Coronavirus Slowdown in Washington Suggests Social Distancing Is Working
Washington State has seen a slowdown in the infection rate of the novel coronavirus, for now, suggesting that early containment strategies have been effective, according to the Seattle NBC News affiliate.
While Seattle was the early epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., the number of deaths and positive cases there has started to slow down. The number of positive COVID-19 cases continued to rise — however, slower than in other states — as there 568 new cases on Sunday, bringing the state's total to 4,896, with a death toll of 195, up six from Saturday, according to The Seattle Times.
While 37 of the first 50 coronavirus deaths happened in Seattle, the state has kept its streets empty, its businesses shuttered, and its hospitals from being overwhelmed. Statistical models have shown state officials that the virus is decreasing its spread recently. The model showed that each infected person was spreading the virus to an average of 2.7 other people earlier in March, but that number appears to have declined down 1.4, according to one projection, as The New York Times reported.
"It's a small reduction in the rate of increase, but a glimmer of hope," Gov. Jay Insee said, as the Seattle NBC News affiliate reported. "[I]f you look at the line you have some slight reduction in the rate of acceleration, the curve. And we've all heard about turning down the curve."
The new data and new projections were put together by the Institute for Disease Modeling, a private research group in Bellevue, Wash., that has been watching a variety of data points since the onset of the outbreak. While the initial projections are positive, officials exercised an abundance of caution before expressing optimism, since the data is slightly uncertain, according to The New York Times. Expansive social distancing will continue for some time.
Officials in Washington State first began to ask residents to keep their distance from one another at the end of February. That is when they learned several people had the virus in the Seattle area with no known exposure or history of foreign travel. That was followed by an outbreak at a suburban nursing home, which led to dozens of deaths, according to The New York Times.
"We made a huge impact — we slowed the transmission," Seattle's mayor, Jenny Durkan, said in an interview, as The New York Times reported. However, she was clear that lifting restrictions would cause the number of cases to rise quickly. She predicted that social distancing in one form or another will continue for several months.
"There is evidence that doing the aggressive measures can have a benefit," Inslee said in an interview, as The New York Times reported.
Inslee has heard from some residents that the actions taken to reduce the spread of coronavirus, including the stay-at-home order, are overly restrictive, damaging to the economy and not necessary.
"We are only in the first two weeks and people need to understand that order may need to be extended," he said, as the Seattle NBC News affiliate reported. "We cannot allow this virus to be slowed, then spring back upon us. We've got to pound it and pound it 'till it's done."
The governor added that the way for the economy to recover— including reopening the bars, restaurants, hair salons, construction sites and other day-to-day business — is to get rid of the virus.
"There's no way we can have an economy and have it ravaging us for years," according to the Seattle NBC News affiliate.
"It would be grossly irresponsible to stop these measures now," Mr. Inslee said as The New York Times reported.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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