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At the peak of coronavirus

By Rep. Bradley Byrne

National and state officials agree that we have reached the peak of new cases and deaths here in Alabama from the coronavirus called COVID-19.

What does that mean? It means that the number of new daily cases and daily deaths have reached their highest projected point and should plateau for a while before coming down. It doesn’t mean we won’t have any new cases or deaths after the peak passes, we will. But the number of new cases and deaths per day will decrease. That will be a blessing.

Does it mean we can totally reopen our society and economy by totally ending social distancing? No, it doesn’t. Until we have a vaccine so that the vast majority of us have immunity, we will still have to deal with the disease. So, we all should be practicing appropriate hygiene, and if we are vulnerable due to age or underlying health condition, we should stay home.  Those of us who aren’t vulnerable should avoid being in groups larger than 10 people and maintain 6 feet of distance from others while shopping or working. If we can telework, we should. If we must be at work in person, we should work with our employers on how to be safe and protect ourselves.

But, we are at the point where we can discuss how to gradually reopen our closed society and economy. The White House and the Centers for Disease Control last week issued guidelines for states to follow in doing so. Governor Ivey has asked the seven of us who represent Alabama in Congress to give her recommendations on how and when to open our districts. My recommendations, which are informed by input from business and community leaders from around the district, will follow the federal guidelines for a phased reopening of our region.

I am honored to be asked my opinion, but it’s Governor Kay Ivey’s decision ultimately how and when we begin to reopen down here.

My recommendations start from the federal guidelines’ metrics for how to gauge when you have truly passed the peak and then have a 14-day period of reduction in the number of new daily cases. The guidelines also call for our hospitals to be able to operate on a non-crisis basis and for a robust testing program for our frontline health care workers.

The initial daily case numbers running up to the actual peak here in Alabama are promising, but we will have to see if we can get that two week sustained experience of reducing case numbers. It’s pretty clear we will get there well before Memorial Day, unless the case numbers make a significant change for the worse this week or next. Even the University of Washington’s IHME projections, which two weeks ago said Alabama would have the most COVID-19 deaths in the nation, now says we are at the peak and will be ready to begin opening the state by mid-May.

Indeed, IHME now says Alabama will see 290 deaths by August 4, far lower than their original projection and less than half the number of influenza deaths we see on average.

Mercifully, our hospitals have not been overstretched in dealing with COVID-19. Indeed, they have many empty beds and ICU units.

The frustration has been testing. There are two pieces of good news now. The first is that we are already at the point where we meet the federal guidelines for testing our health care workers. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, has verified we have enough testing capacity to take care of the need to robustly test them. Second, the US Department of Health and Human Services says that we will be able to test four million people a week by the end of May, four times what we can do now, and the figure needed to robustly test the general population.

So, I anticipate the governor will begin reopening Alabama next month. It won’t be like flicking on a light switch, however. It will be more like gradually turning up a light using a dimmer. That’s good because a rapid return to normal risks an outbreak, which will cause us to return to where we are now.

One final note is that whatever her order provides, we all have a role to play in ensuring we all adhere to it. Self-enforcement is what will be truly needed. Then, we can all move together, safely, to get to a new livable normal, rebuilding our economy and enjoying the insatiable human impulse to be with one another.