Social-distancing measures in Wuhan, China, reduced the number of COVID-19 infections and might have bought the country months of time before a possible second wave of coronavirus cases, according to a study with implications for how long other countries may have to keep similar measures in place.
The study published in the Lancet Public Health journal says reopening businesses and schools in April could delay the highest point of a second wave to October, giving health services time to prepare and respond. Researchers said lifting the measures a month earlier, in March, could have resulted in a wave of infections in late August.
“The unprecedented measures the city of Wuhan has put in place to reduce social contacts in schools and the workplace have helped to control the outbreak,” Kiesha Prem, a specialist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who co-led the research, said.
“However, the city now needs to be really careful to avoid prematurely lifting physical-distancing measures, because that could lead to an earlier secondary peak in cases,” Prem said.
Researchers used mathematical modeling to simulate the effect of extending or easing current school and workplace closures in Wuhan, the city of 11 million people where the new coronavirus emerged in December. More than 3,000 people died in Wuhan, making up a majority of the deaths in mainland China.
The mass quarantine in Wuhan is expected to be lifted on April 8, and Chinese officials have been lifting restrictions throughout the surrounding Hubei province. The lockdown was put in place in late January.
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As the epicenter of the pandemic has shifted from China to Europe, and the United States continues to grapple with an increasing number of cases and deaths, the study’s findings were “crucial for policy makers everywhere,” according to Tim Colbourn of University College London, who wrote in an accompanying journal editorial. Colbourn said “safe ways out of this situation must be identified,” as countries around the world put their own lockdown restrictions in place.
World Health Organization (WHO) officials on Wednesday expressed a similar viewpoint, warning against ending coronavirus lockdowns too early.
“These measures are the best way to suppress and stop transmission so that when restrictions are lifted, the coronavirus doesn’t resurge,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a news conference Wednesday. “The last thing any country needs is to open schools and businesses, only to be forced to close them again because of a resurgence.”
In the U.S., President Trump has faced criticism for saying this week he would like to “have large sections of the country” open up by Easter, and expressed a desire to see “packed churches” on the holiday despite warnings from health officials.
Several states across the nation have announced stay-at-home orders other than for essential business. Nearly 70,000 cases of COVID-19 are confirmed in the U.S. with more than 1,000 deaths.
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