COVID-19 checkup

Ezekiel J. Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives and a physician, gave an update on the pandemic during a Perry World House virtual earlier this week. He says summer is a good time to open up in stages but cautions about fall.

A grandparent and a child sit on a park bench in daylight, both wearing masks and sitting six feet apart.

The next few months will be a good time for the United States to begin to reopen in stages from coronavirus shutdowns, as summer brings warmer weather and the opportunity to spend time outdoors and officials have a better sense on how to help residents minimize risks, according to Ezekiel J. Emanuel.

“If you look over the next six months, we probably are entering a good phase for opening up,” Emanuel said, with the focus being on places with low public health risk and high economic impact, like outdoor restaurants, cafes, and farmer’s markets.

“Transmission outdoors is very minimal and very hard,” he said, and that should encourage businesses and officials to think creatively about how more activities can be done outside.

But he also cautioned that he remains concerned about additional waves of the virus, particularly in the fall when temperatures drop and people move back inside and cold and flu season ramps up. Flu shots will be more important than usual during this time, he said.

Emanuel, Vice Provost for Global Initiatives, an oncologist, bioethicist, and top health care advisor during the Obama administration, spoke Wednesday at a Perry World House (PWH) virtual event co-hosted with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. 

The hourlong Zoom chat, moderated by Michael Horowitz, interim director of Perry World House, and Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund, touched on topics ranging from how other nations have fared in reopening, vaccine development, the importance of a global response, whether summer camps should open, and what school should look like in the fall.

In an online event at PWH last month, Emanuel explained what the U.S., Europe, and the rest of the world needed to focus on the in the war against coronavirus. This week, Emanuel offered a virtual checkup on the crisis to the more than 500 attendees who logged on from around the globe.

He also talked about things he got wrong about the pandemic so far, like initially saying people shouldn’t wear masks.

“We should all be wearing masks, and we need to keep wearing masks for a long time to come,” he said. He also noted there hasn’t been a spike in cases in Florida and Georgia as he expected after they reopened, but he’s not convinced that still won’t happen over time.

A lot of lessons can be learned from other countries that have opened up already, he said, pointing to Singapore and South Korea, which have robust testing and contact tracing that are helping manage pockets of outbreaks. 

When asked about how to balance privacy concerns with contact tracing, Emanuel said a key aspect will be having a company that the public feels they can trust with such data, using it for the intended purpose, not commercializing it, and destroying it after 45 days or so when it is no longer useful. Because of public mistrust, he doesn’t think that the government or big technology companies should manage contact tracing, but he said it is key in helping reopen safely.

“I think this is one of the areas where COVID is forcing us to change our habits. We don't shake hands anymore; we wear masks. Maybe we're willing to give up some privacy, not so that Facebook can make more money or Google could make more money, but so that more people can be protected,” he said.

Emanuel said he thinks camps should open up this summer, with children being a low-risk group.

“We have disrupted kids’ lives pretty badly. Literally overnight we took them out of school. We said ‘You’re confined to home, you can’t see your friends, and you’ve got to learn from a screen,’” he said, all of which affects children mentally, socially, and physically. “You need to put their risk from opening up summer camp in the context of the risks they face in everyday life.”

As for reopening schools in the fall, leaders will need to think creatively about how to do it safely, but Emanuel said he thinks there should be in-person schooling, and Denmark has set a good example on how to make it work.

They have outdoor classrooms and have cut classroom size in half, using more teachers and teacher aides. But that approach costs money, and states around the U.S. are going to be facing huge revenue shortfalls due to the economic fallout from the pandemic, he said. Such changes will be difficult to implement unless the federal government steps up to help schools financially, he said, but opening schools will be key to opening the economy.

He noted progress is being made on vaccines but doesn't think one will be available to the general public by the end of the year, as the President has insisted. Rather, 12 to 18 months seems a more realistic timeframe, he said.

Asked about the administration’s threat to withhold funding from the World Health Organization, Emanuel said that is the wrong approach to the pandemic.

“This is a global problem; it’s going to require a global solution,” he said.

A video of the May 20 event can be viewed here.