What If We Tried a Real Quarantine?

With more and more states coming out of lockdown, the “end game” for COVID seems to be in sight. The worst wave of death is (maybe) over. Surely life can go back to normal?

Unfortunately, this hope is likely to be in vain. To the extent that the threat of COVID is receding around the world, it is because of a massive (and mostly voluntary) campaign of social distancing, in many places helped along by the arrival of warmer weather. When social life returns to normal, or when the weather begins to cool in the fall, it’s quite likely that COVID will come roaring back. Thus far, no highly effective treatment options have been found, and a safe vaccine remains a long way off. It is likely, then, that the fall of 2020 will see another outbreak. Many states and school systems are already planning how to manage frequent, episodic closures, on the assumption that further outbreaks will occur.

Unfortunately, most Western governments have left their most powerful tool on the shelf. Every country that has beaten COVID has done it the same way: with centralized quarantine. If we want to avoid a second round of lockdowns, panic, and disruption to life, there is only one path forward: to adopt a functional system of centralized quarantine, as humans before us have done for millennia.

Before we get into what centralized quarantine might look like today, it’s worth walking through the history of this strategy. In Leviticus 13 and 14, Moses gave the people of Israel instructions on how to deal with outbreaks of infectious diseases (in this case, a skin condition; widely translated as leprosy, it is actually very unlikely that the disease described was true “leprosy.”). The instructions are a Bronze Age version of “test and quarantine.” Detailed diagnostic criteria are listed for experts to use to provide a diagnosis. Any cases that meet a very low standard for a “possible positive” were then isolated from the rest of the community in a secure location until they completed a certain window of time without symptoms.

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