We correctly determined that our first reactions to the COVID-19 virus had to be to protect our health and our health care system. We could not have economic well-being or social well-being if this virus freely raced through our population, overwhelming health care facilities and taking its toll in death, disability and social and economic disruption.
We established the goal of “flattening the curve,” and we bought ourselves time as the disease spread more rapidly in other states. Nebraska’s health care system has been protected and is functioning well.
We have learned much. We now know how this virus can spread quickly through communities that are necessarily in close contact, including long-term care facilities, meatpacking plants and festive social gatherings. We know that when infections rush through crowded workplaces, they not only diminish the work that can be performed but spread back to our communities, especially to our most vulnerable friends, neighbors and families.
We also know that this virus spreads more easily than influenza while damaging many more bodily systems and conferring uncertain immunity. We know that infected individuals shed virus before they feel sick and that protective actions must be used by everyone, sick or well.
Testing and contact tracing are essential to controlling the spread of the virus, as are maintaining greater distance from each other, wearing masks, careful hand washing and keeping our hands out of our own faces.
Today there is considerable pressure to reopen our businesses and social institutions even though, in many parts of Nebraska, infections are increasing. There are good reasons for this pressure. More workers are unemployed than at any time since the Great Depression. We need to put people back to work.
We also have learned how devastating social isolation can be to our economy and to our social relationships. We have learned how important schools and teachers are, far beyond their role in helping our children become smarter.
We must protect our food supply and the people who provide it as surely as we must protect our hospital workers.
Sick and dying citizens damage our economy and our social fabric. A significant upswing in infection rates will require re-isolation with all of its costs. As we cautiously “re-open,” our goals must go beyond insuring that infected individuals can find a hospital bed and ventilator.
We must also work tirelessly to prevent unnecessary illness and death. We must learn to quickly recognize the flare-ups of infection we know will occur and quickly tamp them down. Our isolation measures have been necessary, but we must remember that they have not changed the characteristics of the virus, nor have they changed our susceptibility to it.
We can learn from the experiences of other countries and other states. The key principle of protecting our health care system must remain. Without this, the road back will be extremely difficult.
While politics and protests can seem compelling, they will not be the basis for good decisions. Instead, we must collect data on which to base our decisions and heed the advice of the scientists and public health professionals who are expert in the issues which are involved.
We realize that our way of living will be changed after this virus is controlled. As we look forward to a “new normal,” we may continue greater use of internet technology to connect with others, to have important religious and social connections and to increase connectedness even as we also gather in person.
Businesses may continue to place emphasis on carry-out and work-from-home policies with a reduction of office use and transportation. Business travel may be replaced with technology. We may be wise enough to begin preparing for the next pandemic and for the upcoming climate crisis as well. We do not want to be caught unprepared again.
Throughout the next steps, we must maintain our mental toughness. The pandemic may last many more months, changing our life patterns in ways that we will all deplore. Hopefully treatments and a vaccine will come.
We will move past this pandemic. But to get there, we will truly have to be Nebraska strong. We are all in this together.
Jim O’Hanlon is a retired dean at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Gregg Wright is the former director of the Nebraska Department of Health.
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