The Denver Regional Transit District (RTD) Board of Directors was told by a national infectious disease expert at its Communications and Government Relations Committee meeting the agency should prepare for up to two years of high impact from COVID-19, relating an acclaimed research paper she co-authored that anticipates a new fall peak of cases and subsequent “waves” in 2021.
There is some consolation for Denver RTD, though, with its primary methods of attacking the spread of COVID-19 closely matching all the recommendations experts would make for the coming battles, said Dr. Kristine Moore, medical director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP).
Moore, lead author of CIDRAP’s “The Future of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons Learned from Pandemic Influenza,” says keys for high-circulation transit agencies like Denver RTD in fighting the virus include daily bus cleaning, distancing among riders and PPE for as many people as possible.
“You want to create the safest environment possible” to minimize risk of contagion, Moore said, but “on the other hand, you probably can’t get that down to zero. So be practical and pragmatic.”
Moore, who has spoken to forums across the country about the conclusions in the paper, was invited to speak by remote link by a friend on the board, Director Lynn Guissinger. Directors and Denver RTD staff are seeking information in a number of venues on how to protect passengers and employees from the virus, how quickly ridership might come back as the economy reopens and how future cases might impact public health, transit use and budgets.
“We are really suggesting this will go on for 18 months to two years,” said Moore, who added that researchers compared the pandemic to decades of previous pandemics to look for similarities and differences. None of the previous pandemics achieved a workable vaccine or “herd immunity” quicker than that, and COVID-19 will likely follow the same pattern, Moore said.
To achieve herd immunity, meaning enough people have already been exposed to the virus and built up resistance that prevents it spreading to others, COVID-19 will have to affect 60 to 70 percent of the population, Moore said. In hard-hit areas like Italy, 15 to 25 percent of the population appears to have acquired the virus so far.
Moore did say that future waves of COVID-19 cases should not produce the kind of devastating systemic emergencies as the U.S. saw in New York City and Italy. Public health experts are watching testing and caseloads extremely closely and will be able to reinstitute distancing and other measures if cases start to rise, she said.
No single countermeasure is perfect, Moore said, although together they can block a number of new cases. Cleaning bus surfaces, limiting passengers and spreading them out, strongly encouraging mask use and liberal use of sanitizer are all important. Transit vehicles should not recirculate cabin air and should introduce fresh outside air as much as possible. Hand sanitizer stations on each vehicle would be great, Moore said, but Denver RTD officials so far have said prices for the dispensers and liquid have been prohibitive.
Promising vaccine formulas are in testing, Moore said, but she does not expect a usable product in 2020.
“I think that’s very, very optimistic and somewhat unlikely,” Moore said. Even a vaccine for 2021 would need all steps to go nearly perfectly.
Moore concluded, “A slow burn of transmission over the next year or two is most likely.”