This was something we discussed when I recently asked if there was a plan for how we’re supposed to “turn the country back on” as the pandemic fades away. It will almost certainly have to be done in stages rather than just opening the floodgates all at once. But who goes back to work and is allowed to begin socializing again first? One suggestion that seemed to make sense was to cut loose the people who had survived the infection and presumably now have antibodies to protect them from the illness.
This would be a complicated process to be sure, particularly in terms of how to identify these people while respecting medical privacy issues. We would also need a way for them to identify themselves. Aaron Edlin at Stat News proposes a way that such a system could be set up. But even if we manage to do such a thing safely, we will essentially be creating a new privileged class of citizens who will regain all of their basic freedoms in advance of everyone else.
Re-opening a nightclub in New York seems crazy at this point, as that’s just the kind of setting in which Covid-19 can spread like wildfire. But it wouldn’t be crazy if all of the workers and patrons had previously had Covid-19 and recovered from it.
Someday soon there will be millions of people in the U.S. who have recovered from Covid-19. The best evidence suggests that they can’t get infected again soon and won’t infect others by shedding the virus.
That suggests a path to run essential services more safely and to reopen sectors of the economy faster than would otherwise be possible. New York, Washington, California, and other states with high caseloads should rush to set up credible, verifiable, and voluntary programs to identify individuals as “certified recovered” from Covid-19. Researchers in Germany have recently proposed a similar program there.
While challenging, such a system could probably be put in place fairly quickly. Doctors in each state could be given specific criteria for patients to meet, confirming that they did indeed have COVID-19 but have now fully recovered and are presumed to be immune and not contagious. The state could further authorize healthcare providers to identify such patients (if they volunteer to be identified) so some sort of identification card could be sent to them. Alternately, the healthcare providers could print and issue the identification themselves, which would probably be quicker and more economical.
But are we really at the point where we could just start doing that without answering more questions? Of major concern are the multiple reports out of places like South Korea where “recovered” patients have allegedly come down with the disease a second time. That’s not supposed to be possible as I understand it, but there are also questions as to whether or not some of the patients received a false positive or false negative result the first time they were tested.
Instituting such a system would also immediately create a black market for fake “certified recovered” ID cards. I realize that’s a somewhat awful thing to say, but human nature is what it is. There will always be some cretins willing to try to game the system for profit.
Finally, I can’t escape the nagging thought I mentioned at the top of this article. Even if such an ID system worked flawlessly, wouldn’t we be creating a generation of “certified recovered” individuals who are free to go about their daily lives as they wish while everyone else remains in lockdown, unable to earn a living or interact with their friends and families? Perhaps that’s just the price we have to pay to get through a national emergency, but it still smacks of something out of a dystopian science fiction novel.