Is it worth canceling or delaying events to keep coronavirus under control?

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Delayed flights. Photo courtesy of Upside Engineering.

So much info is coming out about the coronavirus -- possible threats and preventative steps -- that it can be tough to know how to go about your daily lives. So we're regularly calling Dr. Michael Wilkes, professor of medicine and public health at UC Davis and host of KCRW’s “Second Opinion,” to discuss new challenges that crop up every day and make sense of them all. 

Over the last few days, companies have been canceling or postponing major events, including the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals in Southern California. 

KCRW’s Cheryl Glaser asks Dr. Wilkes: How important are these postponements and cancelations in trying to keep the coronavirus outbreak under control? 

Dr. Wilkes: “It’s really the best we have. There's lots of reasons to believe that it will be effective. If China has done anything well, it has been this idea of isolation and social distancing. This is the public health community's major weapon. It isn't a home run. But keeping people who are infected away from other people is about the most important thing we can do. 

… There'll be lots of economic consequences, lots of hearts broken, as people have been looking forward to these events. But from a public health perspective, it's a no-brainer." 

KCRW: Are some types of events more challenging than others to put on safely? Right now, it seems like an event like Coachella would be a nightmare to deal with under conditions like this. It's held outside. Typical attendance over two weekends can run around 250,000 people. 

“When you have a thousand people, let alone 250,000 people, sleeping together, sitting together, dancing together, hugging each other, it's a recipe for disaster when there's something like COVID-19 circulating. So it is unfortunate. 

But from a public health perspective, it's exactly the kind of event where you've got people coming from perhaps all over the country and certainly the world. And then the event ends. They've gotten their infection. They go back home to their families, to their jobs, and you've got a recipe for [an] infectious disease disaster.”

What if you have a significant milestone event coming up in the next few weeks that would typically include dozens or a couple hundred people, like a wedding, major anniversary, or bat mitzvah? Should you go attend the event and take precautions like social distancing, or is it wiser to cancel? 

“My heart goes out to people who are in this situation, and there is no easy answer here. Clearly, it raises lots of risks. And I think it's important to recognize that all people are not at equal risk of developing serious consequences from the infection. … Even in medical schools across the country, we have a big event coming up, where physicians find out what residency programs they’re going to go [to]. It's a little bit like a mini graduation, and they're being canceled all around the country as well. 

The question of whether you should go is a personal one. I know families have lots of money invested, lots of down payments. But there are people who are going to be attending those events who have illnesses perhaps, or [are] elderly, or have other risk factors that would be deadly -- should they get this infection. 

So whether you should cancel it or not is one decision. Whether you should go to it or not, it depends on how important it is. Certainly if you go, I'd stay away from the kisses, and the close hugs. And engage in elbow bumps and foot taps and things like that.”

Should people not take public transit or go to the gym -- where they’re sharing the same equipment and touching the same things? Or are there ways to do that safely? 

“I'm not sure that we have all the data. … We don't know how long this particular virus lasts; and [if it] is able to be transmitted on an inanimate object -- a treadmill, a couch, a bench, etc. is still unknown. 

We think it can survive somewhere between sort of four and six hours. We know that it can be eliminated by alcohol wipes that contain more than 60% alcohol. So if you're going to do these things, make sure you're cautious. 

On the other hand, we have to live our lives, and we have to do things that keep us healthy. And so it's a risk-benefit analysis. And certainly if you go to the gym, bring some wipes with you, wash your hands. I think it's particularly difficult to not touch your face when you're sweating ... but do the best you can to use a towel or something, and have that towel washed carefully afterwards.” 




Chery Glaser


Amy Ta, Evan George