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Infectious Diseases

Updated 30 June 2020

Gradual easing of lockdown – distancing, masks key to avoid second Covid-19 wave

A scientific model shows that individual preventative measures during the gradual easing of restrictions could help prevent a second wave of the novel coronavirus.

  • As lockdown measures are eased in many countries, some fear a second wave
  • Countries need to maintain a delicate balance between restarting their economies while avoiding a second onslaught on the health system
  • Individual compliance with masks and physical distancing is the most effective prevention measure

As several countries are easing their stringent lockdown restrictions and entering a “new normal”, there are reports of surging numbers in places where the virus was contained. Beijing, for example, reinstated lockdown measures after new Covid-19 cases emerged.

How will other countries avoid second waves of Covid-19? According to a new modelling study performed by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), individual efforts to maintain physical distancing, wearing face masks and performing stringent hand-hygiene, along with the gradual easing of lockdown measures, could be the answer.

Delicate balance between economy and human lives

When countries ease lockdown measures, it involves many difficult decisions and a delicate balance between reactivating the economy and preventing a second wave of infections that could overwhelm healthcare systems.

"The problem is that assessing this risk is difficult, given the lack of reliable information on the actual number of people infected or the extent of immunity developed among the population," explains Xavier Rodó, head of ISGlobal's Climate and Health programme in a press release.

In this study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, Rodó and his team made projections based on a model that divides the population into seven groups: susceptible, quarantined, exposed, infectious not detected, reported infectious and confined, recovered and death.

The model also simulates the degree of population confinement and the different post-confinement strategies.

"Our model is different because it considers the return of confined people to the susceptible population to estimate the effect of deconfinement, and it includes people's behaviours and risk perception as modulating factors," explains Xavier Rodó. "This model can be particularly useful for countries where the peak of cases has not yet been reached, such as those in the Southern Hemisphere. It would allow them to evaluate control policies and minimise the number of cases and fatalities caused by the virus," explains co-author and ISGlobal researcher Leonardo López.

Gradual easing of lockdown more effective

In this study, the researchers wanted to quantitatively evaluate the relevance of lockdown measures as containment strategies.

The results showed that gradual easing of lockdown will result in a lower number of infections and deaths when compared to a faster easing of lockdown restrictions.

Individual actions important in countries where lockdown is eased

In a previous review discussed in a Health24 article, researchers scrutinised existing literature on several non-pharmaceutical protective measures such as face masks, face shields and physical distancing. Although these measures alone are not guaranteed to entirely protect anyone against SARS-CoV-2, a combination of these measures can significantly reduce infection risk.

READ MORE | Covid-19: Distancing, masks – what a comprehensive review says about their effectiveness

In countries where lockdown restrictions need to be eased for the sake of economic survival, individual behaviour is key for reducing or avoiding a second wave of infection, the researchers stated in their study.

Their results showed that even in countries where there were little to no resources to track and trace all cases and their contacts, masks, hand hygiene and social distancing were vital to reduce viral transmission.

"If we manage to reduce the transmission rate by 30% through the use of face masks, hand hygiene and physical distancing, we can considerably reduce the magnitude of the next wave. Reducing the transmission rate by 50% could avoid it completely", says Rodó in the press release

Take responsibility

With several sectors of the economy reopening, the number of South African Covid-19 cases is rising. For many, it's not possible to work from home, and therefore the best precaution is to take responsibility for one's own health while protecting others:

  • Stay at home if you can, especially if you are more vulnerable to Covid-19 because of age or comorbidities.
  • Wear a face mask when running errands, going to work, exercising outside or using public transport.
  • Wash your hands as frequently as possible, especially if you have been interacting with other people.
  • Take note of any symptoms that may indicate Covid-19 and self-isolate if you suspect you might be ill.
  • Assist those who are more at risk for contracting Covid-19 by offering to drop off groceries or running errands.
  • Encourage family and friends to stick to the regulations and to look after themselves.
  • Stay informed about Covid-19 and don't believe rumours that might be fake. 
  • Follow the safety precautions set by grocery stores, restaurants, personal care facilities or other institutions. They are there to protect you and their staff, not to inconvenience you. 

READ | Scientists warn of false-negatives with Covid-19 virus tests: What are the SA implications?

READ | High levels of stress hormone cortisol linked to Covid-19 deaths

READ | Masks and Covid-19: How when and why – the latest guidelines 

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