Across the nation, and throughout the DC region, Americans — finally — have started to come to grips with the gravity of a fast-spreading, new respiratory virus’ infections. The novel coronavirus has infected almost 150,000 internationally, killing thousands as part of what now is officially a global pandemic and a national emergency.
Cases of Covid-19 have been detected in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland, as public health officials have urged the public to increase safeguards against contracting the disease, notably by staying home and practicing not only hygienic measures (washing their hands, covering their coughs and sneezes, and foregoing handshakes and hugs) but also keeping their distance from others.
Businesses have urged their people to work from home. Schools have shut their doors. Concerts, plays, museums, and cultural events and institutions have closed and canceled. Professional and amateur sports have suspended play. Travel, domestic and international, has screeched to a halt. Panic buying has broken out at groceries and big box warehouse stores.
Politicians, notably President Trump, are under major fire for their virus response, including much-deserved criticism about botched testing for Covid-19, which has left experts and the public steering blind as to the severity of the U.S. outbreak, as well as best ways to curtail it and to judge if efforts are working. While other nations like South Korea have shown they can test tens of thousands daily, the bungled and slow to ramp up U.S. effort only now is testing thousands, in total, so far.
The president and his administration have acted at a glacial pace, while downplaying the threat posed by rising numbers of infections, illnesses, and deaths. Record-setting wallops to the markets and the economy as a whole have proved impossible for leaders in the nation’s capital to ignore.
But career public health officials, as well as doctors, hospitals, states, local governments, and those who run schools, sports, and cultural institutions have stepped up to act, while the White House has dithered and dissembled.
Americans have absorbed the evidence-based argument that containing the pandemic is a fading prospect, and mitigation is now the path forward. This means that stringent measures must be taken to “flatten the curve,” with a diagram (shown above) helping to persuade people to slash their contacts with others for a time in the hopes of halting a spike in infections and deaths. The public in this country has been aghast at how the Italian health system has been crushed by Covid-19, and Americans appear to be willing to take steps to ensure that similar, ghastly consequences do not occur for the vulnerable here. Experts modeling how the infection might progress aren’t offering comforting news, with their worst case scenarios defining dire.
The infection’s blitzkrieg, however, already menaces tens of millions across the nation due to stark economic inequities that leave far too many Americans without paid sick leave, reliable childcare, and affordable and accessible health care. Democrats in the House, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, pushed a sizable package to start to address such concerns. The White House resisted but relented. The Senate, amid a national emergency, stalled urgent action, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent members home for a long weekend.
To their credit, more Americans appear to be tuning out the political know-nothings in favor of heeding medical scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health, and other physician experts.
This is helpful and sadly necessary. But the speed of the pandemic’s spread and the lack of knowledge about the virus may leave too many people frustrated, angry, and confused.
As testing regiments finally ramp up, the nation may get a clearer idea of how fast, far, and wide the virus has spread. Public health systems already are showing strain. First-responders and hospitals, already dealing with heavy loads due to the seasonal flu and other regular issues in care, may need to figure how to handle sizable numbers of seriously ill patients. Many will need intensive interventions while also being kept far from others. Experts say the country still is experiencing dire shortfalls in needed protective gear for health care workers, as well as looming supply problems with other medical supplies and equipment (notably mechanical breathing apparatus), as well as medications, and trained personnel.
To be clear, avoidance of infection has become paramount. That’s because treatments are few for viral infections, especially a new strain like this coronavirus. Caregivers mostly hope to keep patients alive and well enough so their own bodies can fight the infection, without acquiring other sicknesses or with patients’ own bug-battling systems causing their own grave harms — doctors are reporting that they are seeing individuals die when virus-killing cells attack and overwhelm healthy lung tissues.
Officials have started to discuss ways to ensure that Covid-19 testing becomes not only more available but also affordable, or even free. But the issue of infection treatment costs remains far harder to consider in similar fashion because current estimates put the tab for comparable care — a bout with complex pneumonia — at more than $20,000 for patients with employer-provided health coverage. Patients easily might see out-of-pocket costs exceeding $1,300.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the benefits they can reap by staying healthy and out of the troubled U.S. health care system. Besides its problems with infections acquired in hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical care giving facilities, it also has major challenges with medical error and misdiagnoses. That said, at this difficult moment, we need to support doctors, hospitals, and public health officials as they marshal science, evidence, and facts to battle the global menace of Covid-19.
Stay calm, limit your contacts with others, listen to and heed medical and scientific experts as they — and we — try to protect ourselves, as well as others in our community and country. Try to enjoy your family time. Take walks outdoors, maybe work in your garden. Catch up on that stack of reading you never have time for.
You may be healthy and young enough, as well as fortunate enough, so that even if you get Covid-19, the infection will be less serious. Or you may get quite sick. More important: You and the people you love need to be concerned so you do not infect the vulnerable, including the many with underlying conditions and older people. This is no time for panic, racism, xenophobia, ignorance, and the spreading of false and unfounded information.
We’ve got a lot of work to do to protect the health of hundreds of millions of Americans.