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Social Distancing Is Our Best Tool In Fighting COVID-19, But How Long Must We Do It?

Gene J. Puskar
A woman walks past a closed Mt. Washington overlook above downtown Pittsburgh Monday, March 30, 2020. Pittsburgh Public Works employees closed the overlooks Monday morning because people were not following social distancing rules on them over the weekend.

The adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is certainly true for COVID-19. The disease has no cure, and right now, the only way to avoid completely overwhelming our medical system is to prevent the virus’s spread by isolating ourselves from each other.

Credit Sarah Lewis / Instagram, @hotdoglou
Instagram, @hotdoglou
Because Sarah Lewis interfaces with the public and handles money, she chooses to wear gloves and a face mask while at work at a local credit union.

Governor Tom Wolf has ordered residents of Allegheny County and dozens of other Pennsylvania counties to "stay at home" throughApril 30, though the order could be extended. As a result, parents are canceling their kids’ birthday parties, and people are worried about losing their jobs, while others can’t visit nursing homes to see their loved ones.

It does seem that Allegheny County’s rate of growth of confirmed cases is starting to slow, but there is still wide variability from day to day, which makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions. On Wednesday, the total number of cases grew by about 9.5%, the second lowest growth rate so far. But there still isn’t enough data to show a general downward trend, and state and county officials aren't ready to say that the curve is flattening. 

“We are seeing some positive indicators, but it’s a little too soon to say, ” said Dr. Sharon Watkins, an epidemiologist with the state Health Department, during a press conference on Monday. 

Credit Public Health Dynamics Lab, University of Pittsburgh
Pitt's Public Health Dynamics Lab projects that there would have been a peak of 280,000 hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in Pennsylvania if social distancing efforts were not put in place.

Social distancing is hard, in part, because there’s no telling how long this period of isolation will last. One Pittsburgher who’s really feeling this is Bloomfield neighborhood resident Sarah Lewis, whose relationship ended three weeks ago.

“He broke up with me,” said Lewis, talking by phone from her studio apartment.

The break-up occurred just before Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh started restricting people’s freedom of movement so as to stop coronavirus from ripping through region.

“Spending the better part of six months sharing a bed with another human, and having this person that you could cuddle with and touch, to literally not even being able to be in the same room as my best friends has been very hard,” she said.

Lewis said she’s strict about social distancing because she does not want to infect someone who might end up dying from COVID-19. She still has to go to her job at a credit union, but she stays six feet away from coworkers, and only goes to the grocery store when she needs to. 

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“If nobody ever went out and nobody ever touched anybody else, this disease could not pass at all,” said Dr. Mark Roberts, the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Public Health Dynamics Laboratory, which is trying to predict how COVID-19 will spread in western Pennsylvania.

Roberts is not suggesting a lockdown, like what took placein Wuhan, China for two months. But he thinks the current restrictions on daily life need to continue for the time being.

“Even with schools closed, if people went about their lives as normal, there would be tens of thousands of cases requiring hospitalization in western Pennsylvania alone,” he said.

There is evidence that suggests many Western Pennsylvanians are doing their part to stop coronavirus in its tracks.

Credit Gene J. Puskar / AP
Rodef Shalom Rabbi Aaron Bisno delivers his sermon during an Erev Shabbot service that is being streamed live on Facebook, Friday, March 20, 2020. All events have been suspended at the synagogue until April 16, to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

A decline in ridership has led the Port Authority to cut services by 25 percentCell phone data compiled by data science company Unacast show that residents of Allegheny County and surrounding areas are traveling less.

Some of this is because most public places have been closed for weeks. Though essential businesses, like grocery stores, remain open.

Kostas Pelechrinis, a social computing researcher at Pitt, began tracking activity at three Pittsburgh groceries using data he scraped from Google on March 13.

“The first couple of weeks that I was collecting data, I didn’t see that much of decline,” said Pelechrinis. “[Just a] four, five percent reduction.”

Since that time, Pelechrines has increased his monitoring efforts to include thirty Pittsburgh groceries, and he said activity continues to decline.

Credit Kostas Pelechrinis
Chart of activity at the Giant Eagle Market District on Centre Avenue.

“In the last couple of days, three of four days, it’s about 20 percent down,” he said.

Pelechrinis said his data suggest Pittsburghers are taking social distancing seriously. But not everyone is doing a great job. For example, Pittsburgh decided to close certain outdoor areas, like the Mount Washington overlooks, to discourage crowds.

While it's hard to say how long social distancing will last, we do know from Wuhan that it works.

At the height of Wuhan’s epidemic, hospitals were overrun with COVID patients, and more than 3,000 people have died in Hubei province, where the city is located. Now, the city of 11 million people will go days at a time without a single new case.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.