Social distancing measures recommended until 2022

Two new studies shed light on the road ahead.

man wearing protective mask at bus stop

A person wears a medical face mask on April 15, 2020, in Queens borough of New York City. New York Gov. Cuomo invoked an executive order requiring citizens to wear facial coverings while in public and in situations when social distancing is not possible.

Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
  • Harvard researchers have recommended that intermittent social distancing measures should be in place until 2022.
  • An observational study in Hong Kong found that social distancing measures have helped the nation avoid stricter lockdowns.
  • America has a severe testing shortage that is delaying our ability to effectively measure the impact of COVID-19.

While the media spotlight over the last week has been on fringe groups protesting at state capitals, most of the American population is staying at home and respecting social distancing guidelines while outside. It's the primary reason we haven't had to endure previously forecasted numbers of emergency room cases and deaths. Health care workers on the front lines in major cities are overwhelmed as it is. Our duty is to not make their incredibly stressful jobs more demanding than they already are.

Social distancing is an important weapon for containing this virus, according to researchers at the WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control. In a new observational study published in The Lancet, the Hong Kong-based team looked in their own backyard to see how their country was able to flatten the curve without requiring stricter stay-at-home orders.

Hong Kong, like South Korea and Singapore, instituted preventive measures immediately. These countries were testing citizens as soon as possible; they began requiring distancing and protective equipment when cases were first detected. Testing is key. As Cynthia Cox, the director of the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker, told Vox,

"The testing failure is putting additional strain on our already challenged health system. The combination of all of these factors will make the US worse off than similar countries."

Researchers predict US may have to endure social distancing until 2022

WHO researchers reviewed three telephone surveys between January 20 and March 13 to understand attitudinal changes as the disease progressed. They analyzed COVID-19 cases alongside influenza data and watched the reproduction number of coronavirus cases. And they discovered that a combination of behavioral changes, such as social distancing and wearing protective gear in public, border restrictions, and isolation of confirmed cases (and their contacts) helped to slow the spread.

"Our findings strongly suggest that social distancing and population behavioural changes—that have a social and economic impact that is less disruptive than total lockdown—can meaningfully control COVID-19."

The researchers warn that relaxed policies, which began in March, are likely to lead to an increase in cases. Tracing is an essential strategy if nations hope to avoid serious outbreaks. Interestingly, the team noticed that social distancing also reduced influenza transmissions, which is important given that, for vulnerable populations, hospital beds are being occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Hong Kong's example could help set a precedent for other nations. The researchers write that all of these considerations need to be in place. At the moment, there does not seem to be a singular silver bullet.

"Because a variety of measures were used simultaneously, we were not able to disentangle the specific effects of each one, although this may become possible in the future if some measures are strengthened or relaxed locally, or with use of cross-national or subnational comparisons of the differential application of these measures."

Meanwhile in America, officials are calling for seniors to sacrifice their lives for the economy, testing is woefully absent, and the president's sole focus is getting business going again, health consequences be damned. These are the exact opposite measures than those health experts are proposing.

Two men not observing social distancing playing basketball in Prahran with a sign outside the court reading that the court is closed on April 15, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.

Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

A new modeling study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health states that while a two or three-month distancing period flattens the curve, groups susceptible to COVID-19—people over 65 and those suffering from underlying conditions, as well as the obese—will continue to be at risk until effective treatments and, potentially, a vaccine are produced. They're recommending that we institute social distancing policies until 2022.

Aware of a contentious response to this recommendation, they note that this isn't about politics.

"The authors wrote that they're aware of the severe economic, social, and educational consequences of social distancing. They said their goal is not to advocate a particular policy but to note 'the potentially catastrophic burden on the healthcare system that is predicted if distancing is poorly effective and/or not sustained for long enough.'"

There is never a return to normal, for that supposes a societal baseline that is constant. We are moving somewhere else that will one day seem like the everyday, until it shifts again. We must take responsibility for how we transition and listen to the signal in all of this noise. For now, I only have one certainty: I'm not willing to sacrifice my parents for your portfolio.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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Credit: Pixabay
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