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Are We Finally Turning the Corner?

There’s some good news on the coronavirus front. We’re not out of the woods, but maybe we’re no longer headed deeper in.

The CDC’s director says we’re “nearing the peak.” Daily death counts, after climbing for some time, seem to have leveled off at around 2,000, though these data are often revised as more deaths are reported. The much-watched University of Washington model says we’re a few days past the peaks of deaths and hospital usage. Estimates of the virus’s “reproductive number” in the U.S. (from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) are headed toward one, the magical threshold beneath which the problem starts to decline rather than spreading further.

Nothing much can change immediately, because holding steady isn’t great: It’s a sign that the severe measures we’ve put into effect are controlling the virus, not beating it. In the coming week or two, though, we’ll hopefully see deaths decline and the reproductive number go below one. And that means it’s time to start thinking of the next steps.

That situation will put us at a crossroads. There’s a lot of uncertainty about how many COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic and never detected, but with only 550,000 or so known cases in a population of 330 million, we can be pretty confident that a very low percentage of the country has survived the virus and gained some immunity. This means that if we simply go back to life as it was before, the virus will start spreading again.

But at the same time, the calculus changes. The longer we try to force the country to stay cooped up, the more damage we do to the economy, the more resistance the lockdowns will provoke, and the worse the cost-benefit calculations will start to look. And subsequent waves of the epidemic might be weaker than the first one, both because some share of the population will probably be immune and because immunity will be concentrated among the people with the most social contacts.

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