Boston doctor suggests mini “circuit breaker” shutdowns if COVID-19 worsens

BOSTON — As the Omicron variant moves through Massachusetts and hospitals fill to capacity, a Boston doctor is proposing a solution to once again flatten the curve.

Dr. Jeremy Faust, a specialist in Emergency Medicine at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, sent a three-page memo to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week, urging the agency to consider issuing guidelines for state and local governments to determine when a short “circuit breaker” shutdown may be required to slow the spread.

“We define circuit breakers as temporary restrictions on high-risk activities including indoor dining, performances, and non-essential work outside of the home,” Faust wrote.

Faust and his co-writer, William Hanage, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, devised an emergency threshold using a ratio of COVID-19 case numbers and available hospital beds that would trigger a temporary shutdown of certain activities. Faust said most circuit breakers would last 5-7 days, “but would be unlikely to be necessary for longer than 14 days in order to achieve the stated objective.”

Faust disagreed his proposal has any similarities to the widespread, nationwide shutdown that crippled businesses beginning in March 2020.

“I don’t like that [comparison] because shutdowns remind us of early 2020 when we weren’t leaving our house. We weren’t doing anything,” Faust said. “There are differences between saying we need you to stay in your home all the time and me saying I don’t want you going out to dinner for a couple of nights.”

The CDC did not respond to Boston 25′s request for a response to the memo.

Matt Fox, Professor in the Departments of Epidemiology and Global Health at Boston University, said the proposal is an “important idea and one we really should have implemented earlier.”

“We wanted clear metrics for when we stop things like lockdowns and business closures and mask mandates. But as the authors of the letter point out, we need them in both directions. We need metrics for when we put the brakes on as well. I realize that this may be frustrating to many since vaccination rates are high and they may wonder why we need more measures. The key is that, if we have metrics that cover when to add measures and when to remove them, we have more certainty and we know what to look for, while at the same time, we prevent our hospitals from filling up and we reduce mortality,” Fox said.

Dr. Shira Doron, Epidemiologist and Attending Physician at Tufts Medical Center said the idea is misguided because state data indicates most people transmit the virus in their house.

“The vast, vast, vast majority [of cases] are contracted in people’s homes,” Doron said. “We talk a lot about restaurants and gyms. You do not see a lot of restaurants and gyms in those numbers week after week.”

Ashley Hudson, manager of Libertine Italian restaurant in Boston’s North End, doesn’t believe her business could survive another shutdown, even if it’s brief.

“Most restaurants operate within a tight margin. Two bad weeks or a bad month can shut you down,” Hudson said. “I think our restaurant [would never] reopen.”