We May Soon See Color Coded Threat Levels For Coronavirus

Very much like the terrorism threat levels after 9-11

Remember this?

The White House seems to be taking a report out this week from infectious disease modelers and analysts in Britain very seriously. And this report seriously warns that even after Coronavirus deaths peak sometime later this year, and then recede, the virus will re-emerge from time to time. In fact more frequently than not. And that might involve sudden reinstatement of school closings, work from home, and quarantine, among other things. For a very long time. Until there’s an approved, widely-available vaccine, which these researchers believe will take 18 months.

Their chart above shows an expectation infections will continue to spike well after they peak (orange-ish lines), and therefore maximum preventive measures will need to be in force about 2/3rd of the time (blue squared-off bars). They could be relaxed (for instance, some students could return to schools, and people under the age of 70 could do less social distancing) about 1/3 of the time. This would be based on an “on/off switch” that would be triggered by a certain number of Intensive Care Unit cases. (Note: this chart is only a projection for Great Britain, so while the threshold is most certainly going to be different in the U.S., if this model is right, the pattern should be the same.)

So it stands to reason that certain preventive and reactive measures would become standard guidance for various rates of new infections. Leading to an alert system similar to the one we had in place after 9-11, and was ended about 10 years later, which is why we don’t see those colorful threat level signs all over the place anymore. And a lot of people paid very little attention to them anyway, because there was very little you could do to protect yourself from the random threat of terrorism at any level, other than be more vigilant, and perhaps control your movements a little. And of course “if you see something, say something”. But that applies at any time. In fact, a large part of the reason the Department of Homeland Security stopped using the system was they concluded the colorful warning levels provided “little practical information” to the public. Instead, there’s a simplified system in place now designed to alert the public to specific terrorist threats and include specified end dates.

Right now this is all just speculation on our part. But we all know Trump likes to do things splashy. Which is why we imagine something like a new-and-improved color coded alert level system may be forthcoming. And might actually be somewhat helpful.

With the Coronavirus threat, people should already immediately know what to do if the virus re-emerges (hopefully people will already be washing their hands a lot more than they did before, and wearing masks and gloves more frequently when they go outside and when they become more widely available), and so won’t need a sign posted in a bus station to tell them. Also most people now have cell phones, and many are signed up for or opted into local emergency alert systems. And those who aren’t would hear soon enough from their friends.

One interesting thing about this report we pointed out in yesterday’s column: while many local, state and federal officials are focused on keeping public gatherings of people to a minimum, these researchers say that doesn’t matter so much. In fact, matters so little, they don’t even consider it as a variable or component of a “mitigation” or “suppression” strategy:

Stopping mass gatherings is predicted to have relatively little impact (results not shown) because the contact-time at such events is relatively small compared to the time spent at home, in schools or workplaces and in other community locations such as bars and restaurants.”

Then again, not sure most people would distinguish between a quick church service or movie or concert vs. a leisurely evening out with friends in crowded restaurants or bars, as this report does. In fact, for many (or most), a social evening out includes drinks in a bar, a concert, and dinner. Without even thinking about it.

But even if you accept the conclusion that banning large group gatherings doesn’t help much, if you’re the White House, or a Governor, or a Mayor, you probably figure it couldn’t hurt