But the choice between staying home indefinitely and returning to business as usual now is a false one. Risk is not binary. And an all-or-nothing approach to disease prevention can have unintended consequences. Individuals may fixate on unlikely sources of contagion—the package in the mail, the runner or cyclist on the street—while undervaluing precautions, such as cloth masks, that are imperfect but helpful.
What does harm reduction look like for the coronavirus? First, policy makers and health experts can help the public differentiate between lower-risk and higher-risk activities; these authorities can also offer support for the lower-risk ones when sustained abstinence isn’t an option.
Third, Americans can accept that, despite our best efforts, some people will choose to engage in higher-risk activities—and instead of shaming them, we can provide them with tools to reduce any potential harms. Want to see your grandkids? Still planning to have that party? Meet up outside. Don’t share food or drinks. Wear masks. Keep your hands clean. And stay home if you’re sick.
As long as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is silenced, local and state health departments, epidemiologists, and clinicians may need to lead the way. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and physicians at Harvard Medical School each created guidance on sexual health during the coronavirus pandemic that could provide a road map for a harm-reduction approach to socializing, work environments, schools, and other settings.
(Free the CDC!!!)