Welcome to the next phase of COVID. The rules just changed, so pay attention.

While we were all (rightly) focused on Geroge Floyd, police violence, and structural racism, something important quietly happened on the COVID front in Washington: we moved out of Phase 1, the shutdown. In our new reality some of the rules are the same, but many of them have changed. For the most part, the government seems ready to do its part; but the rest of us aren’t yet.  It’s time to get our act together.

In Phase 1, we stopped the spread of COVID by all staying home and shutting down businesses. We learned to obsessively wash our hands, cough into our elbow, not to touch our face, to stand six feet apart, to wear masks in public, and to get take-out and delivery. COVID tests were hard to come by, so mostly we learned not to ask for one unless we were really sick. We hoarded hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and flour, and we binge-watched Netflix until there was no more Netflix to watch.

Now there is new guidance; here is the set of rules for King County. Businesses are going to start opening up again, though at low density. You can sit and eat at a restaurant, carefully, in small groups, at well-separated tables. Some of the rules are still the same: wash your hands, social distance, wear a mask.  But things are also very different.

The end-goal of Phase 1 was to knock the number of active cases down to a low, manageable level. The goal of this new phase is to keep it there, even though we’re going out in public again and interacting with other people (albeit in limited ways). And we do that through two methods:

1. Take reasonable precautions not to infect other people, or to get infected.

2. Rapid testing, contact tracing, and quarantining when necessary.

#1 we’re familiar with: again, wash your hands, wear a mask, social distance. #2 is new for us — though it is what South Korea has been doing since the early days of the pandemic, and it has worked very well for them. It’s also what Wuhan province, the original epicenter of the virus, switched to after it got its initial outbreak under control, and it worked well there too.

Here is how it works:

  • If you are experiencing COVID-like symptoms, get yourself tested right away, and then self-quarantine at home until you get the results back. If you test negative, relax. If you test positive, contact your health provider and follow their guidance. You will probably need to quarantine for up to two weeks. In the meantime, contact anyone that you have recently been in close contact with for more than 15 minutes, let them know that you’ve tested positive, and urge them to get tested.
  • If you find out that someone that you have been in close contact with for more than 15 minutes has tested positive, then immediately get tested and self-quarantine at home until you get the results back.  If it’s negative, relax. If it’s positive, contact your health provider, and your close contacts.

These rules are ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL, because they help us to identify the people who are currently contagious and get them out of circulation before they infect other people.  They are the practices that let us have nice things (like open restaurants, public transit, and a quasi-functional economy) without COVID running rampant in our community and killing our loved ones. If we don’t do these things, or we don’t do them well, by the end of the summer we’re going to be back in shutdown.

The state, county, and city have been preparing for this moment. They now have testing capacity — both collection and analysis — and can turn around results in less than 24 hours (often much faster). The City of Seattle just opened up two new free drive-through testing locations, and King County is opening up more. They have an army of contact-tracers who can work with you to figure out who you’ve been in close contact with and to help communicate to those individuals that they may have been exposed and need to get tested.  Today the city changed its rules so that if you were out protesting this past week you can get tested for free, even if you’re not currently experiencing COVID-like symptoms.

Now we have to do our part. We need to re-learn how we think about testing. It’s no longer scarce and to be avoided unless absolutely necessary; it’s now the first thing we do, as soon as possible, if we suspect that we may have COVID or were exposed to someone who has it. We also need to learn to accept the reality of the 24-hour self-quarantine while we wait for test results to come back. It’s going to happen a lot, and we’re just going to have to deal with it. We have to to err on the side of over-testing and over-quarantining if there is a chance we might have the virus. It’s going to suck sometimes, but hey, it’s better than everyone sheltering in place for two whole months while the economy goes to shit and unemployment skyrockets.

It will be very, very important for getting tested and self-quarantining to become socially acceptable. Even better, we ideally want to put social pressure on people to do it if the circumstances require it, and reward people for doing it. Maybe when you go in to get tested, you get a “24-hour quarantine gift bag” to take home with you to make the next day of your life a little more bearable. Whatever it takes to get people to do the right thing, we need to do, because this is our new normal and as much as it will suck at times, it’s so much better than our old normal.

Make sure everyone you know understands these new rules, and let’s all do our best to follow them.

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  1. I’ve moved out of King County, Seattle, and won’t return. And I’ve lived in Seattle 63 years until now. You’ve just hosted super-spreader events. It’s me you’ve put at risk, shame on you. Seattle’s never leaving phase 1.

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