there's no way around it. That's why Oregon's reopening plan relies on testing and contact tracing, say state health officials. And it's Brown's reason for hitting pause on any further decisions to reopen.
Assume every stranger could get you sick, and assume that even if you feel fine, you could give the virus to everyone you meet.
Is this going to last forever?
We have no idea, but the pandemic is going to last for a long time. And it's going to be uncertain for a long time. In one of the most widely read and cited articles of the pandemic, Tomas Pueyo described reopening as the "hammer and dance." First, we shut everything down to stop the initial spread. That's the "hammer." And now we're in the "dance."
Health officials and counties and the state will watch case numbers, and they’ll roll back some aspects of reopening if cases increase. And then once they decrease, reopen again.
Unless other plans are raised, that dance will continue until we get a vaccine, and the U.S. is paying five manufacturers to start producing the vaccines now, in the hopes that if one works, they can start deploying it immediately. The U.S. plans to have 300 million vaccine doses stockpiled by Jan. 1, 2021, so if everything goes well, it's possible we could start vaccinating next spring. But first, we need to prove the vaccines work.
What’s the latest on whether you can get COVID-19 from surfaces?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said they have found that this virus is primarily spread from person to person, and is unlikely to be spread on surfaces. They cited a handful of studies that suggest COVID-19 may not survive very long on most household surfaces.
But other studies have found the opposite, and some that have found the virus can survive for days. Scientists pushed back against the CDC's statement, and the next day the CDC updated their page again to clarify that guidance hadn't changed: person-to-person contact is the primary driver, but you should still assume you can catch COVID-19 from surfaces.
Wash your hands, clean doorknobs, countertops and other frequently-touched areas regularly. If taking extra measures like wearing gloves and sanitizing packages makes you feel safe, you shouldn’t feel bad about doing that.
What are scientists saying now about the asymptomatic spread of COVID-19?
Official opinions on the asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 have flip-flopped so many times it could make your head spin. It was a rumor, then the gospel, then a conspiracy theory, and gospel again — until the World Health Organization put out a press release in early June saying asymptomatic spread was “very rare.”
Again, scientists pushed back, citing valid studies. Even Fauci said they were wrong. The WHO went into damage-control mode. Its updated statement says that asymptomatic spread can occur, but it's still unclear how much it drives infections.
Should we still think of COVID-19 as mostly a risk for people who are older or have underlying conditions?
Since the early days of the pandemic, we’ve learned that everyone is at some risk, and even young, active, healthy people can get seriously ill or even die from the disease. The main symptoms are still the same: a dry cough, difficulty breathing, and fever.
But now, we know it might cause a number of other conditions. It's causing blood clots in young, healthy people. Scientists think it's responsible for a rise in "multisystem inflammatory syndrome," a rare disease that occurs in children after a viral illness. Doctors are studying "covid toes."
Other people — people who weren't even sick enough to get hospitalized — say they're still feeling the impacts of COVID-19 months later. One thing hasn't changed: this virus is nasty and you do not want to get it.
Should I wear a mask?
At first, the CDC said masks weren’t necessary: there was a global shortage, and asymptomatic spread wasn’t confirmed. They thought staying home when you were sick would be enough. Now, they say you should wear a mask when you’re out, even if you feel fine.
Wearing a mask offers some protection from viruses. But more importantly, it protects others from any viruses you might not know you're carrying. Wearing one also protects you in a roundabout way: humans are sheep (sorry, fellow humans!) so we do what everyone else does. Get enough people to wear masks, and folks will succumb to peer pressure, returning the favor you've done them by putting on masks to protect you and everyone else who's out and about.
And remember: If you venture out beyond the security of self-quarantine and you aren’t washing your hands, or if you’re touching your face, your mask doesn’t do anyone any good.
Why is all of this changing so fast?
We like to think of science as a definitive, once-and-for-all monolith, but in real-time, science can be vague and is subject to change. Right now, science is happening at a record-breaking speed, and researchers are studying something they've never seen before. The rise-and-fall of hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure is one example.
