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How To Keep People Safe As Quarantine Fatigue Sets In


Over the last several days, as many states have moved to reopen parts of their economies, one thing has become clear. People are getting antsy. They want to get out. Some are calling this quarantine fatigue. So what can communities do to help people stay home and stay safe? Let's have a conversation about that with NPR's Allison Aubrey. Hi, Allison.


GREENE: So let's talk about researchers first and how they can watch what is happening in the country. When we go out and leave our homes, which many of us are not supposed to do right now. We carry our mobile devices...

AUBREY: That's right.

GREENE: Researchers can see this and take a broad view of it, right?

AUBREY: That's right. I spoke to Lei Zhang. He's a transportation engineer at the University of Maryland. And he's actually analyzing mobile device location data - so cellphone data - from millions of devices. He looks at a whole bunch of different metrics, including the number of trips people make, how far they travel. Now, it's anonymized data. So he doesn't know who they are. But he knows where they are.

And from this data, a 100-point social distancing index is created. Now, when he looked at states that reopened some businesses last Friday, May 1, he saw a drop in their social distancing scores. And - get this - he also sees even in some states that have not lifted any restrictions yet, such as Maryland, significant changes there, too.

LEI ZHANG: If we just look at last Friday, May 1, in terms of the social distancing index, it went down from 60 to 47. What this is suggesting is that fewer people are staying home. People are making a lot more - about 30% more - trips. It was almost like people were waiting for May 1 to get out.

AUBREY: So people just really want to be on the go, David.

GREENE: Well, and they're getting out on the go and not social distancing, it sounds like, Allison, even in places where the stay-at-home orders are still firmly in place.

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, what Zhang's data suggests is just that, I mean, certainly in states that have begun to reopen. He points to Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee. Now, there are some states where the social distancing index remains high. He points to Massachusetts and a few other states in New England, as well as the New York area. But he says, nationally, the reopening in some states seems to be influencing the behavior of people everywhere.

ZHANG: We are observing major changes in mobility behavior and decrease in social distancing all across the nation.

AUBREY: So this started a few weeks ago and is now accelerating.

GREENE: Well, review this with me, if you can, Allison. I mean, the guidance from the White House in terms of reopening - even in the early phases, like when restaurants, you know, in some places can reopen on a limited basis, we're still...


GREENE: ...Supposed to maintain social distancing, right?

AUBREY: That's exactly right. But it's becoming tougher for people to maintain this discipline. I spoke to Richard Besser. He's a physician who used to lead emergency preparedness efforts at the CDC. He's now president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an NPR funder. He says, you know, this is not unusual. Early on, people are vigilant. But then they can get tired of it and kind of let their guard down.

RICHARD BESSER: I worry that, in some parts of the country, people are starting to forget why these measures were put in place in the first place. The federal government has lifted their guidelines. And I worry that some people are thinking that means it's OK to go back to business as usual. It is not.

AUBREY: The guidelines to the states that the administration laid out make it clear - during this phase, we're supposed to be maintaining social distancing, not gathering in groups of more than 10 and minimizing nonessential travel.

GREENE: I mean, so this just shows you how so many people just crave more human contact...


GREENE: ...When it can actually happen. I mean, cabin fever has just got to be something affecting so many people. So as we go forward, as people keep feeling cooped up like this, what can officials do? What can people in the medical profession do to help people, you know, carry on and cope?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, I spoke to Kelli Tice Wells. She's a physician and a senior medical director at Florida Blue. That's a large health insurance provider. And she says loneliness is a big issue. She points to a program they offer to some members to address this social isolation. It's called Papa Pals. They basically match a young person with an elderly person.

Now, before COVID, these would be in-person visits. Now it is virtual companionship, what they're calling assistance from a distance. And to get a sense of how this works, I spoke to Miriam Membreno (ph). She's trained as a social worker but recently had her hours cut due to the weak economy. So now she's working with the Papa program. And she's matched with a few elderly folks who are struggling. They really feel alone.

MIRIAM MEMBRENO: I do feel that I'm helping them be less lonely because it's bottled up inside. They're not talking to anyone. So just having those stress and concerns released and someone else hears it, it's not only helping me and I'm interacting with people, but I'm also providing help for them.

AUBREY: So, you know, she can also help them order groceries online or help them get their medicines delivered, things that are just practical, too.

GREENE: But, I mean, this raises a really important question. I mean, obviously, we've responded to this amazing health risk in this virus. But the response itself has created health challenges like loneliness and probably other stuff that you've been seeing.

AUBREY: Oh, sure. I mean, that's absolutely right. Dr. Kelli Tice Wells says patients right now need a lot more than just having their prescriptions filled. I mean, with so many people filing for unemployment, there is a higher risk of addiction, mental health issues. There's also more food insecurity, so a lack of access to healthy food.

Now, Florida Blue has social workers to help people with basic support and social needs like this. But this is a big societal problem. I mean, if you look at who has gotten sickest from COVID-19, it's often people with conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease. And all of these are, in some ways, linked to poor diet.

KELLI TICE WELLS: I absolutely think that the primary issue of lack of access to fresh, healthy foods is one of the known drivers of obesity. And now that contributes to worse outcomes related to COVID-19.

AUBREY: So this is a big issue. And experts say it may require some new thinking about, you know, living wages and the social and health inequities that have been present for a very, very long time.

GREENE: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks for all of your coverage as we all work our way through this.

AUBREY: Thanks, David.


Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.