Wherever residents and politicians may stand in the contentious debate on when to reopen the entire economy, local health officials seem to agree that Bay Area counties have slowed the spread of the coronavirus.
As a result, county leaders have allowed businesses that can offer curbside pickup and outdoor museums to operate again; Mountain View and Palo Alto already reopened tennis courts and a few other outdoor facilities; and Gov. Gavin Newsom recently hinted at a press briefing that some regions can expect to see in-store retail services and hair salons resume in the next few weeks.
But even as residents are gradually allowed to step outside to enjoy the warm weather and shop, Dr. Jonathan Blum, chief of infectious disease at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Medical Center, said in an interview that stopping the spread of COVID-19 is an ongoing mission: The virus continues to linger within the population and the chances of a second wave of the virus are high.
"It's likely there will be additional waves of infection," Blum said. "We don't know exactly when, we don't know exactly where, we don't know how big they will be, but that is going to happen. So the real lesson of this is that we need to continue to do whatever we can to prevent the spread of the virus."
The risks are evidently still present and nonessential travel continues to be discouraged because of it. However, it doesn't mean residents must remain locked in place. Even an infectious disease expert admits that he goes on bike rides, albeit no longer with his cycling club.
"I go out for bike rides by myself," Blum said. "I wear a mask when I'm out and bring my hand degermer. It all really comes down to the basics."
Despite small signs of improving times, Blum said there are several simple but effective do's and don'ts people should continue to practice in order to be mindful of their own and other people's health.
"Once someone is outside their home, they should wear masks anytime they're around other people," the doctor said. "Anybody who's sick, of course, should stay home and not go outside where they might come into contact with others. Anyone who's been in contact with a COVID patient — the same."
Two other tips people should continue to follow include not touching your face in order to avoid spreading germs to the eyes and nose as well as keeping a hand sanitizer, consisting at least 62% of alcohol, close by and using it.
Gloves, on the other hand, are not recommended. Blum said that wearing gloves often provide people "a false sense of reassurance," in which they end up skipping the decontamination step of washing their hands before and after they put on the gloves. It's also very common to contaminate hands while people remove the gloves, he said.
"One other way to think about this is to remember that this virus does not infect the hands," Blum said. "The role of the hands is to spread the virus around to other objects and ultimately to the nose or eyes, which they can infect. So gloves provide no protection from infection, but they actually enhance spreading it by inhibiting hand decontamination."
As county and state officials continue to loosen restrictions on stores and public spaces, Blum said that part of minimizing the further spread of infections will depend upon people using their best judgment.
For example, the 6-feet-distance rule has been the gold standard for social distancing. But a bicycle rider such as Blum may want to consider riding more than 6 feet away from another cyclist if he is downwind of the other person and in the same airstream.
And though county guidelines apply to everyone, Blum explained how not every resident may want to immediately step into public places even if health officials give the green light.
"The reality is that more exposure to other people has higher risks than less exposure to other people," Blum said. "And so if you're a person who's at greater risk for (health) complications, such as an older person, you might choose to be more cautious than the county guidelines recommend."
Some residents are already following suit.
John Reid, 66, has been impacted by the pandemic as an Uber driver and substitute teacher but still believes counties should remain more restricted. Reid said he would be leery of going out to restaurants even as they reopen.
"I may get my haircut, but I don't really need to dine out," he said. "Delivery service is fine."
Even Dena Hill — a Stanford Health Care employee within the finance department who believes "it's time to start thinking about the economy more than the pandemic" and expressed she would "immediately" go back to dine-in restaurants and hair salons — said she would still wear a mask out of consideration for other people.
"I would probably still wear a mask if I couldn't socially distance," Hill said. "Just out of respect to people who might be uncomfortable."
Blum emphasized that a critical "culture shift" needs to be made to continue preventing the spread of COVID-19.
"It's important for people to know that the fact is these masks are effective at reducing the spread of the virus," he said. "When you make a choice about whether you're going to wear a mask, you're not just making a choice for your own health — you're affecting the health of all the others around you."
For those such as Reid who are hoping to rely on a vaccine to truly get back to some semblance of normal times, they may not want to hold their breath.
Blum said he is "cautiously optimistic" that there will one day be a safe and effective vaccine, with promising candidates currently out in the field but all in the very early stages of development.
"In order to be used, a vaccine has to be shown to produce an immune response, has to be safe, has to protect against disease, and then it has to be produced in sufficient quantity to be deployed," he said. "All these things take time, and the candidate vaccines out there are promising, but they have a long way to go. The timelines for when it's going to be widely available is really unclear."
As for whether there's a seasonality to the virus and its prevalence can diminish in warm weather, Blum said it's all still speculative.
In the meantime, as health professionals continue to search for an answer to the ongoing pandemic, Blum said residents should continue to follow the advice of public health officials.
"There are some pretty simple rules that have been put out there by our public health people," he said. "We gotta follow them."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.