Federal officials believe this week may well be the worst nationally for the COVID-19 outbreak. Iowa, as it has throughout this pandemic, is a couple weeks behind the national trend. No matter where you are, April is going to be tough.

There are some good signs. Johns Hopkins University’s data center is a gold mine for those seeking to understand how the virus is spreading in our country. This weekend it showed, for the first time, a clear move downward in the nation’s five-day moving average trend.

Some caution is needed with that hopeful indicator. Other nations, including Italy and Spain, have seen multiple peaks before the numbers truly began falling. So did Germany and Belgium. It is entirely possible the United States will, too.

Mortality in the United States has been lower than that in other nations, at least so far. Again looking at the Johns Hopkins data, the observed ratio shows about 2.9 percent of Americans diagnosed with COVID-19 have eventually died of complications from the virus. That’s significantly below the rate in the other hardest-hit nations, and stunningly far below Italy’s 12.3 percent rate.

But, again, caution is needed. The U.S. health care system has been strained, but has not snapped. If it is overwhelmed, the death rate will soar.

That’s why steps like the social distancing most people are now practicing are so important. And that’s why we can’t let up on those yet.

We know everyone is getting tired of hearing about this. Believe us, it’s not much fun writing about this every day, either. Like all of you, we’re hoping for an end to this sooner rather than later, but the only way for any of us to reach that point is for all of us to work toward it.

If you don’t have to go out, don’t. If you don’t have to be around others, stay home.

The next week or so will go a long way toward determining whether Iowa gets a handle on this outbreak before the summer season. It will be a major factor in determining when restaurants and stores reopen, when people can get back to work, and when something like a sense of normalcy is possible.

It’s important to remember that, until a vaccine is ready for use, most of our population will still remain vulnerable. We will all have to guard against this virus, even after the most severe restrictions are lifted.

So the question before us as a state, as a community, is not whether things will be back to life as we knew it any time soon. We already know the answer to that. Rather, it is whether we will take the steps necessary to limit opportunities for new infections, whether we will give ourselves a chance to regain lost ground any time before a vaccine is approved and distributed.

The next few weeks will be difficult. But how we respond to them will determine whether it is the end of the beginning, or the start of a much longer, much darker struggle.

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