When will it be safe to go out again?

by Ed Kimble

I begin this week’s COVID-19 Update on a personal note: I flunked my COVID antibody test. After a return flight from the East Coast in late January, I came down with flu-like symptoms that we now would all connect to COVID: dry cough, headaches, difficulty breathing, extreme lethargy. Urgent Care assured me I didn’t have the flu or pneumonia, and I recovered in three weeks. By the time I connected the dots and COVID testing became available, I didn’t qualify for infection testing because I was no longer symptomatic. Two weeks ago, LabCorp began offering COVID-19 antibody testing here in Tucson, and my TMC One primary care provider ordered one for me. I had my blood drawn Friday and the results came in Monday: Negative. I cried.

Like a lot of you, I’m getting antsy, and I was hoping for a positive test so I could let down my guard a little. Self-isolating, social distancing, extreme caution when shopping, and not being able to go to a movie or eat inside a restaurant are getting to me. Zoom calls are okay, but I’d kill for a hug. And isn’t that the crux of the matter? A hug really COULD kill!

On Monday (May 11), Arizona restaurants were allowed to offer dine-in service again if they took appropriate safety measures. Sadly, the measures defined by the Pima County Health Department could make eating out feel as cumbersome as air travel after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Spontaneously deciding to pop into that new diner in the neighborhood is a thing of the past. Reservations are now required for all seats, and you will be asked health questions before you are seated. No salad bars or free refill drink stations allowed, and don’t sneeze during your meal or you could be bounced!

Ready or not, antibodies or not, Arizona, the nation, and the world are starting to reopen after two months of pandemic shutdowns. How and when each state reopens are local decisions to be made based on local infection rates in each state or county. But economic and political pressures often appear to outweigh health concerns.

It’s up to each of us to make sure we know the risks we face regardless of what government officials tell us, and to keep ourselves safe. We know that if we’re 60 years or older, we are considered more “vulnerable” to COVID-19 complication, but most of us have at least one other high risk factor. Other conditions that make us extra vulnerable are hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, respiratory illnesses (asthma, COPD), morbid obesity (>40 BMI), and compromised immune systems. A whopping 63 percent of over-60 Americans ALSO have high blood pressure and 25 percent of Americans over 65 have diabetes.

Knowing how COVID-19 really spreads hasn’t been completely understood, but this week a brilliant blog post went viral by Erin Bromage, a Comparative Immunologist and Professor of Biology (specializing in Immunology) at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Titled “The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them” it is amply footnoted with research findings, which Professor Bromage explains in everyday language, detailing how much exposure to the virus causes an individual to become infected and the risks of exposure in various situations. As you can see from Bromage’s bio, he’s the real deal (and easy on the eyes, too).

Combine the information that Professor Bromage provided with reliable local infection statistics to either bolster your courage to venture out or maintain caution and stay home. The New York Times updates its COVID monitoring site daily. Plug in any city or select a state from the list at the bottom of the page to see the latest infection trends. As of Tuesday, Phoenix, Tucson, and Yuma were all showing a leveling or decline in cases, and statewide the infections per million are low compared to most other states. However, turn to the Arizona Department of Health Services COVID-19 Data Dashboard and you’ll see that the daily confirmed cases have been at their highest in the past three weeks averaging about 400 new cases per day.

Staying safe will mean different things to different people depending on our individual situations. Some resources to help you figure that out for yourself include this Q&A from The Atlantic titled “A Guide to Staying Safe as States Reopen” and this great new publication from SAGE titled “Covid-19 & LGBTQ Older People.”