We’ve been under-reacting, seriously under-reacting. We have only just begun to deal with Novel Coronavirus (or Covid-19) as the threat it really is. We’re desperately trying to play catch-up.
So, who under-reacted?
The President. Our intelligence agencies were aware of and began warning of the threat of a global pandemic nearly two months ago. By the end of January, the United States was chartering flights and began evacuating US diplomatic personnel from China. We stopped all commercial flights from China, but the virus was already on our shores and the public-health establishment knew it had to be spreading.
While our intelligence agencies and public health officials began sounding alarms and expressing concern to the White House, it seems the President made a classic mistake in dealing with the threat of a looming pandemic. Even after the first cases reached our shores, the White House waited to see just how bad it would get in the United States. That, as it turns out, is a classic mistake. Most Presidents would have probably hesitated to do what had to be done. We had a slim chance to stop or at least slow Covid-19 from spreading throughout the United States, but it was a small window of opportunity, and we had to act fast and decisively. The nature of a virulent epidemic is that data about the spread is always behind the curve because the epidemic is invariably moving faster than data can be collected.
It is not hard, however, to understand the hesitancy to act. Stopping a virulent epidemic before it takes off is a terrible responsibility. It would mean shutting down the country quickly. But it is also the only defense we have. Covid-19 is a novel Coronavirus. That means mankind has never seen it before. All we know is that it can be deadly and that mankind has no vaccine and no cure, therefore we are totally exposed to whatever Covid-19 might visit upon us. It is the fact that it is a novel Coronavirus that called for immediate and drastic action. It doesn’t seem the President ever really understood that, although he now says he understood that all along.
So, the White House delayed even suggesting that it was serious, or that it was a threat or that we didn’t have it under control. Quite the contrary, President Trump claimed, until barely two weeks ago, that we had only a few cases, that cases “could” be down to zero in a short time, and that we had it very well under control. There was zero chance that cases of Covid-19 might have dropped to zero. Zero chance! Even today (Saturday), the President stated at the Coronavirus daily press briefing that “no one saw this coming.” That just isn’t true. Every epidemiologist in the country probably saw this coming, including our own public health officials. Certainly, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the revered director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases saw this coming.
Now, it would take an extremely wise and selfless President to do what had to be done, especially in an election year. We’re not sure any President would have acted with the urgency for which the circumstances called. There is a chance, but only a very slim chance, that the draconian measures now taking hold throughout the United States will slow the spread of Covid-19 enough to enable the country to deal with it effectively.
Johns Hopkins University has logged data regarding the spread of Covid-19 in the United States and Italy from the time the United States and Italy experienced their 100th confirmed cases. As recently as March 2nd the United States had 101 confirmed cases, Italy had 155 confirmed cases. One week later the United States logged its 704th confirmed case and Italy had logged about 1,000 confirmed cases. It is estimated that each infected person probably passes the virus on to two or three others, who in turn, pass it along to two or three other individuals and so it multiplies, thereafter, pretty much geometrically. So, a week later on March 14th, 2943 confirmed cases were reported in the United States and Italy had just logged close to 5,000 cases. As this essay is being written (yesterday) confirmed cases in the United States had climbed to 19,383. As of Friday, (March 19th) Italy had confirmed 41,036 cases of Covid-19. So, in less than three weeks the United States has seen the number of confirmed cases rise from 101 cases to 19,383 and Italy has seen the total number of confirmed cases soar from 155 cases to 41,036 cases.
These statistics reflect the confirmation of Covid-19 cases actually tested. Given that, so far, so few tests relative to the need have been conducted in the United States we know the actual number of infected individuals is much, much, higher and spreading. Remember, it is believed that each infected individual infects two or three other individuals which is why the need to quarantine is so great.
Furthermore, while most cases among those under 65 tend to be milder than the over-65 cohort of cases, many younger Americans will still need hospital care. The young do not get off scot-free. We have about 50 million Americans who are 65 or older. Of the remaining 277 million Americans, even a 1% infection rate will result in nearly 3 million new cases among those under 65 years of age, and even if only 1 percent of those cases require hospital care that would equate to a demand for 30,000 beds. Thus the need for widespread quarantine if we are to greatly reduce, if not eliminate, chaos in our healthcare system.
Columnist Tom Friedman said it well. “We must manage the unavoidable if we are to avoid the unimaginable.”