Virus spikes could emerge weeks after US economic reopenings

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People wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus, queue to walk through a disinfecting spray booths aimed to combat the spread of COVID-19, before doing shopping at Alexandra township in Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

BANGKOK – U.S. states are beginning to restart their economies after months of paralyzing coronavirus lockdowns, but it could take weeks until it becomes clear whether those reopenings will cause a spike in COVID-19 cases, experts said Wednesday.

The outbreak’s trajectory varies wildly across the country, with steep increases in cases in some places, decreases in others and infection rates that can shift dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood.

“Part of the challenge is although we are focused on the top-line national numbers in terms of our attention, what we are seeing is 50 different curves and 50 different stories playing out,” said Thomas Tsai, assistant professor at the Harvard Global Health Institute. “And what we have seen about COVID-19 is that the story and the effect is often very local.”

A handful of states started easing their lockdowns about two weeks ago, allowing reopenings by establishments ranging from shopping malls in Texas to beach hotels in South Carolina to gyms in Wyoming. Sparsely populated Wyoming, which has some of the lowest infection numbers in the United States, plans to reopen bars and restaurants Friday. Georgia was one of the first states where some businesses were allowed to open their doors again, starting April 24 with barber shops, hair salons, gyms, bowling alleys and tattoo parlors.

But it may be five to six weeks from then before the effects are known, said Crystal Watson of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“As we saw early in the year, epidemics of COVID-19 start slow and take some time to build and become evident,” Watson said in an email.

The outbreak’s trajectory can vary greatly around the country, according to an Associated Press analysis of confirmed cases. For instance, steep increases in daily new cases are occurring in Hennepin County in Minnesota and Fairfax County in Virginia, while in others, such as Bergen County, New Jersey, and Wayne County, Michigan, there's been a steady decline.

The AP analyzed case counts compiled by Johns Hopkins University, using a rolling seven-day average to account for day-to-day variability in test reporting.