Changing your hypothesis in the face of new information is an integral part of science, but it’s not something we're accustomed to doing when we conduct our daily lives. In science, figuring out you were wrong is just another type of learning. It doesn’t mean the research wasn’t good, or the scientists messed up: we just learned a lot more about how COVID-19 works.
As new studies are done and new information comes in, recommendations will change. A lot. And often. Staying on top of them can be hard, but the basics will always be the same: just try to be safe.
Summer is almost here. What’s the latest on how I can hike/bike/camp/etc. responsibly?
Meeting up with friends outside is a lot safer than meeting up inside, but that doesn't mean you should stop social distancing. If you're planning a vacation or a hike, try to plan one closer to home: if there's an outbreak in your area, you don't want to bring it to a new one or vice-versa. Remember that while some counties might be "open," towns might have older residents, or might not have enough hospital beds to handle a big outbreak.
If you’re traveling, try to bring all of your supplies with you, so you don’t need to stop in local grocery stores and potentially infect yourself or others. Be aware of any outbreaks in the area around you, and if there’s one in your community, don’t travel.
If you're outside, you're expected to keep a six-foot distance from other people, wear a mask, or both. If you're camping, keep in mind that restrooms are gross even when there isn't a pandemic, so wash your hands before and after, and consider wearing a mask. Check to see if trailhead restrooms are closed before you leave, and bring anything you need to do your business with you.
And remember: pack it in, pack it out. Don’t leave toilet paper lying around in the woods.
How often can I go out of my house?
Your personal-safety threshold will probably be different from other people's. So it's important to remember that every time you go somewhere you are at risk of exposure, and the goal should be to limit that exposure as much as possible. This is a great guide to help you weigh risks.
The more places you go, the greater the risk, for both yourself and the people you meet. It grows exponentially: Think about the web of people you interact with every day and who they interact with. You should still try to limit your trips to grocery stores and to continue buying food for multiple weeks at a time. And remember that after you leave your house, you could come back infected. So the longer you wait before you go out again, the smaller your chance of being an asymptomatic COVID-19 spreader is.
Can I see my friends and family?
Social isolation is a public health issue, and public health officials agree on this. Everyone needs to make their own risk assessment. Think again about that web of people — sure, your friends are social distancing. But are their friends? Their parents?
Have frank conversations about how cautious your friends are being, and be prepared to turn them down if you have different levels of concern. But absolutely do see family and friends. Community is more important than ever.
Try to throw small events, and follow the size limits allowed under your county’s restrictions. Some people are creating small “quarantine-pods,” little groups of people who agree to just hang out with others in that group. That’s one option.
You can also plan socially-distant outdoor events or put chairs six feet apart. Get creative. Find new, safe ways to get that human fix without putting others at risk. And then, please, share them with OPB. We want to see all the innovative ways Oregonians are staying sane while staying safe. Here's my email.
Is it safe for my kids to play with other kids?
This is a huge one — social development is really important for kids. The jury is still out on how much of a role children play in transmitting COVID-19. Some studies make it seem like they aren’t very big transmitters, but it’s important to remember that schools have been closed for most of the duration of this outbreak in America.
Try to be smart about who your kids hang out with. It's OK to ask parents if they're social distancing, what sorts of precautions they're taking and when was the last time they had prolonged contact with strangers. And it's OK to say "I'm not comfortable with this right now."
Just like with adults, it’s better to be with friends whose history you know than to expose your children strangers whose history you don’t — so crowded playgrounds are probably places to avoid.
Can I have a hug?
Yes, yes you can.
Pick and choose who you can hug, though, and if there’s any risk you’re sick? Better hold off. I quarantined for two weeks so I could hug my parents. Was it overkill? Yes. Was it worth it to give them huge hugs knowing they would be safe? Absolutely, 100% yes.
If you or a person you would like to hug may have been exposed or broke social-distancing guidelines, here's a maybe-silly suggestion: At the start of the outbreak, one of my friends sent me a giant stuffed seal. It's round and adorable and looks like this bouncy boi, and it is very satisfying to squeeze. Before we sign off on socially-distant video calls, we hug our stuffed animals instead of each other. It's not the same, but I swear it makes me feel better.