COVID-19 Conversations A Webinar SeriesThe world has changed in a matter of weeks. By the first week of April, 27 million people in the U.S. had been asked to stay in their homes and stay apart amid a global pandemic that threatens to overwhelm health care systems. 

Science shows that physical distancing works and is slowing transmission, “but if we let up on these measures, we can expect to see a rise in cases once again,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, DrPH, SM, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, during an April 1 COVID-19 Conversations webinar.

“But at the same time, we can't maintain this level of shutdown forever,” Nuzzo said. “There are harms associated with that.”

While physical distancing can help stop the spread of disease, it also comes with potential harms. Those can include mental health problems, according to Sandro Galea, MD, MPH, DrPH, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health. As people struggle with anxiety, fear, unemployment, disruption and loss, it can cause mental and physical stress.

“Previous evidence suggests that, after traumatic events — like terrorist attacks or natural disasters or even with early reports on COVID-19 from China — there is an increased incidence and severity of mental illness that can have long-term and lasting implications,” Galea said during the webinar, which was organized by APHA and the National Academy of Medicine.

Overall, people across the U.S. are complying with distancing measures, noted Anne Schuchat, MD, principal deputy director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cellphone location tracking shows that people in many areas are not traveling as far or as often, showing the success of physical distancing recommendations.

“It is unprecedented for us to take this kind of incredible social measure,” Schuchat said. “We know this is an enormous social experiment, and anything we can do to minimize the effects while protecting health, and really protecting the health care system, it is worth learning.”

The next phase in addressing COVID-19 in the U.S. should involve “tried-and-true public health measures,” such as case isolation, contact tracing and management, according to Nuzzo. Such work was successful in South Korea, she noted.

Don’t miss the next webinar in the COVID-19 Conversations series on April 9, when public health experts will share on emerging evidence on the disease spread and treatment. Registration is now open.