Why a top Harvard doctor is calling for a 'national quarantine' to stem the effects of the coronavirus pandemic

Why a top Harvard doctor is calling for a 'national quarantine' to stem the effects of the coronavirus pandemic
social distancing US Washington

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin


Staff of "Food and Friends," a food distribution service for people with life-challenging illnesses, practice social distancing by standing a clear distance apart as they listen to District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser speak about the city's response to the coronavirus, Monday, March 16, 2020, during a news conference in Washington.

  • On Tuesday, Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, called for a two-week "national quarantine" amid the coronavirus pandemic.
  • That would mean closing everything to the public apart from essential services, namely grocery stores and pharmacies, and having people stay at home as much as possible.
  • Ideally, taking the drastic step now could prevent longer-lasting isolation policies and lead to fewer deaths.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, is calling for the US to have a "national quarantine."

"We can either have a national quarantine now, two weeks, get a grip on where things are, and then reassess," Jha said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program. "Or we can not, wait another week, and when things look really terrible, be forced into it."

"That's going to last much longer," he said. "Many more people will die."


The US is confronting a rise in cases related to the coronavirus pandemic, with hospitals already facing shortages of supplies and staff.

By some estimates, millions of Americans sickened by coronavirus might need a stay in the hospital. The projected volume of patients is beyond the scope of what some hospitals and health systems would be able to handle.

The penalty to waiting even another week to make that call could mean a longer time in isolation and more deaths.

The way he sees it, those are the only options.

"Those are really our two choices: Get ahead of it, or wait until we're even further behind," Jha said.


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What a 'national quarantine' might look like

A national quarantine would be similar to the decision Italy and other European countries have made.

Over the past few weeks Italy quickly became one of the epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic. The country has taken drastic steps, such as locking down the country. Essential services have stayed open, like grocery stores and pharmacies, but public gatherings aren't permissible, and restaurants and bars have been shut down.

In the parts of the country hardest hit by the coronavirus, clinicians are facing a shortage of medical supplies and hospital beds. Doctors are being forced to make tough decisions about whom to treat.

Read more: How Italy spiraled from a perfectly healthy country to near collapse in 24 days as the coronavirus took hold


Some places, like Hoboken, New Jersey, are taking it to heart. On Tuesday night, the city's mayor, Ravinder Bhalla, enacted a self-isolation policy that requires people to stay at home except for essential needs, following the lead of cities like San Francisco that have enacted "shelter in place" policies.

"I know this is not easy. But I shudder at the thought of looking back on what we could have done now, knowing that our region could become the next Italy, before it's literally too late," Bhalla wrote in a statement Tuesday.

The tough decisions come as researchers are starting to get a better sense of just how widespread the impact of the coronavirus pandemic could be.

Researchers with the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team modeled a number of different scenarios of how the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic might play out. In the absence of pharmaceutical treatments or a preventive vaccine for the virus, and without any social distancing measures that could slow its spread, they anticipate 81% of the populations in the UK and US will get infected.

Read more: A report that helped convince Trump to take coronavirus seriously projected that 2.2 million people could die in the US if we don't act


As part of it, the group suggested that without action to suppress cases, 2.2 million Americans could die as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, along with half a million people in the UK.

The report comes to the conclusion that we might need interventions, like social distancing and closing schools, to last many more months than initially expected to suppress transmission of the disease, keeping the death rate down.

"It's going to be really hard and economically very tough," Jha said. "But the alternative is economically even more devastating."

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