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Magma News | April 22, 2020 It’s Earth Day and now more than ever we need to make sure we don’t loose sight of the task at hand, preserving the planet. Stay Safe, Stay Curious and most of all Stay Active.
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Apr 23, 2020
03:39 AM
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE

I EARTH DAY 2020 I

Why we’ll succeed in saving the planet from climate change.

Life will be different—and warmer—in 2070. But we will find ways to limit carbon emissions, embrace nature, and thrive.

BY EMMA MARRIS| National Geographic

My mother’s brown hair is long and parted in the center. She is sewing a eucalyptus seedpod to a dress made of pale green drapery fabric, laughing with her friends. She is 19 years old.

It is February 1970, a few months before the first Earth Day, and students at San Jose State College in California are throwing a “Survival Faire,” during which they plan to bury a brand-new yellow Ford Maverick. The Maverick and all combustion engines are to be declared dead because they belch pollutants that have helped create vile, ground-hugging smog in San Jose and cities around the world. The Maverick, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery wrote, “was pushed through downtown San Jose in a parade led by three ministers, the college band and a group of comely coeds wearing green shroudlike gowns.”

My mother remembers those gowns well, 50 years later. The students that day were worried about dirty water and overpopulation as well as dirty air, but my mother was optimistic. “I assumed that human beings would step up when we had to,” she says. And to an extent we did: Cars in the United States are 99 percent cleaner than they were back then, thanks to pollution laws.

I didn’t inherit my mother’s brown hair or her sewing ability. At 41, I still take my clothes to her for repair. But I got her optimism—and these days we have new things to step up about.

After 15 years of reporting on the environment for scientific and popular publications and for a book on the future of conservation, I am still frequently overwhelmed by the web of problems that face us: climate change, dwindling populations of wild plants and animals, widespread environmental injustice. They’re all harder to fix than smog. But in the midst of a swirling sea of sorrow, anxiety, fury, and love for the beautiful weirdness of life on Earth, I find an iron determination to never, ever, give up.

What gives me hope? We already have the knowledge and technology we need to feed a larger population, provide energy for all, begin to reverse climate change, and prevent most extinctions. The public desire for action is bursting forth on the streets. Last September some six million people worldwide went on “climate strike.” Just as in 1970, the electric crackle of cultural change is once again in the air. I believe we will build a good 2070.

It will not look like 2020 or 1970. We cannot undo what we’ve done; we cannot go back in time. Change—ecological, economic, social—is inevitable. Some of it will be tragic. We will lose things we love—species, places, relationships with the nonhuman world that have endured for millennia. Some change will be hard to predict. Ecosystems will reshuffle, species will evolve.

We will change too. Many of us will learn to see ourselves differently, as one species among many—a part of nature, not in opposition to it. I predict that we will look back at the late 20th and early 21st centuries as a painful, turbulent transition, during which humanity learned to thrive in positive ecological relationships with one another and with the species around us.

Our biggest shared challenge is climate change. If it seems overwhelming, it’s in part because we, as individuals, can’t stop it. Even if we’re perfect green consumers—refusing to fly, reusing shopping bags, going vegan—we’re trapped in a system that makes it impossible to stop adding to the problem. Living requires eating, getting to work, and staying warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer to work and sleep. For now, it’s impossible to do these things in most places without emitting carbon.

But change can happen faster than many people appreciate. Cars replaced horses within 15 years in many places. For thousands of years we got along without plastic, and then in a few decades it was everywhere. Throughout history, we’ve been both ingenious inventors and quick to adopt new technologies. With popular will and the right policies, we’ll have no problem creating new energy and transportation infrastructures, goods made without toxins or carbon emissions, biodegradable plastic substitutes.

In southern France, 35 countries are building ITER, a thermonuclear experimental reactor, in an effort to harness nuclear fusion.
In southern France, 35 countries are building ITER, a thermonuclear experimental reactor, in an effort to harness nuclear fusion.
A diver off Noli, Italy, harvests tomatoes from Nemo’s Garden, an experimental underwater farm where plants grow without soil or pesticides.
A diver off Noli, Italy, harvests tomatoes from Nemo’s Garden, an experimental underwater farm where plants grow without soil or pesticides.
Decades of pollution control have made the water so clean in Denmark that people now swim in seawater pools.
Decades of pollution control have made the water so clean in Denmark that people now swim in seawater pools.
Preserving rainforests like this one in Indonesia is crucial for the well being of the planet.
Preserving rainforests like this one in Indonesia is crucial for the well being of the planet.
The flightless kiwi, indigenous to the island country of New Zealand, suffers from increasing drought and predation by stoats and dogs.
The flightless kiwi, indigenous to the island country of New Zealand, suffers from increasing drought and predation by stoats and dogs.

As individuals it’s much more effective to spend our energy demanding those policies, which will make going green the cheaper, easier path, than it is to buy the expensive, niche-market green options available today. Increasingly I am seeing people realize this, and that too gives me hope. We cannot solve the climate crisis by being “good” consumers. But we absolutely can make things much better by being good citizens.

A quarter of emissions come from electricity and heat generation. Happily, with the political will, these are also the easiest emissions to eliminate. “We could easily cut it in half in 10 years,” says Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, which does cost-benefit analyses of climate change solutions. Wind and solar power are mature enough to deploy on a massive scale, and batteries to store the power—both centrally and house-to-house—are getting better and cheaper. Meanwhile, coal companies are going bankrupt.

