Mayors must think of reopening as akin to ‘turning on a faucet’ that can be closed again, health expert says

As President Trump on Sunday night extended federal guidance on social distancing through the end of April, the question of when it will be safe to reopen cities again rose to the top of mayors’ minds.

But according to Dr. Tom Frieden, one of the world’s leading health experts, city leaders should focus not on “when” but on “how.” Now that we are all working together toward a common goal, we should be asking ourselves, What does success look like? And, importantly, How do we get there?

Frieden, who served as New York City’s Health Commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and directed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Barack Obama, stressed to mayors participating in the Coronavirus Local Response Initiative that they shouldn’t be focused on simply choosing a date to end the stay-at-home orders currently in place across the country. In fact, he said, it wouldn’t be wise to simply reopen everything all at once.

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Rather, he said mayors should think of reopening as akin to turning on a faucet. “If we turn on the faucet gingerly, we can see if it’s exceeding our capacity to care for people who are very ill, to trace all contacts, and then to drive that cluster down,” Frieden said. “If we open the floodgates, it’s going to be a bigger disruption to our economy and our healthcare system.”

Frieden said that in order to open the faucet, mayors should first ensure three conditions are present:

  • Cases are no longer spreading widely. Not only are the rate of new cases be falling, but there are fewer numbers of unlinked cases, where it’s unclear how people became infected.

Once the decision to open the faucet is made, Frieden said, there are three considerations for how to do so safely:

  • Medically vulnerable people will continue to need to stay home. When it comes to the elderly, cancer survivors, patients with heart disease, lung disease, and others at high risk, Frieden said, “you’re going to keep them sheltered from others, potentially for a long time.”

Find slides from Dr. Frieden’s presentation to mayors here.

Find answers to Frequently Asked Questions from the Coronavirus Local Response Initiative sessions here.

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