Three months after Americans started sheltering in place and navigating the rapidly changing guidance regarding the coronavirus, some areas of the country are loosening or abandoning their restrictions. Yet there remains no consensus from government agencies about how individuals and companies should move forward.
We’re putting our faith in the carefully-reasoned approach that physician and New Yorker contributor Atul Gawande lays out in “Amid the Coronavirus Crisis, a Regimen for Reëntry“. Fewer doctors are more trusted than Gawande. He has written eloquently about complex medical subjects, including the revelatory Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End. His work at Mass General Brigham hospital throughout the peak of the pandemic has given him keen insight and knowledge based on his careful review of evidence.
These lessons point toward an approach that we might think of as a combination therapy—like a drug cocktail. Its elements are all familiar: hygiene measures, screening, distancing, and masks. Each has flaws. Skip one, and the treatment won’t work. But, when taken together, and taken seriously, they shut down the virus. We need to understand these elements properly—what their strengths and limitations are—if we’re going to make them work outside health care.
Gawande provides just that understanding as to the why’s and how’s of frequent handwashing, wearing masks, maintaining 6-feet of distance between other people, coupled with testing. It’s well worth reading to get that clear understanding (full article here). And he talks about the fifth wild card: culture. Incorporating these practices and shifting our focus to concern for others —collectively protecting each other — means changing our daily culture.
The combination therapy isn’t easy. It requires an attention to detail that simply staying in lockdown does not. But, during the crisis, people everywhere have shown an astonishing capacity to learn from others’ successes and failures and to rapidly change in response. There is still much more to learn, such as whether we can safely work at less than six feet apart if everyone has masks on (the way nurses and patients do with one another) and for how long. But answers will come only through commitment to abiding by new norms and measuring results, not through wishful thinking.