Agriculture, forestry, and land use are trickier. They produce another quarter of our emissions—mostly nitrous oxide rising from manure or synthetic fertilizer, methane belched by livestock, and CO2 from burning fuel and fields. By 2070 there may be more than 10 billion of us to feed. How do we shrink the land and climate footprints of farming and still produce enough calories to go around?

One solution is to stop subsidizing meat production and to encourage society-wide shifts to more plant foods. Beef in particular takes the most land and water; to grow a pound of it, you have to feed the animal about six pounds of plants. Luckily there’s hope, in the form of tasty new meat alternatives such as the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat. I don’t imagine everyone will be vegan in 2070. But most people will simply eat far less meat than they do today—and probably won’t miss it.

What about farms themselves? Environmentalists tend to fall into two camps. One camp says farming must intensify, using robots and GMOs and big data, so as to produce an astronomical amount of food on a tiny footprint. The other camp says farms must become more “natural,” mixing crops and reducing toxic chemicals while leaving the borders of fields as wildlife habitat. After years of reporting on this, I wonder: Why can’t we do both? We can have some urban “vertical farms” in skyscrapers running on renewable energy. We can also have large outdoor farms that are high yield and high-tech, friendly to wildlife and actively storing carbon in their soils. (Read how one tiny country feeds the world.)

The rest of our carbon emissions come from industry, transportation, and buildings. These are the ones that keep Foley up at night. How will we retrofit billions of buildings, replacing gas and oil furnaces? How will we wrestle some 1.5 billion gas-guzzlers off the roads? We can’t count on hippie undergraduates to bury them all.

The only real option is for governments to drive the change with tax incentives and regulations. In Norway half of new cars registered are now electric, in large part because the government exempts them from sales tax, making them as cheap as gas-powered cars—the sale of which will be banned by 2025. In New York City the city council last spring adopted a law that will require large- and medium-size buildings to cut their carbon emissions by more than a quarter by 2030. Converting an entire country like the U.S. to efficient buildings, easy mass transit, and electric cars won’t be cheap—but let’s keep the expense in perspective. “The money we are talking about is not more than what we bailed out the banks with,” Foley says, referring to the federal response to the 2008 financial crisis.

We know how to do this: That’s the basic message of Project Drawdown. One of the most cost-effective solutions to climate change, Foley and his team say, is ensuring that girls and women have access to education and birth control. Women in Kenya, for example, went from having 8.1 children on average in the 1970s to just 3.7 children in 2015. When that decline was briefly interrupted in the 2000s, it was linked to an interruption of girls’ access to education. Empowering women will help stabilize the global population—and limit demand for food and energy. (See the best and worst countries to be a woman.)

To tackle climate change, even as we turn global emissions down to near zero, we still will need to invest in methods to remove some greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. Technologies to do this are promising but mostly in their infancy—except for trees, which in the short term at least are good at soaking up carbon. Trees have another advantage: They create forests, where lichen hangs and lizards doze, and monkeys holler back and forth while they gorge on wild figs. I’ve spent time in forests like that, and the dry word “biodiversity” can never convey their worth.

You may have heard that we are in the sixth mass extinction. This assertion is based on the elevated rate of extinction, not the total losses so far. Fewer than 900 documented extinctions have happened since the 1500s, which is absolutely too many, and likely a substantial undercount. But given that scientists have assessed more than 100,000 species so far, it is hardly yet a “mass” extinction, which paleontologists define as a period in which at least three-quarters of all species go extinct. If we keep these rates up for a few million years—or massively increase them by crossing some threshold of climate or habitat destruction—then we could find ourselves in a mass extinction. But we are not there yet, and if we don’t paralyze ourselves with despair, we can still change course.

New research suggests most species can be saved and wildlife restored to higher abundances with a combination of more parks and protected areas, restoration of some ecosystems, and a reduction in farmland. Agriculture currently uses a third of the Earth’s land. But if we cut meat eating and food waste in half, increase crop yields, and trade food more efficiently, the researchers estimate, we could grow all the food we need on less land. That would create more space for other species.

Naturalist E.O. Wilson and others have called for a “half Earth” approach, in which half the planet is reserved as wilderness where human activity is carefully limited. Big parks are wonderful, and necessary for some species, but the effort risks displacing a lot of people. “For sure, they are necessary, and we probably need 20 percent or more,” says Georgina Mace, a biodiversity expert at University College London (UCL). “We also have to have people living with and alongside and amongst wildlife.” In her vision of the future, people and other species share space nearly everywhere. “I’m a whole-Earth person, not a half-Earth person,” Mace says.

I believe such hybrid thinking will be the norm in 2070. Borders will be softer, backyards messier. Wilderness corridors will thread through farmlands and cities; floodplains will store carbon, produce food, and control floods. Kids will climb trees in schoolyard orchards to pick fruit.

Wild places will still exist, and people will still fall in love with them. But they might look very different than they do today. As species move in response to climate change, trying to prevent ecosystems from changing will become impossible and, in some places, counterproductive. Instead we’ll focus on making sure the planet retains most species with robust populations. The purist idea that all species can be sorted into “native” or “invasive” will be retired. It never made much sense anyway. Ecosystems are always in flux, and most have been influenced by humans for thousands of years.

Management won’t be hands-off everywhere. In New Zealand and on other islands where non-native species are the main threat to beloved natives, we may use humane traps or genetic engineering to remove the newcomers. In other places, threatened species will need help adapting, maybe even a ride to new habitats that aren’t too hot. Intensive management will be required for many species in the short term.

By 2070 huge swaths of the Earth will be managed by indigenous nations, as their sovereignty is finally taken seriously. That will benefit wildlife, since indigenous-run lands turn out to have more species on average than national parks. In some cases traditional methods honed over millennia may be revived—the ones that created the beautiful, thriving landscapes that colonizers encountered when they first invaded, and mistook for “wild” nature.

For many years I focused on the science of extinctions and climate change, and I looked for technological and policy solutions like solar panels or more parks. Meanwhile, in my private life, I fought for justice for the poor and the oppressed. It took me way too long to connect those battles—to realize that forces such as colonialism and racism are part of the climate crisis and need to be addressed as part of the solution.

Those who benefit the most from fossil fuels aren’t usually the people who suffer the most from their use. Power plants and their toxic fumes, for example, are disproportionately found in poor, nonwhite neighborhoods. The disconnect crosses borders: One analysis has suggested that the gap in per capita GDP between the poorest and richest countries is already 25 percent wider than it would be without climate change, largely because temperature increases in tropical countries reduce agricultural productivity. Larger storms, droughts, and floods are already hurting the world’s poorest.

The 2015 Paris Agreement included a mechanism for richer countries to help poorer ones, to begin to make things right. The funding so far is inadequate, but it can be expected to grow, especially once the U.S. government accepts the global scientific consensus and rejoins the agreement. Some funds could be used to build climate research centers in hard-hit regions—“a kind of epistemic reparations,” according to Olúfémi Táíwò, a philosopher at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He points out that centuries of colonization concentrated not only wealth but also the best universities in rich nations, creating a brain drain out of poorer ones.

Real climate justice would make Earth more resilient even as it helped humanity heal from historic trauma and pain. In a sense, climate change is an opportunity for us to step up—to grow up—as a species.

There is a new needlewoman in my family. My daughter, now 10, loves to sew. I like to imagine the life she’ll lead when she is 60.

The first thing she notices as she wakes up in her city apartment in 2070 is the birdsong: a raucous dawn chorus, a multispecies symphonic alarm clock. It’s easy to hear because there’s no traffic noise. She flips on her light, powered by solar shingles that cover nearly every roof in the city. Her building is itself built of “drawdown blocks” made from carbon captured from the atmosphere.

She gets up, has some coffee. She doesn’t have to hunt for “fair trade” or “bird friendly” coffee because everything on the grocery shelf qualifies. She hops on a zero-emissions train that automatically pauses for two minutes because cameras down the line detect a family of foxes approaching the tracks. The sky is bright blue, undimmed by smog, albeit a little hotter than in 1970. In the distance she can see elegant windmills spinning.

When she reaches her stop, she steps out into a huge cloud of migrating monarch butterflies, en route to milkweed patches growing in a nearby park. People on the platform pause and let the butterflies wash over them.

She gets a message: She’s invited to a party to celebrate the 100th Earth Day—a party, not a protest. There are no reluctant politicians left to convince. There are no gasoline cars left to bury. There will be a band and dancing, six kinds of meatless tacos and ‘ehpaa—prickly pear cactus—imported from the Kumeyaay Nation, near San Diego.

As she walks down the street, she stops and picks a half dozen eucalyptus seedpods off the ground, remembering vaguely that there was some talk in the early 21st century about cutting them all down because they weren’t native to the Americas. Holding them in her hand, she decides to sew them around the collar of her green dress to wear at the party.

She gets another message: It’s me! I am 91 years old. I want to come to the party too.

Koalas injured in Australia bushfires re-released into wild.

In a spot of good news, several koalas who were injured in bushfires in Australia in 2019 have been re-released into the wild.

Lilit Marcus | CNN

The marsupials were being treated at the world's only all-koala hospital, located in the New South Wales town of Port Macquarie.

One of the most famous of the group is Anwen, a female whose photos went viral due to the severe nature of her burns -- they covered 90% of her body.

She was the third patient admitted to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in October 2019.

Now, though, she is joining several other koalas who have been resettled at the Lake Innes Nature Reserve in New South Wales, which is on the state's Tasman Sea coast some 235 km (146 miles) north of Newcastle.

Anwen is one of 26 koalas to be returned to their habitat over the course of a week. Hospital employees carefully considered a mix of koala ages and sexes in order to make for a well-rounded community -- especially since they hope the animals will breed and grow their population in the wild.

But it wasn't only the koalas who had to rest up and heal. Though the Lake Innes area was badly damaged in the fires, higher-than-expected amounts of rainfall made it possible to release the animals sooner than planned.

Anwen the koala climbs a eucalyptus tree.
Anwen the koala climbs a eucalyptus tree.

"While we are all facing difficult and uncertain times, this incredible story of hope serves as a reminder of the resilience of our incredible flora and fauna and people," Phillipa Harrison, Managing Director of Tourism Australia, said in a statement.

And for a country battered first by natural disasters and then by the effects of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, Australia is happy to have some positive news to share.

Tourists aren't heading to Australia at present, but there are still ways to support the koalas from home, namely the hospital's adopt-a-koala online program.

Tourism Australia has also set up an online portal stocked with virtual tours, custom Zoom backgrounds and a vacation planner.

Poaching threats loom as wildlife safaris put on hold due to COVID-19

Official lockdowns and the loss of tourism revenue create new challenges for protecting the continent’s wildlife.

BY DINA FINE MARON | National Geographic

PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE
PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE

Peter Meshemi says he’s frightened. For the past 12 years he’s worked as an armed ranger in northern Kenya, spending weeks at a time patrolling scrubby grasslands in search of poachers. Now, even as he’s constantly on high alert to protect vulnerable elephants, lions, and leopards that are targeted illegally by hunters at Loisaba Conservancy, he and his 70 fellow rangers have an added worry: protecting themselves against coronavirus.

Loisaba, which sprawls over 57,000 acres, is one of more than 100 conservancies in Kenya—wildlife areas legally set aside for land preservation and managed by individuals or groups. “As a ranger you are trained to work in any situation that may arise,” Meshemi says. Yet he was not expecting to face a microscopic foe that has killed more than 79,000 people around the world and now risks—by shutting down travel and tourism—the very creatures he risks his life to protect.

“We are scared of it,” he says. “The whole world is scared.”

On April 8, Kenya reported a cumulative total of 172 cases of COVID-19 and 30 deaths. Two days earlier, the government had instituted a lockdown policy that bars most travel in and out of Nairobi County, where the majority of known cases have occurred. So far, people in the remote Loisaba area have avoided the worst in terms of human casualties. The conservancy, however, has depended heavily on money from wildlife safari tourism, a cornerstone of Kenya’s economy. In normal times travel and tourism provide more than a million jobs nationwide, but now that industry is at a standstill. Meshemi and many conservationists worry that one consequence will be increased wildlife poaching—either to provide food for hungry families or for illegal sales—putting him and his fellow rangers in even greater danger.

Loisaba’s CEO, Tom Silvester, says the conservancy has lost nearly half its operating budget, which normally comes from tourism fees, and it isn’t feasible now to keep its 48-bed safari camp operations open for the occasional local traveler. Last year, he says, the Loisaba safari camps received some 2,000 visitors who each paid, on average, about $600 a night. Foreign visitors may not come here again “for possibly another 12 months, if not longer,” he says, adding that the peak tourist season, from June to October, likely will be missed altogether this year.

In addition, Silvester says, Loisaba may have to shelve plans to reintroduce rhinos in the reserve. And next month, he expects to have to decrease the number of anti-poaching patrols and to ask workers to agree to a 5 percent pay cut. Even so, the conservancy still takes in some money from cattle-grazing leases and funding partners such as The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based nonprofit that partners with communities around the world to preserve land and water for wildlife.

Meshemi says he and his colleagues are trying to keep themselves safe.

“We are taking strong measures to keep our distance now,” he says. They also sometimes wear masks and gloves and are doing their best to wash their hands often. It’s a help that they spend their days in a wildlife-rich part of the country where there are few people. But when not on patrol, rangers and staff, some 200 people in all, live in close quarters for weeks at a time. With further travel restrictions likely to come, some Loisaba workers whose homes are far away have been leaving to be with their families. Anyone who wants to return later—assuming they can get back—will be monitored for symptoms and housed in solitary quarters with no roommate for the first couple of weeks. Silvester says he’s making preparations for possible local travel restrictions, such as ordering a three-month supply of food rations. “It’s a cash commitment, certainly,” he says.

Loisaba hasn’t had to lay off or furlough any staff. But last week 10 of the 35 anti-poaching personnel who protect the 450-square mile Enduimet Wildlife Management Area, in neighboring Tanzania, were told they were out of a job. That’s because of the budget shortfall from the collapse of Tanzania’s wildlife tourism industry, says Alphonce Mallya, the northern Tanzania conservation manager with The Nature Conservancy, which helps support Enduimet.

Enduiment encompasses about a dozen villages and abuts Kilimanjaro National Park. It’s an essential wildlife corridor for elephants, zebras, wildebeest, and impalas. Without cash coming in from safari tourism, Mallya says, it was impossible to pay all the salaries, as well as provide food and keep vehicles running. He expects increased poaching by villagers for bushmeat—everything from giraffes to dik-diks—because it’s cheaper to kill animals for meat (and possibly sell some to other local villagers) than buy it. Safeguarding wildlife in the area will be even more of a challenge for the remaining 25 workers, whose salaries will be paid by The Nature Conservancy and Big Life Foundation, an East Africa-focused conservation nonprofit that supports anti-poaching efforts, Mallya says.

MORE POACHING: A CONTINENT-WIDE CONCERN

East African countries are not alone in their struggles. The prospect of increased poaching because of the coronavirus is “a matter of great concern,” says John Scanlon, special envoy for African Parks, a nonprofit that manages 17 national parks and protected areas across 11 African countries. He adds that such an increase hasn’t been observed yet and that the organization is continuing to carry out enforcement operations. African Parks has also deployed workers into communities to educate people about COVID-19 and hand out sanitary supplies to help protect against its spread.

Rangers and conservationists worry that amid the pandemic, giraffes, zebras, and other animals may be targeted.
Rangers and conservationists worry that amid the pandemic, giraffes, zebras, and other animals may be targeted.
At Loisaba Conservancy, tiny antelopes called dik-diks are in danger of being killed by poachers
At Loisaba Conservancy, tiny antelopes called dik-diks are in danger of being killed by poachers
A bloodhound named Warrior assists rangers in their anti-poaching work.
A bloodhound named Warrior assists rangers in their anti-poaching work.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says it’s deeply concerned about what will happen when the virus takes hold in Africa, where the first COVID-19 case was reported in February. Since then, 52 countries have reported cases. “Infection numbers in Africa are relatively small now, but they are growing fast,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, the WHO’s director-general said in an address on April 9.

Many African countries in addition to Kenya and Tanzania have imposed travel restrictions or lockdowns. Rwanda’s four national parks are closed, including the three that are home to the famed mountain gorillas, as a precaution to protect them from possible infection.

Dave Wilson, head of commercial development for African Parks, says that “just because a park may be closed to tourists does not mean our work stops in any shape or form, as we are committed to fully manage these parks on behalf of governments on average for 20 years.”

In South Africa, where a 21-day lockdown curbing public gatherings and travel, is in force, an expanded law enforcement presence may help deter some poaching, at least in the short term, says Dereck Milburn, southern Africa regional director for the Aspinall Foundation, a British conservation charity. “There is a lot more police presence on all the major routes, and the borders are locked down, and the number of patrols in the reserves have not changed much,” said Milburn, speaking by phone from Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital. “The rangers are doing an outstanding job.”

Still, he adds, the loss of an additional deterrent—tourist vehicles in parks and reserves—may embolden poachers. There was a spike in rhino poaching in late March during the first week of the lockdown, when seven rhinos were killed. He says rangers are on the lookout for more poaching incidents.

Earlier this week, “I made about 10 calls to section rangers in every part of South Africa, and it’s been pretty quiet,” says Grant Fowlds, conservation ambassador for Project Rhino, an anti-poaching nonprofit based in the coastal city of Durban. The pandemic and the lockdown, he says, has “really stopped poaching quite abruptly,” although it may be easier in remote areas for poachers to evade detection.

“Since the first week of the lockdown, it’s been quiet,” agrees Nico Jacobs, founder of Rhino 911, a South Africa-based nonprofit that provides emergency helicopter response and transport for rhinos. Rhino 911 is allowed to keep flying because anti-poaching is considered an essential service.

How long anti-poaching activities can remain fully operational in South Africa will depend on whether they’re funded by the government or private entities, says Damian Aspinall, chairman of the Aspinall Foundation. Government reserves with annual operating budgets aren’t wholly dependent on tourism, Aspinall says, but “in most private reserves, anti-poaching is completely reliant on tourism and game sales.”

Last week in Kenya’s Loisaba conservancy, ranger Meshemi’s scheduled six-week patrol shift ended. In normal times, he’d have gone home to his family for a two-week rest, but he was asked to stay. The 43-year-old ranger will help lead part of the team of 70 bracing for increased poaching in the coming months. “We understand the situation,” he says. “Our work is around the clock.”

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to [email protected].

By William Wan, Carolyn Y. Johnson & Joel Achenbach | The Washington Post

By the end of the week, residents in Georgia will be able to get their hair permed and nails done. By Monday, they will be cleared for action flicks at the cineplex and burgers at their favorite greasy spoon.

And it will almost certainly lead to more novel coronavirus infections and deaths.

As several states — including South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida — rush to reopen businesses, the sudden relaxation of restrictions will supply new targets for the coronavirus that has kept the United States largely closed down, according to experts, math models and the basic rules that govern infectious diseases.

“The math is unfortunately pretty simple. It’s not a matter of whether infections will increase but by how much,” said Jeffrey Shaman, a leading epidemiologist at Columbia University.

Closing America was hard. But it came with one simple instruction: Everyone stay at home.

There are no easy answers for the phase that comes next, especially with a continued lack of testing, contact tracing and detailed guidance from federal health agencies, disease experts said. Instead, every state will conduct its own improvised experiment with thousands of lives in the balance.

Many of the earliest reopenings will probably be confusing, chaotic, risky affairs — especially for states restarting their economies before most infectious-disease experts and some mayors and residents believe it’s safe to do so.

South Carolina’s governor issued an executive order this week reopening department stores and retailers previously regarded as not essential. Tennessee’s governor said he plans to allow most businesses to reopen once his “safer-at-home” order expires next week. Governors in Mississippi and Ohio have said the same. And Colorado’s Gov. Jared Polis (D) said some businesses could reopen on Friday.

Some of those same states are, however, still struggling to contain outbreaks.

In Ohio, where businesses are expected to reopen by next week, a prison has become one of the most worrisome outbreaks in the country, with more than 2,000 inmates testing positive. In South Dakota, more than 700 infections have shut down a Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant. And because South Dakota remains one of the few states without a stay-at-home order, one business said it plans to go forward on Saturday with a car race drawing 700 spectators.

Georgia, according to some models, is one of the last states that should be reopening. The state has had more than 830 covid-19 deaths. It has tested less than 1 percent of its residents — low compared with other states and the national rate. And the limited amount of testing so far shows a high rate of positives at 23 percent.

On Monday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) explained his decision to reopen tanning salons, barber shops, massage parlors and bowling alleys, saying: “I see the terrible impact of covid-19 on public health as well as the pocketbook.” Kemp said he will urge businesses to take precautions, such as screening for fevers, spacing workstations apart and having workers wear gloves and masks “if appropriate.”

President Trump, who has pushed to reopen parts of American life, said on Wednesday he told Georgia’s governor that he disagreed “strongly with his decision.” But, Trump added, “at the same time, he must do what he thinks is right.”

Kemp did not directly respond but in tweets Wednesday night said he appreciated the president’s “bold leadership” and pledged that “our next measured step is driven by data and guided by state public health officials.”

In recent days, other governors have defended their decisions to reopen quickly as an economic necessity, an exercise in states’ rights and a matter of freedom.

“What I’ve seen across the country is so many people give up their liberties for just a little bit of security, and they don’t have to do that,” South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R).

“We can’t wait until there’s a cure to this,” said Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R), who plans to reopen some businesses after a stay-at-home order expires Monday. “We can’t wait until every single person can get tested every single day to open up our economy.”

But even states proceeding more slowly, such as Massachusetts and California, will have to walk their residents through the coming experiment with competing pressures and voices threatening to drown out public health instructions.

“As a country, we’re unprepared not just logistically but mentally for this next phase,” said Michael T. Osterholm, a University of Minnesota infectious-disease expert. He worries most Americans do not grasp the long, hard months facing them and the likelihood of repeated surges of the virus.

“For a while, people were told all we need is to get past the peak. Then, they started hearing all we need is testing. Meanwhile, the president keeps telling everyone that things are going to reopen in a matter of weeks,” Osterholm said. “The way you prepare people for a sprint and marathon are very different. As a country, we are utterly unprepared for the marathon ahead.”

Rebounds inevitable

This is the central problem: The vast majority of Americans are still believed to be uninfected, making them like dry kindling on a forest floor. Barring a vaccine or treatment, the virus will keep burning until it runs out of fuel.

“The trick is to keep that burn at a controlled rate,” Osterholm said. “We have focused so much on how we are dying from the virus that we have not focused enough on how to live with the virus.”

Epidemiological models suggest the best strategy for keeping the burn rate under control is to drive the number of infections as low as possible before restoring economic activity. That would then provide time to react if cases flare.

The economic devastation that would cause is significant. But those same models suggest that opening prematurely increases the likelihood that communities will have to shut back down once infections reach a certain level, creating multiple open-shut cycles. Adding to those concerns, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that a second wave of infections next winter would be even more devastating because it would coincide with flu season.

There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all protocol for reopening the economy, said David Rubin, director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Rubin is developing a model to forecast how reopening 260 large U.S. counties on May 15 would play out if residents maintained only half the social distancing measures now in place.

The good news, Rubin said, is that modest-size, relatively spread-out cities will probably have room to make adjustments. But if restrictions ease too much, New York and similarly dense cities will rapidly see infections spike again.

“It comes back really quick, and the peaks are much higher than what you’re seeing right now,” Rubin said. “It was sobering. I was more optimistic before we did our models.”

This is why epidemiologists are cautioning state leaders to inch toward reopening with tentative, staggered steps.

The fraught science of reopening

Newly emerging science illustrates just how complicated and fraught those steps may be.

Dine-in restaurants are one sector Trump and some governors have repeatedly mentioned. To reopen, owners may have to rethink not just how closely diners sit together and how food is served but also how ventilation systems and airflow around diners may need to be retooled.

A recent case study — published by the CDC — examined how a single patron infected nine others at an air-conditioned restaurant in China. The infected person, a 63-year-old retired woman, did not begin running a fever and coughing until after her lunch Jan. 24 at the Guangzhou restaurant. But over the next two weeks, it became apparent the virus had spread to four diners at her table and to five people sitting at adjacent tables roughly three feet away.

Researchers studying the seating arrangements believe an air-conditioning unit propelled tiny viral droplets over distances that are normally safe between the tables.

“To prevent the spread of the virus in restaurants, we recommend increasing the distance between tables and improving ventilation,” the researchers concluded.

In two states, a vast testing gap shows what it means to have no national strategy

Donald Milton, a professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said the restaurant appears to have had an air-conditioning unit popular in China — and increasingly used in the United States — that recirculates warmed or cooled air, with no air intake or filtration.

Milton said measures to make such a situation safe would include a ceiling fan paired with better air filtration and ultraviolet lights that kill germs. But he noted such measures would need to be designed to suit specific establishments.

Studies emerging in the past week are also changing scientists’ understanding of how the virus spreads, which will make efforts to reopen society even harder.

A growing body of evidence suggests the virus is most contagious in people before they develop a fever or even feel a tickle in their throat. That suggests silent spreaders are seeding new cases.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) — the cousin to this new coronavirus — emerged in 2002, Asian countries were able to stop it because people became physically ill roughly at the same time they became contagious. That made it far easier to isolate and prevent the spread of disease.

A study published in the journal Nature Medicine last week estimated that people infected with the novel coronavirus are contagious almost two and a half days before symptoms appear — and that peak contagiousness occurs about 17 hours before people start feeling sick. In a sample of patients from China, the study estimated 44 percent of cases spread from person to person before symptoms appeared.

A study of Iceland’s population found that 43 percent of the people who tested positive didn’t have symptoms at the time of the test. And a recent New England Journal of Medicine study of 210 pregnant women in New York found that 14 percent tested positive but had no symptoms.

Warnings from abroad

Warning signs are also emerging from abroad.

For months, Singapore has served as an exemplar, with its pandemic response praised and emulated around the world. Despite its proximity to China and early cases, Singapore used massive testing and contact tracing to keep its disease curve flat. It even deployed police to trace people’s movement with security camera footage and credit card records.

Those painstaking efforts kept schools and businesses open and its economy afloat — until this month, when the virus found and exploited a weak point: low-wage migrant workers living in densely packed dormitories.

“It only takes a few people to let down their guard, and the virus will slip through,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who begged citizens to maintain discipline.

The daily number of new cases has soared from 200 last month to 1,426 on Monday. In recent days, the government shut down schools, made masks mandatory and forced hundreds of thousands of migrant workers into quarantine.

“What worries me looking at Singapore is how much capacity they have on testing and contact tracing compared to the U.S. and yet months into the pandemic, even they are having to become more restrictive,” said Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Meanwhile, we in America have nowhere near that testing and tracing, yet all we’re talking about is loosening up our restrictions.”

The need for warning systems

Given the dangers involved in reopening, what states desperately need are a warning system and suppression tool to prevent infections from cresting again into the deadly peaks the United States saw in March and April.

But states are jumping into their experiments without the two tools deployed by almost every other advanced nation: massive testing and contact tracing.

Governors — Republicans and Democrats — from Virginia to Washington to Ohio continue to plead for federal authorities to fix shortages of swabs, chemical reagents and testing kits, a national supply problem they cannot solve independently.

Similarly, local health departments, decimated by decades of budget cuts, lack the money and the hundreds of thousands of workers needed to trace and quarantine everyone who comes into contact with infected people.

By pushing responsibility for the pandemic response and reopening onto the states, experts said, Trump has freed himself to play the role of criticizer-in-chief. Already, he is criticizing governors for not reopening immediately, but if cases rise uncontrollably, he can criticize state leaders for reopening too early or mishandling it.

“It might be a clever and effective political strategy, but it leaves our country without any way to pull itself out of the current mess,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, who was in charge of U.S. foreign disaster assistance during the Obama administration.

Protests against stay-at-home orders seem spontaneous. Behind the scenes, a conservative network is helping.

In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s wife — who was born in South Korea — struck a deal to buy 500,000 tests from South Korea. Hogan said this week that he turned for help from a foreign government rather than the federal government after Trump “made it clear over and over again” that states “have to go out and do it ourselves.”

In Massachusetts, state leaders have partnered with a nonprofit that works mainly in the developing world to hire and train contact tracers.

But such efforts, born of desperation, will go only so far without federal intervention and funding, public health experts say. Even if a handful of states find some way to shore up testing and contact tracing, the virus could rage on in neighboring states, throwing off sparks that can ignite new outbreaks.

“The only tool the governors have had so far is the clampdown because it deprives the fire of oxygen. The second you let that up, the fire comes roaring back,” said Konyndyk, who oversaw the U.S. government’s Ebola response in West Africa. “But until you have water or sand, that’s all you can do. And it remains to be seen whether we as a country are going to figure out a way to get that bucket of water to start putting out the fire.”

How people without symptoms can still spread coronavirus. Silent spreaders are playing a significant role in the pandemic.

By Katherine Harmon Courage | VOX

We know that not everyone who comes into contact with the novel coronavirus ends up getting sick. But just how many people out there have the virus and are feeling fine — and are perhaps unknowingly spreading it to others?

New data suggests it could be a lot.

For example, 60 percent of personnel aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt who tested positive for the coronavirus appeared healthy at the time, Reuters reported. Other data — from Iceland and elsewhere — have uncovered similar patterns.

With testing capacity still limited, most governments continue to focus on people who are showing symptoms of Covid-19 so that they can be isolated. This is important for slowing the virus’s spread. But it also means that globally, we have lagged in finding people who are carrying the virus but aren’t currently sick — and might be spreading it.

(The early evidence that seemingly healthy people can still infect others with the coronavirus is one of the main reasons behind the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that everyone wear a mask in public: so that people who don’t know they have the virus don’t accidentally infect others with it.)

So the big question everyone — including infectious disease experts — has is: How big of a role are these “silent spreaders” playing in this pandemic? It’s certainly significant.

People who feel fine are spreading the coronavirus

Throughout the pandemic, public health officials have focused on the advice that people who have symptoms of Covid-19 should self-isolate. This is crucial, to be sure. But it is also becoming “increasingly clear that there are people who are either asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic who can transmit” the virus, Carlos del Rio, chair of the Department of Global Health at Emory University, told Vox.

In fact, people can start transmitting the virus 24 to 48 hours before they start showing symptoms, he said in a briefing for the Infectious Disease Society of America.

This timing detail is no small matter. And new research on presymptomatic transmission in people who did eventually experience symptoms underscores why.

A study in Nature Medicine of 94 confirmed Covid-19 patients found that people were most infectious right before they started to show symptoms. The researchers obtained data about people who had gotten Covid-19 as well as those who had been around them before and after they got sick. Based on this, they estimated that 44 percent of people who caught the virus from the study’s participants had gotten it from people who felt healthy at the time.

They also found that someone who is mildly sick could have been just as contagious as someone with more severe symptoms. Maybe they aren’t coughing as much as someone feeling more seriously ill, but the virus can still spread through talking, sneezing, and coughing.

And what about people who are carrying the virus but don’t ever get sick — the true asymptomatic carriers? Can they spread it, too?

We simply don’t know yet. Hopefully, further studies will figure this out, because it could lead to more informed decisions about how to eventually end the pandemic.

How many people are carrying the coronavirus and don’t know it?

A new study out of Iceland, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, offers important insight about how prevalent asymptomatic carriers may be. Iceland has tested 6 percent of the entire island nation’s population — the most testing per capita of any country so far.

Part of the study tested those ill with Covid-19 symptoms, but another part involved testing a substantial sample of the general population feeling well — or at least with no greater symptoms than a mild common cold. Of those who tested positive for the virus, 43 percent were asymptomatic. So it’s possible that, at least in Iceland at that point in time, almost half of the people who had coronavirus didn’t know it.

This percentage likely varies from place to place, depending on the timing and severity of the current outbreak.

For example, two New York City hospitals recently tested more than 99 percent of women who delivered babies in their wards over the course of two weeks. Of the 215 women, about 2 percent had Covid-19 symptoms (all of them tested positive for the virus). And about 14 percent of the symptom-free women also tested positive. This means that about 88 percent of people who had the virus in this group had no symptoms at the time of testing.

So one in eight women admitted to the labor and delivery wards — who seemed healthy — nevertheless was carrying the virus.

Although these studies looked at specific populations at specific points in time, they can provide a general idea of what might be going on elsewhere.

How many people catch the coronavirus and never get sick at all?

We know that people who get Covid-19 start feeling sick anywhere from two to 14 days after they first catch the virus. But there also seems to be a subset of people who test positive for it but never develop any symptoms.

This isn’t that unusual. Other viruses often have many people carrying them who don’t get sick. For example, a study in the UK found that about 77 percent of people who had had the current flu strain never got sick (some studies have pointed to lower rates, which also shows how little we know even about common illnesses).

For the norovirus, a common stomach bug, about a third of people who get it don’t become ill — but can still transmit it to others.

And that number is even higher for other viruses, like polio, which only causes illness in some 5 to 10 percent of infections — but the asymptomatic carriers can still spread it to others, who might get the full-blown disease.

For SARS-CoV-2, the World Health Organization cited the statistic that about 75 percent of people who seem asymptomatic when they test positive for the virus eventually go on to develop symptoms of Covid-19. And a series of recent reports have backed that up.

One study, which examined a nursing home in Washington state early on in the coronavirus outbreak, found that more than half of residents who tested positive (57 percent) had no signs of the illness. One week later, however, more than three-quarters of them had developed symptoms.

The mean time for them to have started feeling sick was just three days after they had gotten tested. This shows just how narrow of a window one-shot testing can be.

Another study, which looked at passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, also tried to account for this timing issue. Initial data showed that of the 634 people on board who tested positive for the coronavirus, slightly more than half were asymptomatic at the time. But researchers were able to follow up with these people (after many did eventually get sick) and, based on that data, estimated that the actual rate of asymptomatic infections was about 18 percent.

And 18 percent is still a large number, especially when expanded to a broader population during an outbreak. That’s roughly one in five people. And based on the WHO numbers, it is one in four.

Researchers still don’t know if — and how much — these truly asymptomatic carriers might be contributing to the spread of the virus. But with such large numbers, answering that question (and taking precautionary actions in the meantime) will be essential to understanding how to most effectively slow down this pandemic.

Identifying silent spreaders is essential

Given that roughly three-quarters of people who don’t show symptoms at the time of testing will probably get ill (and that those people are perhaps most infectious just before they start feeling sick) and given that we still don’t know how much asymptomatic individuals are infecting others, limiting the spread of the virus by seemingly healthy people is crucial.

That is one of the reasons large-scale testing is so powerful. For example, in the Iceland study, public health officials were able to identify about 525 people — in a country of just 364,000 — who were carrying the virus but appeared healthy otherwise (that would be the equivalent of finding about 473,000 asymptomatic or presymptomatic carriers in a small sampling in the US, population-wise).

This information allowed Icelandic officials to take action. After positive test results, people were required to self-isolate until they tested negative — “and all contacts of these participants were [also] required to self-quarantine for 2 weeks,” the authors noted. This sort of broad testing and targeted isolation strategy could help curb the spread of the virus and allow more people to continue with less severe social distancing restrictions.

We’ll need more widespread antibody testing to better understand what’s going on

The trouble with so many of these numbers is that they are snapshots in time. And detailed follow-up, like what happened in the Diamond Princess study, is resource-intensive.

This is one of the reasons testing for the presence of the coronavirus is not — and cannot — give us a clear picture of its true prevalence. Just as it might catch someone before the onset of their symptoms, it might miss someone who has already fought the virus off, whether they knew it or not.

That’s why more widespread antibody testing to see if someone has had the virus in the past will be key in determining the actual proportion of the population that has had the virus. (Most current testing is a different method that looks for the presence of the virus during an active infection.)

With that number, experts will also be able to start modeling how many asymptomatic people are contributing to the overall spread of the virus. This will be “critically important” for ascertaining if they “may be sustaining viral transmission,” del Rio said.

(But this will need to be done thoughtfully. There has been substantial debate over, for example, a recent estimate, based on antibody testing, that the prevalence of the virus in Santa Clara County, California, might be 50-85 times higher than the number of rapid test-confirmed cases.)

Better understanding the true number of asymptomatic carriers and their potential to infect others could impact everything from public health guidelines to how soon we can begin to safely resume more normal activities.

The National Institutes of Health is launching a large-scale study to look at this now. It is enrolling up to 10,000 volunteers from anywhere in the US to be tested for antibodies to the coronavirus.

“These crucial data will help us measure the impact of our public health efforts now and guide our Covid-19 response moving forward,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a statement. You can learn more about enrolling here.

In the meantime, all of these mounting data support continued social distancing practices, mask-wearing, and other preventative measures for everyone — no matter how healthy they feel.

Correction, April 22: An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of asymptomatic people in an Iceland study who tested positive for Covid-19.

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