What Does "Normal" Mean?

The following editorial appeared in the Olean Times Herald on May 16, 2020. It was written by St. Bonaventure University’s Xiaoning Zhang, professor of biology and director of the Biochemistry Program, Pauline Hoffmann, associate professor and former dean of the Jandoli School of Communication, and Mary Rose Kubal, associate professor of political science and acting director of the International Studies Program.


We have been relegated to our homes for over two months. We have followed the CDC-recommended precautions — maintaining a safe social distance of at least 6 feet; wearing masks when in public; limiting travel; repeatedly washing our hands; keeping those most at risk safe.


First, we would like to extend our extreme gratitude to those who have continued to work on the front lines of this pandemic, and to ALL essential workers for putting themselves out there so the community has enough food, shelter and household essentials for staying safe at home in the past two months.


All the changes and sacrifices demonstrated that we can work together and can recognize that it isn’t about us as individuals but about us as a rural community maintaining safety for all.


Now, when New York and Pennsylvania talk about reopening and returning to normal, what does “normal” mean?


Should we immediately run out and gather with the loved ones we haven’t seen in over two months? Stop wearing masks? Hug our neighbors? Gather at local restaurants and bars? This may be even more of a question for those of us living in the Northeast, who, having endured a longer than usual winter and are stir crazy.


The virus causing COVID-19 has not vanished. If we resume our old ways of life, a rapid spread will likely happen again and would send us back to where we were in early March. However, after learning all the lessons from the past two months, we should explore new ways of life and work while giving the virus little chance to propagate among us again. In order to do that, a gradual approach will help us balance our safety with the need to go about our business.


The governors of both New York and Pennsylvania have instituted regional monitoring dashboards that will dictate when and to what degree each state and region can reopen. While it seems unfair to be considered with Erie County and Buffalo, our proximity and overlap in services makes it nearly impossible not to be. A May 1 article in the medical journal The Lancet observed governments need to take a systematic approach, rather than focusing solely on urban areas. Measures such as contact-tracing are crucial to understanding how populations (and the virus) circulate from urban to rural areas especially after restrictions are lifted.


Even though the Upper Allegheny Health System and other area healthcare providers have done an excellent job in keeping staff safe and in providing necessary care, it is important to be sure we have a sufficient number of available hospital beds, ventilators and other essential medical equipment needed to support COVID-19 patients. Should there be a surge in positive cases once reopening begins, it is necessary to ensure we have the well-trained medical personnel, facilities and equipment to handle the cases.


With the virus still among us, we should continue with frequent handwashing, social distancing and wearing face covers in public.


Of course, our natural instinct when reopening occurs is to get in our cars without our face masks and go to every open facility we can — the park, the grocery store, the long-shuttered restaurant, the movie theater, the retail store — but there is still a need to exercise caution.

One of the reasons we are able to consider reopening is because of the drastic steps that have already been taken. Our social distancing and mask wearing have helped to stem the spread of COVID-19. It has not eradicated the virus yet. Absent extensive testing and a vaccine, COVID-19 will be part of our community for months, perhaps years.


To evaluate the reopening plan as it rolls out, it is crucial to know how active the virus currently is in the community and how widely COVID-19 has spread in the community in the past. The viral exposure usually happens when people let their guard down during interactions with others. If exposed, everyone has an equal chance to get infected by the virus.


Dr. Kevin Watkins, public health director for Cattaraugus County, has indicated that the county now has the active virus testing for everyone. This will help quickly identify and isolate newly infected individuals when the virus is still actively transmitting. For others who are not sure if they have been infected in the past, the antibody test will provide an answer once it is available for everyone. This can help our community understand the extent to which it has been exposed to COVID-19 in the past.


Combining both tests, more accurate scientific data can help depict a clearer picture of COVID-19 spread within the community in the past and at present.


Our continued cautious behaviors will dictate whether or not we see a resurgence of this virus or if we can enjoy the rest of this year. Let’s all continue to do our part for the health of our community.

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