Experts urge caution on possible 'flattening' of coronavirus cases: 'Can't say we're out of the waters and safe'

Any flattening could be linked to social distancing, experts said.

April 8, 2020, 5:00 AM

Epidemiologists urge Americans not to gain a false sense of confidence and continue to practice social distancing, even as the number of confirmed cases of novel coronavirus appears to be slowing in some states.

In New York, the state most impacted by the virus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said there was a "possible flattening of the curve" on Monday after the total number of hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions and daily intubations were down. In New Jersey, the second-most affected state, Gov. Phil Murphy similarly said that the state saw its "very first potential signs the curve may be finally flattening."

Dr. Todd Ellerin, the chief of infectious diseases at South Shore Health, a nonprofit health system in southeastern Massachusetts, called the possible slowing in cases a "positive sign."

Yet, he said it was perhaps only made possible because of the practices in place now, making it all the more important not to do away with them completely.

"Remember, [social distancing] could be one of the major reasons why we're seeing less hospitalizations. … Does that decrease the hospitalizations you would normally expect by a third? Half? Those questions no one really has the answers to," Ellerin told ABC News.

PHOTO: People sit on a park bench at Eisenhower Park, on March 21, 2020, in East Meadow, New York. Authorities have encouraged people keep a social distance of six feet or more to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
People sit on a park bench at Eisenhower Park, on March 21, 2020, in East Meadow, New York. Authorities have encouraged people keep a social distance of six feet or more to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
Al Bello/Getty Images

"We can't say we're out of the waters and safe, but it is a good sign" he added.

Any sort of opening of the country would have to come slowly, according to Ellerin.

Such measures could include letting young people go back to school or camp, but ensuring that they still aren't visiting their grandparents, who are at higher risk.

The best possible scenario, Ellerin said, would be letting the healthy become immune to the virus after getting infected and have them slowly get back to work.

"I don't believe in ripping off the Band-Aid," he said. "I also realize that we can't live like this for that long. We have to find our new normal."

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was less confident in the possible decrease some states are reporting, noting that any sort of decrease is only significant if the rate of testing has remained the same or increased.

And for the testing that is happening, it doesn't apply to the majority of Americans. In New York, he noted that only those who have been hospitalized are tested, creating a gap in the actual number of cases.

"With all these caveats, I'm very skeptical if they're truly representing a drop in cases yet," Feigl-Ding told ABC News. "We don't know if it's real."

PHOTO: A woman jogs in Brooklyn's Fort Greeene park, April 5, 2020, beneath a sign demonstrating the distance people should keep from each other during the coronavirus outbreak in New York.
A woman jogs in Brooklyn's Fort Greeene park, April 5, 2020, beneath a sign demonstrating the distance people should keep from each other during the coronavirus outbreak in New York. People have been urged to cover their faces and stay at least six feet apart during to avoid contracting COVID-19.
Kathy Willens/AP

He thinks any real promise will come after numbers slow for at least a week.

"One day is a hint, but I want to see sustained improvements," Feigl-Ding said.

Both Feigl-Ding and Ellerin noted that the fatality rate will take longer to drop because, most often, people do not die immediately from the virus.

Feigl-Ding said he hopes people won't look at the numbers and gain any sort of false sense of hope. If anything, he said, social distancing becomes "even more important."

He gave the example of battling a wildfire.

"If you are super aggressive and put out a raging wildfire before it starts, people will think, 'Oh, you overreacted. Nothing happened,'" Feigl-Ding said. "Well, nothing happened because you were aggressive."

What to know about coronavirus:

This report was featured in the Wednesday, April 8, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.

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