It’s Time to Assume COVID-19 Is Already In Your City

coronavirus, Health, public health

This photo shows confirmed cases as of March 6, 2020. There are almost certainly a lot more now.

This photo shows confirmed cases as of March 6, 2020. There are almost certainly a lot more now.
Photo: Samuel Corum (Getty Images)

While thousands of cases of COVID-19 have been documented in other countries, most parts of the US are only now seeing a few positive tests pop up here and there. But we also haven’t been testing for the coronavirus as thoroughly as other countries have. I’d bet good money that, wherever you are in the US, there are already cases in your city.

You don’t have to be paranoid, but even if there are no cases reported in your city yet, consider how your perspective would change if you knew it was already out there. I think there are two big takeaways here:

Don’t be surprised when the “first” cases appear

One is that you shouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow, or today, or next week, your local public health office announces that they’ve found a local case or three of COVID. That almost certainly won’t mean that the virus just appeared; rather, it’s more likely that the virus is already circulating and we’re just beginning to identify the cases that were already there.

The US has tested very few people compared to what other countries have managed so far. As testing rolls out, it will take a little while for the numbers to catch up. A bunch of cases all in one day is exactly what you’d expect, and it just means we’re getting up to date on what’s been going on all along. We don’t know how many cases are truly out there right now.

Avoid gatherings as much as you can

So what should you do if the virus is in your town, or if you’re assuming it is?

Our best evidence is that “social distancing” helps. The fewer opportunities people have to meet, the fewer opportunities we have to spread the virus. This doesn’t mean you need to become a total hermit, but I find myself thinking: what if I pick it up somewhere? What if I transmit it to someone before I realize I have it?

I went on a planned trip last week, but I was careful to wash my hands often, and I’m not eager to visit older family members now that I’ve returned. (This is about protecting them, in case I’ve picked it up without knowing.) If I had plans to attend a large gathering of any sort in the future, I’d reconsider. What are the chances someone who visits that museum or that party or that festival is carrying the virus? Pretty likely, to be honest.

So that’s why gatherings are already being canceled, even if there’s no solid data that the coronavirus is circulating in your area. After all, it’s smart to cancel things before the virus starts spreading. With luck, soon we’ll have better data on where the virus has and has not appeared. For now, I’ll stay home when I can.

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