ST. PAUL — Life is different now, eh?

Feels like it happened fast. The new coronavirus was on the other side of the world, and suddenly our governor and president have declared states of emergency, and health leaders are telling us to change … feels like almost everything.

It’s jarring.

But — and this is important — doctors, public health experts and political leaders generally agree on two points:

  1. This is necessary.
  2. This is temporary.
WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

It’s actually all part of a plan, versions of which have been around for decades.

Pandemic experts call the stage we’re in “community mitigation.”

We all have questions. Here are some answers to what we can expect as this continues.

Slow the spread

Here’s why all this is necessary: Almost everyone is vulnerable to COVID-19 because it’s new, so we have essentially no individual immunity to it, and no herd immunity as a society. And it spreads easily from people to people.

It makes a fair amount of people sick enough to require hospitalization, and probably kills somewhere between 1 percent and nearly 6 percent, although because it’s so new, scientists really aren’t sure about the fatality rate. Don’t get hung up on it.

The real problem is that if everyone gets sick at once — which could happen if we did absolutely nothing — we would overwhelm our hospitals. Then, people who don’t need to die would die from lack of medical treatment. Some of this happened in China, and it’s happening right now in Italy.

But if we slow the spread, fewer people will be sick at once, and hospitals can deal with it. So the paradox is that it’s actually better for this to last longer.

Health professionals call this “flattening the curve.” You’ll be hearing that phrase a lot in the coming weeks.

It’s a reference to a bell curve which essentially means the slower the virus spreads, the easier it will be for the health care system to care for the critically ill.

Community mitigation

Without any vaccine or immunity, the most effective way to flatten the curve is community mitigation, which includes all these new rules and recommendations.

They have one specific goal: Reduce the number of people who can spread the virus. It doesn’t matter whether you’ll get mildly ill or critically ill; don’t be a vector.

That means distancing yourself from others, wiping down surfaces and washing your hands, even if you’re healthy or aren’t worried about contracting it yourself. It deprives the virus of a chance to spread.

It’s a way to wage war on the virus, one citizen non-vector at a time.

“This is not a suggestion to wash your hands,” Gov. Tim Walz said Friday. “Wash your hands so you don’t kill your neighbor.”

Temporary, but not short

At some point, SARS-CoV-2 — that’s the virus strain that causes the disease known as COVID-19 — will become something like the flu: a no-joke-but-not-terrifying bug that folks sometimes get, depending on how effective a vaccine is. But that probably won’t be for more than a year.

All this activity — the cancellations of events, the elbow bumps, the social distancing — could easily last for more than a month. Very possibly several months. No one is sure, and experts are wary of predictions.

Here’s a reference point: China first identified the disease in mid-December. Caught off-guard at first, it eventually took extraordinary measures to flatten the curve, and in just the past few days has begun to emerge to something close to normalcy.

Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease for the Minnesota Department of Health, wants everyone to sober expectations.

“This could go on for months and months,” Ehresmann warned recently.

Fall spike

Pandemics tend to follow patterns, and Minnesota officials on Friday noted that they expect an increase, and then probably a decrease, and then a rise again, perhaps in the fall.

Walz on Friday noted that this hasn’t received much attention to this point but is important to be prepared for.

“There will be a spike and a lull, and then a fall spike,” he said, summarizing what he said advisers have told him. “There will be lessons learned by then, but we will not yet be to a vaccine.”

Social distancing

Expect a lot of talk of social distancing. We might have months to practice it. Here are some basics.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid being closer than 6 feet to someone whose health is unknown for 10 minutes. This threshold is found throughout numerous medical advisories across the globe right now.

Being closer than 6 feet for longer than 10 minutes seems to increase the risk of transmitting the virus between people. In fact, it’s one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definitions of “exposure” to a COVID-19-positive person. (There are other ways, such as a brief encounter where the sick person coughs in your face.)

This obviously includes concerts and sporting events, as well as church, music recitals and some workplace meetings and school lectures. Many such events have been canceled, and on Friday, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm “strongly” recommended against them.

There will also be times where it’s not practical, like school lunchtime, or necessary use of public transportation. That’s OK, experts say. Your personal space needn’t be thought of as a shall-not-pass barrier. The goal is to cumulatively reduce the frequency of such interactions.

People with higher risks, such as the elderly or people with weakened immune systems, should “stay home as much as possible,” according to Minnesota Department of Public Health recommendations issued Friday.

Hello, telecommuting

Working from home is now recommended by the State of Minnesota “when feasible,” according to guidances issued Friday.

So telecommuting is about to be trending for white-collar workers.

When not telecommuting, that 6-foot separation is encouraged at work. Workspaces might have to be rearranged, or shifts might have to be staggered.

Hello, telemedicine

If you’re sick, go home. Not to the doctor’s office or a hospital. (If it’s an emergency, call 911.)

Instead of an unscheduled drive to the clinic, call your doctor or go online to your health provider to do an online screening. Expect online screenings — questionnaires you complete from your phone or desktop computer — to become widely pushed by hospitals.

“We’re reducing the number of folks who go into hospitals,” says Dr. Tim Sielaff, chief medical officer of Allina Health. That includes visitors, non-medical staff and even patients who ultimately might need some medical attention.

Sielaff said improvements in telemedicine might meet their proving ground in the coming months. “In the last few years, we’ve added so many other ways of getting connected to your providers,” he said, speaking of Allina as well as other health systems. “There are now ways we can help triage whether you really do need to go into the clinic. There will be an evolution in the way patients connect with the health care system.”

Several websites, including Allina’s, have online questionnaires specifically for COVID-19 screening.

More testing

Here’s something else to expect in the coming weeks: stories of sick people who sound like they should be tested for the coronavirus, and want to be tested, but can’t get tested.

There aren’t enough tests right now, and public health departments are essentially rationing them to ensure only the most likely or high-risk people get tested.

There is near-universal agreement that this is a problem; on Friday, Walz sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, saying the state has been “forced to ration the number of tests performed.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health, told Congress on Thursday that the limits on the number of tests available are “a failing” of the current system.

Expect all this to change. In his Friday letter, Walz asked Pence for the supplies to be able to test 15,000 people per month. Those numbers would likely lead to an increase in “drive-thru testing” sites, where people stay in their cars to provide samples to medical personnel.

Sielaff said hospitals are eager to be able not only to tell anxious patients they will be tested and to isolate and treat those who need it, but also for the data more testing will provide.

“If we can get more testing in a short period of time, then we can really understand the scope of it in the community,” he said. “I think we will get there in a fairly short period of time. The news on that is making me optimistic.”

Christopher Magan contributed to this report.

As a public service, we've opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.