The United States gained a grim distinction in the world this week when it officially overtook Italy and China as the country with the most confirmed cases of Covid-19. Time is not on our side in the fight against this sweeping pandemic. As physicians, nurses, and the entire health care community work courageously to turn the tide against Covid-19, our singular goal is to save as many lives as possible.

In suggesting that people could begin returning to their normal routines around Easter, President Trump has set up a false choice by pitting the health and safety of the American people against the economy.

The choice we face in this crucial moment is not between public health and the economy. The choice is between listening to science and saving lives or ignoring science and losing lives. The choice is between working together across the country to defeat this virus or letting it kill our grandparents, parents, and neighbors.

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If we do not act in a sustained way to stay home collectively — following the counsel of trained physicians, nurses, and public health officials — we will overwhelm our already taxed health system. Choosing drastic measures to flatten the curve of this virus is a stark choice.

This isn’t to suggest that economic considerations aren’t important in a health emergency or that people aren’t already experiencing serious financial hardships because of this pandemic.

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But a national directive to send people back to work early would not only create confusion with existing policies adopted by the states, but would likely apply disproportionately across race and class lines, sending some of our most vulnerable populations back to work and imperiling their lives.

It would expose more people to the dangers of Covid-19, require the need for more hospital beds and ventilators, and ramp up pressure for more protective equipment for health providers. Such a scenario is frightening to consider and would inevitably result in more death and suffering.

Simply put, the best long-term strategy for economic recovery is to stop the spread of the virus. A healthy economy relies on a healthy workforce.

We’ve reached a critical stage in the battle against Covid-19 and health experts have laid out a number of scenarios that can alter the trajectory of the outbreak depending on how society commits to physical distancing. Public health experts indicate that strict physical distancing is our best chance to slow the pandemic.

Relaxing physical distancing too soon represents the most serious and direct threat to public health and would likely result in far greater the number of deaths.

Fifteen days of physical distancing is not enough to defeat Covid-19. We cannot rush this effort. There is no skipping the hard work it will take to fully recover from this immense health emergency.

Public health experts, physicians, and scientists know that physical distancing works. More than 100 million people in the U.S. are already adhering to their local and state guidelines to shelter in place or stay at home. They’re still maintaining meaningful connections with friends, family, and loved ones through video chats, social media, or simply by phone. Physical distancing doesn’t have to mean the end of socializing; we just need to do it at a safe distance.

While some states have been leaders in this effort, many have not yet put such physical distancing restrictions in place, which threatens to prolong the battle against Covid-19. We need everyone in this effort, committed to ending this pandemic as soon as possible.

Our only chance to win this fight is to slow the spread of Covid-19 and give health professionals the necessary time and resources to care for those who need it. We must unite as a country around this effort. We have no other choice.

Patrice A. Harris, M.D., is an Atlanta-based psychiatrist and president of the American Medical Association.

  • It is our problem now and we need to solve it. We are american, we collaborate, we solve problems, we will, this one too.

  • the idea of having to chose between avoiding virus related deaths and the economy, is a false dichotomy. Or at least, it was.
    Countries like SKorea, Singapore, or Japan have so far shown that tackling the problem early, vigorously and efficiently can minimize the spread of the virus, the number of victims, and the negative impact of the economy as well.
    Where we are now is the consequence of several weeks of inaction, denial and misinformation. This administration is not responsible for the virus, but it is responsible to the escalation of deaths and huge damage to the economy that will follow because of its irresponsible initial behavior of simply choosing to ignore the problem, (immorally) hoping that it would go unnoticed, if not as a several thousand deaths bump in the annual death rate statistics

  • With all due respect to the good doctor, she is not an economist. The country must go back to work, or we risk a decade long financial calamity. You cannot flood our economy with trillions of dollars without consequences. If we don’t shut off the spigot and recover at least some of it with higher taxes, we could see the kind of hyperinflation we saw in 1980, when a home mortgage came with interest rates of 17% I am hopeful that the challenges we currently face as many businesses have shut down, may soon ease. A consensus view may be building that highly targeted containment such as protecting nursing home and other at risk populations, hand washing/cleaning regiments, and voluntary social distancing are far more efficient ways to combat the virus, and may result in an end to “lockdown”, state by state, city by city, county by county. South Korea offers the most reliable data in support of this. As reported in the New York Times, approximately 99% of South Koreans infected by Covid-19 reported only mild symptoms. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/opinion/coronavirus-pandemic-social-distancing.html.

  • “The choice we face in this crucial moment is not between public health and the economy. The choice is between listening to science and saving lives or ignoring science and losing lives.”

    “This isn’t to suggest that economic considerations aren’t important in a health emergency”

    You literally just wrote that this is a simple binary choice between saving lives, and not saving lives. If you were not trying to suggest that economic concerns are irrelevant, then you would have gone back and erased the part where you wrote that.

    The fact is that every single time you have left your house in your entire life, you have risked getting and transmitting diseases that “kill grandparents, parents, and neighbors”. It has always been a question of degrees of risk. (Nice emotionally triggering language there by the way, good job keeping things rational and scientific).

    But by all means, go ahead and adhere to the standards you’ve set here. Never go outside ever again, lest you get sick and kill grandma, and maybe while you’re at it, you can not write anything again too, and we’ll never have to hear from you again.

    • Agree with comment above. Despite the article stating solving this crisis is through science, he makes the piece almost as emotionally driven as the media, who continue to terrify the pants of the laymen with absolutely no context. As a psychiatrist I expect more. At least a significantly valid discussion on the loss of quality of life, while we desperately fight for quantity of life at any necessary means.

    • Speaking of keeping things “rational & scientific”, would you like to revisit your last paragraph? It was so far beyond disrespect as to invalidate any credibility you, an anonymous commenter of unknown credentials, have when debating the President of the AMA.* We don’t have to agree on everything but there is a lot of ground between agreeing and (essentially) telling someone to go die in a hole.

      *I’m not a member (or even a fan) of the AMA but holding this position still indicates a measure of professional credibility within the medical community.

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