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Efforts are gearing up to enlist trusted voices in hard-hit communities of color to help ensure potential COVID-19 vaccines are tested in the minority populations most ravaged by the virus. (Sept. 18)

AP Domestic

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have warned about the horrors of the 1918 flu. After the first dangerous wave of infections that spring, cities and people relaxed their efforts to contain the virus and it came roaring back in the fall and winter, killing far more people.

So far, COVID-19 hasn’t behaved the same way. There was no summer break, and we’re not seeing the ebb and flow that characterized the 1918 outbreak. It’s been more like a forest fire spiking in one area while dying down in another. 

But for months, public health officials have predicted one comparison would stand: We’d have a terrible winter.

The fear is that cases will rise as more people spend more time indoors, get ever more tired of public health measures, travel for the holidays, and struggle with conflicting messages from national and local leaders.

No one really knows what the next few months will bring. But as COVID-19 cases rise in 39 of 50 states, there are a few clues about what’s likely to happen, both good and bad.

Soldiers in quarantine while recovering from the Spanish flu, at Camp Funston, Kansas in 1918. (Photo: US National Guard Bureau)

Hopeful signs

First, the good news.

A coming approach to testing, with lots of inexpensive, readily available, fast tests could transform daily lives, enabling people to do the kinds of things they’ve only been able to dream about for the past eight months.

Some colleges already are showing they can keep students safe by adding regular testing to mask-wearing and social distancing. Airlines are starting to test all passengers on some flights – because who wouldn’t feel safer and be more likely to travel if they knew the person next to them wasn’t infected?

Many other activities, like meetings, dental appointments, gym visits and weddings would start to feel reasonable again if everyone could be tested on the way in.

Of course, testing alone isn’t enough, as President Donald Trump’s recent infection shows. A “superspreader” event apparently occurred at the White House after politicians there relied solely on testing to protect against infection. 

Tests have to be combined with other public health measures, including wearing masks and tracing the interactions of anyone who tests positive to make sure anyone they exposed doesn’t pass on the virus, said Pınar Keskinocak, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and president of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, an international association for professionals in operations research and analytics. 

“If you can use the triple action together, testing tracing and isolation, that is going to help a lot” to keep down infections, Keskinocak said.

Although rapid, cheap, easily administered tests aren’t yet widely available, they should be in coming months, with the first of 150