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COVID Questions: Polite distancing, second wave, should I get a test

June 23, 2020

Editor’s note: We will be publishing answers to questions about COVID-19 and the pandemic each week in this COVID questions column. If you have a question, please email it to covid19update@uc.wisc.edu.

Do you have tips for effective and polite (or at least non-confrontational) ways to ask strangers to move away from you when they’re not wearing a mask? (For example, when getting out of an elevator in an apartment or campus building.)

One of my colleagues suggests leading with empathy. One approach is to say “Hi, I might have been exposed to COVID-19 recently, so for your own health I’d like to ask you to give me a bit more space.” “Might have” is used quite loosely here.

It is also essential to make physical distancing required (by whoever runs that elevator–campus, the apartment building, etc.). Make it a policy that only one person is allowed in the elevator at once. Make it easy by making the stairwells more accessible as an alternative for those who are able. Then when someone is violating the policy, we can refer to that authority rather than making it personal.

— Malia Jones, Assistant Scientist at the Applied Population Laboratory, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

Is there a way to establish mask-wearing, and other prosocial spread-reducing choices, as the norm? What are the main things we must do as an institution, and as individuals? 

The easiest way forward here, as I see it, is again to make it an institutional policy. If we are required to wear them, we will do it and eventually it will become habitual and normative. This is how we produced widespread behavioral change for smoking indoors, seat belts, and many other public health interventions. We must also make it easy by making sure supplies are free and readily accessible to everyone. And finally, the more people who do it, the more normative it becomes by definition! So get going!

— Malia Jones, Assistant Scientist at the Applied Population Laboratory, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

Will Wisconsin see a second wave of infections requiring another round of lockdowns?

Our country was slow to react and never had a national-level lockdown coordinated by the federal government, so states were left to decide for themselves how to respond to COVID-19.

In Wisconsin, the Safer-at-Home order went into effect on March 25, and social mobility data indicated that people began to limit their movements in various parts of the state prior to that. Overall, adherence to Safer-at-Home prevented the healthcare system from being overwhelmed, and, as of June 16, the state is trending downward in many metrics.

Another lockdown may be needed if we start to see signs of a second wave in the fall and winter months when activities move indoors, schools reopen, influenza season begins, and holiday travel picks up. As long as the healthcare system is not threatened, a complete lockdown in Wisconsin may not be needed. Continued aggressive testing, contact tracing, and isolation of confirmed COVID-19 cases will help us stay ahead of community spread.

However, if we are unable to test and isolate quick enough and COVID-19 transmission does outpace our efforts, then restricting gatherings, reminders of mask use and physical distancing, working from home if possible, and self-isolation when having symptoms will be important mitigation strategies to reinforce to prevent us from going back to a Safer-at-Home order.

— Ajay Sethi, associate professor of population health sciences

How do I know if I should get a COVID-19 antibody test, and what do the results mean?

Thoughtful use of these tests can be used for plasma donation, public health research, and vaccine response testing. But we do not have enough evidence yet to know if a positive result means you are immune or protected from getting it again.

If you test negative, you likely have not been exposed to COVID-19 in the past, but that’s not 100% due to variations in testing. If you’re positive, there’s a good chance you were exposed to the virus at some point.

What a positive antibody test can tell you, is that you may be able to donate your plasma to help treat someone suffering from a severe case of COVID-19. Hospitals are looking for people who have had a positive molecular test in the past but are no longer sick. Hospitals will perform their own antibody testing for donors.

Antibody testing can also be used to inform public health decisions and research studies by identifying the proportion of people in a population that have been infected. Surveillance studies like this are being developed right now here at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene.

Finally, when vaccines become available, antibody testing can help to see if you responded to the vaccine.

— Alana Sterkel, assistant director, communicable disease division of the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene