Lockdowns lose consensus as strategy to curb COVID-19

As they grow more confident in their understanding of how COVID-19 spreads, many public health officials and authorities are questioning the efficacy of widespread, monthslong lockdowns as a solution to surges of the virus.

The thinking is not decidedly dismissing lockdowns altogether, but rather applying scientific findings about the virus and proven public health measures to intervene in more targeted — and less costly — ways. 

Two bodies of health leaders have gained attention for rethinking lockdowns. First, World Health Organization leaders have grown more vocal in encouraging governments to do more to improve public safety measures that would reduce the need for a second round of nationwide lockdowns. Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergencies program, said the United Nations agency aims to avoid when possible "massive lockdowns that are so punishing to communities, to societies and everything else," according to The Wall Street Journal

Thousands of medical and public health scientists and medical practitioners from across the globe have also signed their support for the Great Barrington Declaration, which was authored by three epidemiologists from Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard University, Oxford University in England and Stanford (Calif.) University Medical School in early October. Citing their concerns about the damaging physical and mental health effects of current COVID-19 lockdown policies, the trio put forth an approach for virus control called "Focused Protection." The proposal aims to minimize mortality and social harm by allowing young people to resume life as normal — including attending school for in-person learning and normal work settings — to build herd immunity, while older people and those who are medically vulnerable would be encouraged to isolate.  

One reason to evaluate alternatives to blunt lockdowns is due to their wavering popularity. In March, many people saw lockdowns as a necessary pause that preserved essential resources and gave public health experts time to better understand COVID-19 and its transmission. 

In the third week of March, 87 percent of Americans agreed with the advice to stay home as much as possible to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus, while 13 percent agreed with the advice to lead life as normal and avoid interruptions to work and business, according to a Gallup poll. As of the second week of September, those figures had shifted to 64 percent and 36 percent, respectively, suggesting widespread compliance with local, state and federal lockdowns is less of a sure thing. In fact, lockdowns could backfire if the public ceases to cooperate. In the United Kingdom, only one-fifth of people asked to self-isolate comply, according to research published in August for the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and cited by the WSJ

Although many epidemiologists and those with expertise in public health and policy are encouraging the reconsideration of shutdowns, the stance on lockdown among the scientific and health communities is hardly agreed upon. Other health professionals this summer backed a position from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group summarized as "Shut it down, start over, do it right" and encouraged federal and state governments to "abolish the notion that reopening is the best thing for the nation." (Becker's has reached out to U.S. PIRG about their reaction or position on the Great Barrington Declaration.) Analysis from New York City-based Columbia University disease modelers also found that had the U.S. started locking down cities and limiting social contact on March 1 — two weeks earlier than most people started staying home — approximately 54,000 deaths could have been avoided, according to The New York Times. 

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