Seeing last week’s “open the country” protests, with people gathered in crowds in various cities across the U.S., made me wonder: When does this become real?
What does it take for these COVID-19 skeptics to believe the virus poses a threat?
While there’s perhaps a balance to be struck between staving off economic disaster and epidemiological disaster, quickly “re-opening” the economy full-tilt, full-bore isn’t a good option.
Scientists and doctors and epidemiologists are still learning how this virus spreads, how it affects the body, how it kills. In terms of treatment, we have nothing but hypotheses and palliative care. Every couple of days, it seems, reports come out of new, horrifying symptoms or manifestations of the virus. Most recently we learned that COVID-19 patients in their 30s and 40s have died from massive strokes typically seen in significantly older people, that blood clots seem to be a dangerous feature of the illness.
COVID-19, it seems, carries not just an elevation of respiratory symptoms typical of the common coronaviruses that cause seasonal cold-like illnesses or of influenza; it seems protean, able to attack heart and lungs, brain and intestines, blood and nerves.
Some develop classic respiratory symptoms and fever that either resolve or worsen until they’re hospitalized. Some seem mildly ill, but suffer from oxygen deprivation that reveals itself only when the situation turns dire.
Some, we’ve now learned, develop blood clots that may threaten their lives, whether through stroke or pulmonary embolism.
Some number of people exposed have not developed symptoms, and some number of them have passed along the virus silently, unknowingly.
We are a scant few months into this novel contagion. We don’t even know yet whether or not infection and recovery confer immunity, whether temporary or long-lasting.
I don’t discount anyone’s economic pain, but reenacting 1918, when the country tried to get back to normal too soon during the Spanish influenza and triggered a lethal second surge of cases, won’t help the economy either.
Even the 1918 virus, “just” the flu, killed a small percentage of people who fell ill. But that small percentage added up to 47 percent of all deaths in the U.S. during that epidemic, according to John M. Barry in The Great Influenza. Scientists calculating the “excess deaths” at the time believe that about 675,000 people died in the 1918-1919 influenza, when the country’s population was roughly 110 million. In a worldwide pandemic that raged for roughly two years, more than half of the deaths occurred from September through December 1918 - after the U.S. thought the country was out of the woods, and as cities celebrated the end of World War I.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 1918 flu infected about a third of the world’s population, roughly 500 million people, with an estimated death toll of at least 50 million.
We have advantages over our 1918 ancestors. We have antibiotics, antivirals and ventilators, high-tech hospitals and trained medical professionals. We have doctors and scientists around the world publishing and sharing their observations, experiments and findings in real time. We have a century of experience using social distancing, contact tracing and other measures to slow or stop the spread of a virus. We have disinfectants and instant communication of steps people can take to protect themselves.
But we don’t yet have this under control. We need more time.
On Twitter @HeatherYakin845