On July 22, with COVID-19 cases surging across the country, more than 150 top health care professionals joined U.S. PIRG in sending a letter to the Trump administration, to Congress, and to state governors, telling them it was time to shut back down, start over on coronavirus containment, and do it right this time. Fast-forward to October, with many states seeing a new uptick in cases and deaths — we clearly still have a long way to go in effectively suppressing COVID-19. But PIRG and our health professional partners (now nearly 1,400 strong) have made some good progress in the past few months toward winning better, more health-centered policies as we move into the fall and winter. Here’s what has happened so far:
In May and June, after a spring of shutdowns, states began reopening too soon and without building the testing capacity, workforce of contact tracers, or production of personal protective equipment necessary to do so safely and avoid thousands of unnecessary deaths.
By mid-July, our failure was clear. As other countries reported successfully containing outbreaks within their borders, the virus was spreading like wildfire in the United States. America, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, had 25 percent of its total coronavirus cases.
CovidExitStrategy.org, a group dedicated to tracking the spread of the virus, had to add a fourth category to their rating system on COVID containment to adequately capture the situation in the U.S.: “uncontrolled spread,” as indicated on their map of the 50 states with a dark, bruised red. As July wore on, CovidExitStrategy’s map was soon covered in this hue, and the number of states with truly frightening caseloads and death tolls was only rising.
Yet our leaders still weren’t responding as quickly or as strongly as we needed them to.
So U.S. PIRG and our health expert partners sent a letter telling state and federal decision-makers to shut back down, start over, and do it right.
It wasn’t a popular position. Many parts of the country were still reopening, and people were once again able to enjoy drinking in a bar, getting a haircut, eating inside a restaurant, going to the gym, attending worship services, or doing myriad other normal, pleasant — but non-essential — activities for the first time in months.
PIRG wanted to get our priorities straight — to reinforce the reality that the devastating death toll of the virus would only continue to spiral out of control if our country went ahead with business as usual.
Our goal was two-fold: First, to send a clear message that the best thing for our nation was not to reopen as quickly as possible, but to save as many lives as possible. And second, to rally people around that message and show our leaders that we shouldn’t simply continue on our current path and helplessly watch cases and deaths skyrocket.
We took the first step on July 15, launching our call as an open letter urging leaders to reinstate stay-at-home orders, close non-essential businesses, ramp up testing capacity, and increase production of personal protective equipment.
Then, we began to rally support, starting with health professionals we had recently worked with on other COVID-related advocacy, such as our campaign to centrally distribute PPE. Next we gradually widened our net of potential signers for the open letter and recruited oncologist and bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
On July 17, with Dr. Emanuel and several other prominent voices standing with us, PIRG released the open letter to the media. That, in turn, opened the door for more health professionals to find us and add their names to the cause. The campaign continued to grow stronger because the resolve of our growing list of partners was so sincere — it was clear doctors and other health care workers across the country knew just how high the stakes were and how crucial shutting back down would be to saving countless lives.
Within a week, we had more than 150 signers.
PIRG officially delivered the letter to state governors and the Trump administration on July 22. Our call earned coverage by several major news outlets, leading hundreds more to sign onto our letter. By late August, nearly 1,400 people had signed.
But simply gaining more attention was only half the battle — the other half was making the actual case for a coronavirus do-over.
Several of our health expert partners were willing (if not eager) to talk to the media throughout late July and August. Dr. Seth Trueger, Dr. Meg Ranney and others stepped up to lend their expertise to the campaign’s message, voicing America’s dire need for tighter coronavirus restrictions and a more coordinated national response on major platforms such as CNN, Good Morning America, and All Things Considered.
And little by little, we’ve started to see this momentum turn into real progress for more health-based coronavirus policymaking. By early September, six states, including Wisconsin, Maryland and Mississippi, had either established or expanded their mask mandates. And 10 states, including Washington, North Carolina and Illinois, had paused or rolled back their reopening plans.
In Hawaii, Gov. David Ige issued a temporary stay-at-home order in late August and mandated the closure of non-essential businesses after PIRG re-delivered our open letter. Since then, cases in Hawaii have started to decline after weeks of a concerning surge.
And in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has instituted a tiered reopening plan — which is certainly a step in the right direction, though it’s still worth noting that those types of plans still don’t account for risks of inter-county travel in a state.
Now, with fall underway and winter rapidly approaching, PIRG is working to keep states from falling once again into the trap of reopening too quickly.
First, we can’t let up on our efforts to keep the conversation focused on saving lives rather than getting the economy going again. Because the reality is that the economy depends on a strong COVID-19 response. On Sept. 3, PIRG released a companion letter from prominent economists across the country calling for the closure of non-essential businesses and establishment of travel restrictions in states not meeting public health benchmarks for suppressing COVID-19. And of course, we’re also calling on our leaders to ramp up testing and PPE infrastructure, and to provide financial relief such as income support and eviction freezes for those who are unable to work during the shutdowns.
Second, with real federal leadership on COVID-19 still very much lacking, state leaders need more specific and comprehensive strategies and tools to keep cases down within their own borders. In particular, this will require a call from policymakers and public interest advocates alike for more state-level resources to ramp up testing. Different states have different caseloads and suppression benchmarks, but still, what has been successful in some states we should be able to replicate in others. After all, shutting back down can only work if we use it as a chance to “start over and do it right” on the expert-recommended strategies — namely more testing — on which our ability to squash the virus will depend.
And finally, we have to use whatever resources and outlets we have to keep appealing to the better angels of each other’s nature, reminding one another that our response to COVID-19 is not about what we want to do, but what we have to do.
If we keep our eyes on the data and our ears tuned to the recommendations of the experts, we will give ourselves a chance to save thousands of lives from a pandemic that has already taken far too many.
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