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The Timeline Of Lifting Social Distancing Depends On Ramping Up Testing


As we near the end of the initial 15-day stay-home recommendation, one question is how long will this go on? The president has said that he would like to ease restrictions in parts of the country that appear to be at lower risk maybe even by Easter - that's April 12. Many public health experts say it's too early to make that determination, and it could be dangerous. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now.

Hi, Allison.


SHAPIRO: In a letter to state governors yesterday, the president wrote that our expanded testing capabilities will enable us to decide when and where to lift restrictions. What is his vision for how this could work?

AUBREY: So he's making the point that the risk appears to be different depending on where you are. With more than half of new cases in New York, that is obviously a hot spot. Other areas of the country seem to have much less spread. So he's suggesting that restrictions could be eased in areas that are deemed low risk, and Easter is one date that he has floated. However, here's the problem - experts say we don't have enough data to make these decisions yet. I spoke to Aaron Carroll about this. He's a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine.

AARON CARROLL: To know that a place is low risk, you would have to have a pretty good sense that there's no infection in the community, and therefore we can start to ease the restrictions on people coming together. We're not gathering data in the community, almost anywhere. We're not doing that. Given that, it's hard to imagine that we could start rating the risk of any community in the near future.

SHAPIRO: So he's saying there's just not enough testing being done right now to determine when restrictions should be lifted. Is that right?

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, we have to know who's infected and where. Without more testing, that's just hard to know at the moment. In most places, testing is at a doctor's discretion, for people who are symptomatic and health care workers. This is evolving, and there's lots of hope and promises about expanding testing, but we're just not there yet. And that's why experts, including Aaron Carroll, say it's just too soon.

CARROLL: I'm in Indianapolis. We're not having the same kind of difficulties that New York City is having. But right now everyone is sheltering in place in Indiana because we don't want to get there, and we don't have a sense of where the infection is and who is at risk.

SHAPIRO: So explain the risk here - that if restrictions are lifted too quickly, more people would get sick and the health care system would be overwhelmed.

AUBREY: You know, think about it in really simple terms. There are two options here. Option A, you lift restrictions. People go back to regular activities. This way more people get infected. A potential upside is we would get to what scientists call herd immunity more quickly, where many of us are exposed and then presumably protected against the virus. The downside - more people die. Hospitals could be overloaded. Or B, Option B, keep up this social distancing, so fewer people get sick at any one time and fewer people die.

SHAPIRO: So to sum up, it sounds like you're saying before restrictions are lifted, more information is needed, and right now there's just not enough data.

AUBREY: That's right. I spoke to Rebecca Katz of Georgetown University. She says to suggest that there is enough data now to make these decisions is risky.

REBECCA KATZ: The president's stated approach to lift restrictions in some areas of the country by Easter I believe is dangerous, and it will put people's lives at risk.

AUBREY: So we expect to hear more over the weekend from the administration about their plans and their vision to update these guidelines.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

Thanks for joining us.

AUBREY: Thanks so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.