Más Tarde, Coma

No Time To Relax

There was a lot of discussion about when to “open the country” again. The president was hoping to do it “very, very, very, very soon.” He would decide when that should be, he said, based on some miraculous metrics in his head. It had to happen soon because “the cure could not be worse than the problem.”

I didn’t know what any of this meant. I suspected he mainly wanted to preen. He wanted the credit for “opening the country” but none of the blame if anything went wrong. Blame was for governors (losers) who had issued stay-at-home orders in their states.

He had boldly announced on April 13: “The president of the United States calls the shots.” In what surely would have been news to Thomas Jefferson, he said that the president had “total authority” to tell state governors when to “reopen.”

The next day, he said that he would soon be “authorizing each individual governor of each individual state to implement a reopening and a very powerful reopening plan of their state.” But, he said, “We will hold the governors accountable.” The federal government, he said, would be “watching them very closely.”

I supposed that any day now he would declare the nation open for business, and if the economy did not “roar back” as he had predicted, then it would be because the governors failed to fall in line. Behind the scenes, I presumed, he would try to make governors cooperate with his “open the country” edict by withholding vital medical equipment or other assistance that the federal government could provide but only if governors were sufficiently appreciative of his efforts.

Most governors who had weighed in on the subject did not seem to be falling for this foolishness. The governors of Washington, Oregon and California announced a coordinated “West Coast framework” for cautiously easing up on the mitigation measures that had been put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus—measures that so far appeared to be working.  

The president’s fantastical I-will-open-the-country notion was illusory. The coronavirus would continue to spread, and for now, our only defense was to slow it down. It was not a question of whether or not to “open the country.” Ninety-five percent of the people were still susceptible and vulnerable to the coronavirus. The real public health challenge was how to maintain our only defense against the virus—blocking its transmission—while creating safer environments where more people could get back to work, more businesses could operate, and more friends and families could be together—in actual, not virtual space—and feel less isolated.

Modification of stay-at-home orders would come when the rates of new infections declined and stabilized at a level that medical facilities could handle. It would come when widespread testing for coronavirus infection had at last become possible. It would come when each state had adequate stocks of necessary medical equipment and supplies of all sorts. It would come when it became possible to test, quarantine and contact-trace.

We already had the template for economic life in the shadow of the virus because, in fact, much of the economy had never closed (grocery stores, mail and package delivery, construction, public safety, and medical facilities to name a few areas of economic activity considered “essential” and therefore exempted from stay-at-home orders). Many of these activities had adapted to the risk by adopting mitigation measures that effectively interrupted the transmission of the virus.

I had no doubt that, in time, other types of economic activity would adapt. “Opening the country” would not happen by presidential decree on a date selected by the commander-in-chief. We, the People would decide. The economy would not begin to approach normal until we felt safer—safer to work, safer to shop, safer in numbers. It would be gradual, and there would be setbacks. A second COVID-19 wave seemed likely in the fall.

Would people feel safe going to restaurants any time soon? Would theaters re-open if audiences continued to fear potentially fatal infections? Would fans feel safe enough to fill arenas and stadiums to watch sporting events without wondering whether they would be risking their lives? When would parents have confidence that their children would be shielded from the virus at school? How could we be protected from the virus while receiving various kinds of personal services that by their nature involved close person-to-person contact?

No one had all the answers, least of all the fat guy in the White House with the Super-Bowl ratings. The economy had already been severely damaged and damaged beyond repair for some businesses. Things would not get “back to normal” until people could safely mingle more, and normalcy ultimately implied having an effective vaccine. The timeline for vaccine development was uncertain. The most optimistic estimate was a year, but it could take much longer, perhaps three to five years.

What we did know was that this particular coronavirus, left to its own devices, could spread at an astonishing rate. We had watched it happen.

By March 13 (the day the president declared a national emergency) there had been 1,629 reported COVID-19 cases in the United States, and 41 people had died from the disease.

One week later, the cumulative number of COVID-10 cases had grown to 15,219, and the number of deaths had grown to 201.

One week later, there had been 85,356 cases and 1,246 people had died. Meanwhile, in my state, 414 cases had been reported and 12 people had died.

One week later, the cumulative number of cases in the US had grown to 277,205 and 6,593 people had died from COVID-19, and in my state, there had been 899 cases and 22 deaths.

One week later, by April 10, the number of cases had grown to 492,416 nationwide and there had been 18,599 deaths; in my state, there had been 1,371 cases and 48 deaths.

It appeared from the data that a peak fatality rate of 2,150 deaths per day had been reached on April 13.

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  1. Phyllis

    It’s a sad state of affairs – and a scary time.

  2. Jay

    My father, and I suspect yours, was born in 1918, the first of three years of the 1918 Flu Pandemic, unofficially named after Fred Trump, which infected over 500 million people and ravaged the country and the entire world, culminating in 1920. We should all take care lest we die in this one, which probably won’t culminate in 2020. Moral of the story: ‘Tis better to be born in a pandemic than to die in one.


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