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In our opinion: As American COVID-19 deaths top 100,000, the time for vigilance hasn’t been greater

In this May 20, 2020, file photo, Salt Lake County Health Department public health nurse Lee Cherie Booth performs a coronavirus test outside the Salt Lake County Health Department in Salt Lake City.
Associated Press

At the end of April, researchers at Northeastern University predicted 100,000 Americans would die from COVID-19 by the end of summer. Instead, that milestone came Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day.

It came as many states were beginning to loosen restrictions on businesses, churches and other types of social gatherings. It came as Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, was telling NPR that, “We’re not anywhere near done” with the virus.

Also on Tuesday, Utah passed the 100 mark for deaths associated with the novel coronavirus. Yet, on the weekend just ended, people poured into the state’s national parks and recreation areas. On Sunday, Zion National Park had to close its scenic drive early in the morning.

The move to reopen closed businesses and allow for larger gatherings is understandable. People cannot remain locked in their homes indefinitely. People left in economic limbo because of the crisis have to work to pay bills. Not all creditors are understanding, and critics are correct when they point to negative health effects from economic and emotional stress.

But it is a grave mistake to believe the danger has passed, or that the careful reopening of an economy means it’s now OK to resume life exactly as people left it in mid-March. Americans must achieve a balance between safe and careful practices and the resumption of work, shopping, worship and recreation.

Yes, the numbers of new cases and deaths are on a steady decline from a peak in late April. But some states have seen surges since reopening, and experts warn that a deadly second wave of the virus remains a threat, possibly by the end of this year.

The nation isn’t close to establishing herd immunity, and a vaccine remains months away. The only sound strategies for reducing exposure to COVID-19 are to practice social distancing and mask wearing, and for the government to greatly increase the number of tests it administers, even to those who show no symptoms.

Utah has loosened much of the state to a “yellow” level, using the state’s unique color-coded system. But it has used testing data to isolate areas, particularly in Salt Lake City and West Valley City, where more restrictive “orange” levels remain in place. It has, however, declined a request by the town of Bluff to remain at the most restrictive “red” level to reflect conditions officials there say they are experiencing.

In an election year, even pandemics clash with politics, and careful practices have somehow become conflated with ideology.

These conditions have mingled with myriad falsehoods on social media. At Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, researchers last week said a large percentage of tweets dealing with whether to lift restrictions due to COVID-19 were generated by “bots,” which are lifeless, automated programs that appear to be real flesh-and-blood people.

The researchers also said these bot messages mirrored messages from Russia and China, meaning operatives in those countries may still be at work trying to disrupt American culture by turning people against one another.

The time for vigilance may never have been greater. The grim milestones for casualties this week ought to emphasize the need for Americans to unite in purpose as they strive to resume normal activities in ways that are safe and compassionate.