Letters from Maine

The unsteady state


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to chug along, some communities feel it slowing to a pace at which they might feel comfortable about a return to, if not quite “business as usual,” at least “business as sort of normal-ish.” They are ready to accept a level of disease that signals they have reached a steady state. However, in other communities, the virus has picked up speed and is threatening to overwhelm the medical infrastructure. If you are in one of those fortunate and skillfully managed states in which folks are beginning to talk seriously, but with little evidence, that it is time to return to normal, it is probably far too early. Are there any metrics that could be applied to make the decision to ease restrictions more rational?

Courtesy Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Eons ago in pandemic terms, the World Health Organization in Thailand published a list of criteria to aid in determining when a community could consider lifting the limits that seemed to have been effective in halting transmission of the virus (“Transitioning to and maintaining a steady state of low-level or no transmission,” WHO, Thailand, 2020 Apr 18). While much more has been learned about the behavior of the virus since the spring of 2020, the criteria from the WHO in Thailand are worth considering.

Here is my summary of their criteria for returning to normalcy. First, virus transmission is controlled to the point that only sporadic cases and small clusters exist, and that all of these are traceable in origin. Second, health care and public health systems are in place with sufficient capacities to manage a shift from detection to treatment should the case load increase dramatically; this capacity should include detection, testing, isolation, and quarantine. Third, outbreaks in high-risk populations such as nursing homes have been minimized. Fourth, workplace prevention strategies are in place and have been demonstrated to be effective. Fifth, risk of imported cases is at manageable levels. Finally, communities are engaged.

It is hard to argue with the rationale behind each of these criteria. However, the United States is not Thailand, and just thinking about how this country would go about meeting those criteria provides a window into some of the reasons why we have done so poorly and will continue to be challenged in dealing with the pandemic.

First, notice that the criteria make no mention of a vaccine. One gets the sense that from the top down our country is banking too heavily on the effectiveness and widespread delivery of a vaccine. Even if and when a vaccine is developed and delivered, all of these criteria still must be met and kept in mind for a future pandemic.

Second, the criteria call for an effective health care system, but it is abundantly clear that the United States does not have a cohesive health care system and probably won’t for the foreseeable future. The best we can hope for is individual states cobbling together their own systems, which may in turn serve as examples for those states who haven’t had the foresight. We have had a public health system of sorts, but its credibility and effectiveness has been neutered to the point that again we must rely on each state’s ability to see through the haze and create it’s own systems for detection, testing, tracking, isolating, and quarantining – often with little help in materiel support from the federal government. The sliver of good news is that, after a bit of a stumbling start, detecting and limiting the importation of cases from abroad is being addressed.

We continue to hear and see evidence that there are segments of the population who are not engaged in the activities that we have learned are necessary to stabilize the pandemic. My sense is that those people represent a very small minority. But, it is probably large enough to make the route to a steady state on a national level long and painful. This unfortunately is to be expected in a country that was built on a framework of personal freedoms. The best you can hope for in achieving a steady state is to live in one of the states that seems to be achieving the fine balance between personal freedoms and the common good.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at [email protected].

Next Article: