Covid19: Rolling Quarantines

The current public policy of social distancing has forced many businesses to close indefinitely, drastically reduce the services they offer to the public, or reduce the number of customers they can accommodate at any time.   Locally, these policies have been felt for a little over a week now but its impact is very noticeably disruptive to everything.

I suppose the rationale behind this policy is that we do not have a good handle on the population who are infectious to others and thus the best approach is to isolate everyone.   This isolation gives the government more time to identify the infectious.   I think there is also a delusional hope that the isolation will cause the infection to disappear as there becomes too few opportunities for new infections.

As I have written in many past posts, I am very concerned that this approach is going to lead to disastrous consequences.   At the very least, there is no way we will return to the type of economy we had before this started.   Businesses will close for good, and new businesses will not follow the same plans especially when it involved directly offering services to the public.

Perhaps new models will be improvements over the past, but even if that is true, they are going to have a hard time getting investments for many years as a result of the stock market crash.

I’m pessimistic.   There are a lot of things I like about the old business models, such as urban store fronts open the the public with a means to pay for the products or services.   I am pretty sure these will disappear.   Existing businesses will be ruined by the current policies no matter how much help the government provides them.   These businesses’ inventory will be spoiled or outdated by the time they can open again.   They will likely not be able to retain their prior workers, or they will face unaffordable commitments made to their prior workers.    I suspect a large fraction will be out of business by the end of the year even if the current restrictions are lifted immediately.

After even just one week, the damage has been done.   The past economy is gone.   A new one will come up and over time we may accept it.   That new economy is likely to be more exclusive.   Businesses are likely to offer services exclusive to their memberships involving some type of approval of applications that prove the qualification of that membership.   More broadly, these businesses are likely to develop outside of the urban centers where geography offers natural isolation.

In particular, I see the completions of the emerging economy of home delivery for everything, where the last mile delivery will be through gig economy where the customer qualifies the deliverer based on the deliverer’s profile, customer-rating, and past association.

The recent development of urban centers will end, and whatever was there before will disappear.   Urban blight will return.   Store fronts will be closed.  Pedestrians will disappear.   Apartment buildings will be vacated.

Based on the recent policy decisions, we have learned that pandemics are unavoidable and unpredictable.   We learned that the best minds in epidemiology dictate a policy that inevitably kills businesses instantly, and obliterates capital everywhere.   We learned there is no point in any form of long-term planning or investing because the public policy is that everything is expendable when it comes to fighting a pandemic of anything with an elevated rate of mortality.

I have been writing here about alternative policies that either were rejected or not even considered.   These thoughts come from someone who is not yet affected by the disease.   Being that this is a private blog, my writing probably would be very different if the disease would have affected me personally.    Even then, and to the extent that I can think comfortably, I would probably filter my thoughts through the principles of dedomenocracy, government by data and urgency.   I am really interested in how we could govern ourselves more sanely and less emotionally.

About the current policies of restricting business operations and strongly recommending people follow strict social distancing practices, the goal of these policies is to slow the spread of the infections.

One particular element of this goal is to make easier the tracking down of people who may have contact with a newly found infected person so that they may be quarantined for a couple weeks.  There could be alternative policies that could accomplish that same goals without the need to shut down anything.    To be clear, now that we have embarked on the current policy, it is too late to go back and try another.   We are stuck with the current policy.   This is just a thought experiment of what we could have done instead, especially if we had the right mindset to consider such alternatives.

One alternative approach might be described as a rolling quarantine.   This approach is based on the same assumption that we cannot know the extent of the infected population population and based on the goal of making it easier to inform the subset of population that might be potentially infected.

The rolling quarantine involves isolating everyone in each household but only for 3 days out of the week.   On those 3 days, they would be free to continue their life as usual, though of course with extra diligence such as frequent hand washing.   All the businesses would remain open and serve as they normally do.

We would divide the population into 7 cohorts based on their home street address (for high-rises, it may be the entire building or entire floors) that computes the starting weekday for their cycle.   Each cycle consists of the first day where the person is free to leave their home, then they must stay inside for one day, they can go out for the third day and then stay inside for 2 days, then repeat.   For example, a household assigned to Saturday can go out on Saturdays, Mondays, and Thursdays.

To further isolate the different cohorts, there would be a general curfew, where everyone will need to be in their homes unless their jobs specifically require working those hours.   A curfew may last between 11 PM and 5 AM, giving time for any viral residue surfaces to degrade, or be less accessible, or be disinfected where that is feasible.    Certainly this is not a perfect isolation between cohorts but I think it could be significant enough.

This particular sequence matches fairly closely with the median incubation period of this (and many other) virus of about 3 days.   If a person is infected on one day, they will very likely have symptoms by the second day afterwards when they are permitted to go out again.  If someone in a household has symptoms on his allotted day to be outside, everyone in that household would be advised to stay home, similar to the same advice as we have now.   The difference is that in this system, he has to wait for his next permitted day to go out and even then only if he lacks symptoms.

Note that this is just an initial concept, there would have to be a lot of details to work out, but the idea is to slow the infection by limiting the population that is potentially exposed.   Instead of shutting everything down for a long time, we instead isolate a number of subsets of populations and only for one or two days.   Businesses will be able to resume their operations, though perhaps with some modifications that are less disruptive than the conditions the currently face.

Under this system, if a new case was identified, we can focus on the cohorts who share the same out day.   We would also have a new dimension to identify hot spots or outbreaks, where outbreaks may be for certain weekday cohorts instead of the entire population in that location.

This is designed for an approximately 3 day median incubation period.  Other patterns, perhaps based on dividing out days of a month instead of days of a week to optimize for other incubation periods.

Clearly this is not perfect.  But neither is the current policy.   There is no way to test which one is better, because as policy makers, we have only one chance to the policy strategy at this level.   My impression is that the rolling quarantine approach would be close enough in effectiveness to the current global shutdown approach.   Unlike the global and everyday approach, the rolling quarantine gives an opportunity for existing businesses to stay open as usual with modifications to their operations that are easier to meet than trying to accommodate the current public health mandate.

During an epidemic, the people who are not infectious should be able to access public-serving businesses, and those businesses should be able to serve the people who are not infectious.   I’m particularly disappointed in seeing businesses like barber shops and clothing/household goods stores indefinitely closed.   I think it is ridiculous for food establishments to offer only take-out or delivery (to be eaten at home) when a major attraction of going to such establishments is to get out of the house, and to enjoy the ambiance (and company) of the dining area.

If it is possible, such a policy would allowing regular social life and commerce to continue while still improving the government’s ability to slow the spread and to ease the identification of close contacts to newly infected.

We chose to instead destroy everything by the time this disease diminishes to the level of little concern at about the end of 2021.   There is no guarantee that this policy would have reduced the total number of deaths where this number includes people dying from the disease, plus people dying from other diseases that cannot be treated due to lack of healthcare resources, or due to consequences of famine or social rebellion.   It is even less likely that at the end we’ll be able to return to the social economy we enjoyed up to last year.

Our democratically elected leaders and our bureaucratic civil servants have made the choice that we now have to live with.   That choice appears to not have considered the totality of information about the entire social working of the World.  Instead, it appears to have been based on emotions, panic, and political posturing.

It might be possible to run a government with data and algorithms that can consider the entire data set covering all aspects of our lives and our economy.   It would also consider the consequences of severe restrictions on people’s activities where people will inevitably adapt around those restrictions, never to return to the prior behaviors.   If such a government were possible, why would we want to continue the 18th century concepts government by democratically elected and bureaucratically anointed humans to make decisions of this scale?


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