Harvard University's Edmond J. Center for Ethics has launched a research initiative to help answer the question looming on most people's minds: when will the coronavirus quarantines end?
Danielle Allen, director of the center, told Cheddar that ending quarantine will require a robust social effort involving potentially thousands of workers and brand new technology solutions.
In the past, best practices for a quarantine order included setting a deadline to protect individual rights and set expectations, but COVID-19 presented too many unknown variables for lawmakers to come out of the gate with a set date for letting people return to normal.
"It was absolutely reasonable in this case that people issued orders with indefinite duration," Allen said. "This disease is so new and has so many distinctive features that it has been very hard for people to completely master its shape, its parameters. We did sort of need that blunt instrument."
But more than a month since the first stay-at-home orders went into effect, there is widespread demand for more information about when to expect state and local quarantine orders to end.
"It's going to take massively scaling up testing, tracing, and supportive isolation," Allen said.
Testing is perhaps the most widely understood post-quarantine measure, but it's also one of the most logistically complicated. Governors are currently making the case that heavy federal support will be necessary to produce the supply of tests needed to cover the entire U.S.
Tracing presents challenges as well, but there are a number of available options to pull it off.
"Contact tracing is one of the oldest and most important tools in the public health toolkit," Allen said.
The old-fashioned way to handle tracing is to do it manually. Individual investigators interview positive cases about where they've been and who they've been in contact with over the last two weeks.
"Can you actually achieve that with people, with person power doing all that contact tracing, or do also you need tech support?" Allen said. "Right now, I think the jury is out."
She pointed to a proposal from Johns Hopkins University recommending that the federal government invest in 100,000 paid or volunteer contact tracers to spread out across the country.
Australia has made tracing the centerpiece of its coronavirus response, hiring thousands to begin the investigative work.
On the technology side, Allen highlighted Bluetooth-based apps that would help you track interactions for rolling two-week periods. That way, if someone comes up positive, the people they contacted could be warned.
Lastly, shifting to supportive isolation would be a step down from current stay-at-home orders.
"[Supportive isolation] is when you're infected and then you stay home, but it means people who aren't infected don't have to stay home," she said.