Coronavirus infections are on the rise in many parts of the country, including in Massachusetts, where businesses and major events like the Boston Marathon have been put on hold. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump continues to push the idea of lifting restrictions and re-opening businesses by early May, despite concerns from health experts. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Dr. Nadia Abuelezam, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Boston College's Connell School of Nursing, to learn more about when it might be safe to start returning to business as usual. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: Is this a dangerous conversation to be having right now? Other parts of the country may be past the peak, we understand, but we are still in the surge here in Massachusetts.
Dr. Nadia Abuelezam: Yeah, I think it's probably a premature conversation to be happening at this point in Massachusetts in particular, and in many other places across the country. I think we still have a long way to go, I would say, until we've passed the surge, as you've already mentioned. And I think it's going to take a more concerted public health effort to really think about lifting the physical distancing measures that are already in place.
Mathieu: In fact, once we do start to get back to some sort of social gathering, things will look different, right? We're still likely to see masks. We understand that there will still be lower capacity at restaurants or in theaters. It's not going to be back to normal.
Abuelezam: I can't envision this going back to normal very quickly, at least any time in the near future. I definitely believe that masks may become a regular occurrence for people to wear them when they're out in public. I think people have said perhaps practices like shaking hands may also go away, thinking about keeping space between people in places like restaurants [and] movie theaters. I'm not sure about large social gatherings, how those will look. I think there's still a lot of thinking to do; we haven't gone through this before. And again, I think all of our thoughts about how to return to normal need to come together with significant public health measures to protect the public.
Mathieu: I'm curious to ask you about what could go wrong. Let's say we do begin easing restrictions, whether it's a month from now or several months from now. The risk would be a second surge or some other mutation in the virus. What is it that you're most worried about?
Abuelezam: I think we're definitely most worried about a second peak. As soon as people begin to increase the number of contacts that they have in a given day, that allows the virus to spread much more easily between people and we're likely to see much more transmission taking place. There's also quite a bit of evidence now that many infections are asymptomatic, meaning that people do not actually have symptoms, so that could suggest that there could be a large amount of transmission taking place should people go back to their normal behavior. So we would definitely be worried about a surge. And with that surge, we would be worried about our health care system being able to keep up with the demands. We're already seeing many health care systems across the country struggling to keep up with their patient load, and that would be a concern as well if we decided to reopen at a later point.
Mathieu: Can I ask you about your own personal experience with this? The level at which you allow yourself to go into grocery stores or be around people while you're walking or running? We've heard some in your field suggest that we're still not distancing enough [and] that we should be keeping more than six feet between ourselves.
Abuelezam: I do try to keep a significant difference between myself and those around me. In my household, only one person goes to the grocery store every week. It's the same person every week. That's me. I wear a mask, I wear gloves and I do try to keep my distance from people. And I will ask kindly if people are too close to move further away, or I will move further away. I am taking walks in my neighborhood when possible and wearing a mask. I am also a runner. I do try to go on runs [and] I try to keep my distance by going on the other side of the road if there are people on the road. [I'm] doing as much as I can to keep physical distance between myself and others at all times.
Mathieu: I mentioned the Boston Marathon. It's not been canceled, it's been postponed until September. Does that feel like a date that should be in flux right now? September could sneak up on us pretty quickly.
Abuelezam: Yeah, I'm not sure that we can really make any definitive statements about what the problem looks like at this point. I think we're still in the middle of this epidemic. From an epidemiologic perspective, we still don't really know what the shape of that epidemiologic curve is. So I don't think we can really make firm predictions out into the fall. I personally am keeping my fall plans quite flexible and malleable, depending on how things are going to progress into the summer in the next few months.
Mahieu: In our last minutes here, Doctor, I'd love to ask you about a theory that I've heard a number of times that whether we continue our social distancing or containment efforts to the extent that we have, it is entirely possible that the virus could come back next winter. Is that something that you foresee?
Abuelezam: So it really depends on what we begin to understand about immunity. We don't have a lot of information right now about how much or how long the immunity will last from this virus. There are many who believe that there will be some form of immunity from this virus, meaning that once you're infected with it, there is a period of time in which you cannot be re-infected or you should not be re-infected. Now, that period of time is still unknown. Some have hypothesized it can be anywhere from six to 12 months, but we do not know that for COVID-19 yet. And so I think it's really important to note that if there was immunity that lasted for a number of months, that does mean that once we hit that time period, say, six months from now, there is the risk that those who have been previously infected could be reinfected, and that could lead to a rise in the number of cases.