WRAL Investigates

Veteran of Ebola fight has 9-step plan to halt coronavirus spread in 5 weeks

Posted August 24, 2020 5:40 p.m. EDT
Updated August 24, 2020 7:18 p.m. EDT

— After almost six months since the first coronavirus cases appeared in North Carolina, the virus is still in control, based on the number of new infections statewide, and will be for the weeks and months ahead.

WRAL Investigates spoke to one expert who has a simple message to everyone who's tired of dealing the virus.

"The main thing is, if we do the right thing, it takes weeks," said Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute.

Bar-Yam and his colleagues say a simple nine-step plan can all but eliminate the virus. Several of those steps are already familiar, such as wearing masks in public, keeping a safe distance from others, protecting essential workers, making sure hospitals are prepared, increasing testing and encouraging people to improve their health habits.

History shows the plan can work – Bar-Yam consulted with international health leaders during an Ebola outbreak 15 years ago – but the key to turning the corner on the virus is to turn up the heat.

Bar-Yam said there are three key steps to defeat the coronavirus:

  1. Community involvement to lead the fight.
  2. Lockdown
  3. Enacting travel restrictions beyond state or national limits.

"Taking responsibility of doing that is what matters and not waiting for some government person to give you guidelines that are going to be too weak because they’re trying to satisfy everyone," Bar-Yam said.

The logic is the community members can better hold themselves accountable with the mutual understanding that everyone needs to protect everyone else.

"The lockdown really is staying away from people. It doesn’t mean staying in the house," he said.

So, no more get-togethers with extended family, no more sleepovers with your children’s friends. Isolate yourself from others and venture out only when truly necessary.

"The basic idea is you want to separate areas," he said.

Create community bubbles where the same people visit the same stores. If you live in one county and have to go to work in another county, you can still do that. The key is not going out for lunch or shopping during breaks. Travel to work and back to home. Nothing else.

The goal is to start small and create "green zones" where the virus level is so low, it’s manageable.

"Get to the point where you’ve reduced the fire, and you only have it in a few places, Bar-Yam said. "Then, you pounce on it, and you get rid of it."

Gov. Roy Cooper has repeatedly said the virus knows no boundaries. While that’s true, people can create boundaries and follow them.

"The point is it’s not unreasonable. It really isn’t," Bar-Yam said.

He said 15 counties in North Carolina are already green zones with minimal community spread for 14 days. The two counties doing the worst, according to Bar-Yam’s data, are Cumberland County and Guilford County.

To show that travel restrictions work, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and others have strict rules that call for 14-day quarantines or proof of a negative test for all incomers, and all have low infection curves. In fact, New York now averages about 400 fewer cases a day than North Carolina.

Likewise, countries like New Zealand and Greece and regions of Italy and the Netherlands have followed Bar-Yam's plan and stopped the virus spread.

Although there were recent reports of a new spike of cases in New Zealand, the island nation’s new daily cases range from five to 13 a day, and Bar-Yam said those small fires can quickly be contained and extinguished.

The U.S. could do the same thing starting at a grassroots level, he said, contending that a five-week, full-court press works if everyone follows all of the rules. Quicker test turnaround times is a key component, and fewer cases would lead to faster test results to identify and isolate new cases.

"We’ve been at it, you know, six months? And at any moment in time, if we made the decision to get rid of it, we would be five weeks, we’d be done with it," Bar-Yam said. "The point is, if you put all the pieces together, it now works fast."

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