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Infectious Diseases

25 April 2020

Americans got the memo on physical distancing, poll shows

The trajectory of the pandemic will change if people ease up on physical distancing or relax with other precautions – according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Americans have got the message on the importance of physical distancing in stemming the coronavirus pandemic, a new poll shows.

Conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, the survey found that 94% of Americans say they are staying away from large groups, up from 68% six weeks ago. Eighty-six percent now say they are avoiding other people as much as possible.

Currently, half of Americans say they are extremely or very worried that they or a family member will be infected by the virus. That compares with 22% who said so in February. Another 34% are somewhat worried, the survey showed.

That worry is translating into concrete actions: Ninety-two percent of Americans now say they are washing their hands more frequently, while 70% are trying not to touch their face. About half, 52%, now report stocking up on extra food, compared with 35% who said they were doing so earlier in March.

Death estimates lower

The efforts might be starting to pay off: The latest projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle show lowered estimates on the need for hospital beds, intensive care beds and ventilators in the United States in the coming weeks.

To some degree, the revised forecasts reflect "a massive infusion of new data" from many states, said institute director Dr Christopher Murray.

Regarding deaths from the virus, the highest estimates are also now lower, the IHME report showed. The institute forecasts 81 766 deaths, with a range between 49 431 and 136 401, down from a peak of 240 000 predicted a week ago. The estimated peak day, the model indicated, is now April 16, with 3 130 deaths nationwide projected for that day.

Things have improved so much in Washington state that Governor Jay Inslee has announced his state will be sending 400 ventilators to New York and other hard-hit states, the Seattle Times reported.

But the improved statistics are not a signal that physical distancing can now be abandoned, Murray stressed.

Physical distancing continues

"As we noted previously, the trajectory of the pandemic will change – and dramatically for the worse – if people ease up on physical distancing or relax with other precautions," Murray said in an IHME news release. "Our projections are strengthened by the new downturns in more regions. This is evidence that physical distancing is crucial. Our forecasts assume that physical distancing remains in place until the end of May.

"Our estimates assume state-wide physical distancing measures are continuing in states where they have already been enacted, and for those states without such measures in place, it is assumed they will be in place within seven days," Murray added. "If physical distancing measures are relaxed or not implemented, the US will see greater death tolls, the death peak will be later, the burden on hospitals will be much greater, and the economic costs will continue to grow."

An interesting note in the AP-NORC survey of Americans: Those in states that were not under a state-wide stay-at-home order on or before March 26 were almost as likely as Americans in states that were to say they were avoiding contact with others.

"To me, it was just common sense," said Richard Walker, 62, of St. Augustine, Florida, the AP reported.

Walker said he and his family began making changes weeks before Governor Ron DeSantis issued a stay-at-home order for Florida last week.

They are no longer watching their three-year-old granddaughter once a week and their 33-year-old daughter is doing their grocery shopping, Walker told the AP.

Hours slashed

Along with social changes, economic uncertainty has widely impacted working Americans, the poll found. Among those who were employed before the outbreak, 23% say they or a household member has been laid off, 38% were given fewer hours, 27% had taken unpaid time off and 26% had wages or salary reduced.

In all, about half of workers have experienced at least one form of lost household income, the poll found.

Kyle Beason, of Bowling Green, Ohio, told the AP that he and his girlfriend both have had their hours slashed at the manufacturing plant where they work. The 26-year-old said the couple is still able to pay the bills, but that could change if things don't improve soon.

"I'm hoping that people do what they need to do – stay home as much as they can or stay away from people – so we can get over it," Beason told the AP.

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