“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
Wayne Gretzky, widely viewed as the greatest hockey player of all time
This is my outlook on the COVID-19 pandemic as of Sunday, April 5, 2020. I pay close attention to many sources of information and sift or curate them as best I can. This is a constantly changing situation and you should not rely too much on me. As I’ve told you before, you are the future leaders of our country and our world and you must ultimately lead, not follow. Please let me know if you have information that is different or if you think I’ve made a mistake.
In my favor, I have been talking to you about this virus since our class began in January and I updated you every Tuesday and Thursday until Emory closed. Since then, I’ve been updating you every few days to a week. I try hard to get this right and not to scare you too much. I did try to scare you when we talked about Ebola, polio, and the flu pandemic of 1918-19, and I always said the next pandemic was a matter of when, not if. I did not know that this was it when I first mentioned it in January, but now everyone knows.
- The CDC has found that homemade masks or bandanas covering your mouth and nose when you leave your house will help to slow the spread. First Lady Melania Trump endorsed this, as have many other opinion influencers. It is not a substitute for social distancing, hand washing, and other measures, and it would be disastrous if people thought it was. It is an added measure on top of all those things. It is designed mainly to protect others, not you. When you breathe, talk, laugh, cough, or sneeze into the mask, the cloth will capture half or more of the moisture, and that means half the viruses if you are infected but don’t have symptoms. (You can experiment by spraying water into a glass through a cloth; only some moisture gets through.) If you do have symptoms, you must assume you have COVID-19, and self-quarantine completely until you are symptom free for three days. Call your health professional for specific instructions, and don’t dial 911 unless you are short of breath. Do not try to buy medical-grade masks; you will be taking them away from medical professionals and you may cause some of them to become sick and die. An example of how to make a mask is here.
- Rapid tests for the virus itself are slowly becoming more available, and antibody tests for whether you have already had the virus but recovered will become available more slowly. Widespread testing will be a game changer for control of the American epidemic, as it has been in China, South Korea, and other places.
- We have real leaders in this country who are regularly speaking out: Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, (Republican) Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and others. They speak honestly and to the best of their ability accurately about how to beat the virus and mitigate its economic effects. They don’t just call it a war, they act like it’s a war. Governors of many states are bypassing a mostly passive Federal government and attempting to help each other.
- Fortunately not all states are experiencing this wave of the pandemic simultaneously, so people and equipment are beginning to move where they are most needed. New York has by far worst crisis, so it is calling loudly for help. The state of Oregon sent 140 ventilators* to New York; this is a small fraction of what will be needed but it is a very important symbol. Twenty-two thousand health professionals from other states have gone to New York to volunteer. New York is worst now, but it will be better first, probably within a few weeks. It will then have excess ventilators and professional volunteers to send to other states as the crest of the wave moves around the country.
- Studies of treatments are proceeding, including convalescent plasma donated by people who have recovered from COVID-19; antibodies derived from that blood fraction; hydroxychloroquine, which has antiviral action in lab studies (and which I took for years to prevent malaria when I was in Africa, and then again for years for a skin condition); azithromycin, an antibiotic with possible antiviral actions; and specific newer antiviral drugs. I am hopeful that one or more of these will prove effective within weeks to months, much sooner than we have a vaccine. However, it is immoral to take hydroxychloroquine for prevention or self-medication at this time; it is not proven to work, and it is in short supply for people with lupus and other autoimmune diseases, who desperately need it.
- We have inadequate leadership at the very top in Washington, giving out inconsistent messaging, with no national strategy for supply and logistics for COVID-19 care—ventilators, N-95 masks, shields, gowns, and other personal protective equipment (PPE), and consistent only in predicting unrealistic time frames for ending the pandemic and getting the country back to work. The government in Washington has declined to order a national lockdown for social distancing, to mobilize the armed forces to help the hospitals and the states, to order manufacturers to make desperately needed ventilators and PPE, or even to set an example for our people in things like social distancing and wearing of masks.
- The hospitals in New York, Detroit, and New Orleans are already overwhelmed, but the word overwhelmed will be given new meaning in those cities in the next week or two. Large numbers of health professionals, police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and other first responders are already sick and more will be. Many who are not sick are crying every day. Some, understandably, are quitting in fear of bringing this deadly virus home to their families. Similar effects will be felt in other cities throughout the country over the coming weeks. Hospitals built out in convention centers and mega-tents were ready but almost empty for days until they were allowed to take COVID-19 patients. U.S. Navy hospital ships are almost empty because they still will not take COVID-19 patients.
- Many people still do not take social distancing seriously. Gov. Kemp of Georgia reopened the beaches and parks in our state after closing them. In many states social distancing is not enforced and not likely to be until it is too late. According to current official government projections, the United States will see a minimum of 100,000 to 240,000 deaths if we strictly follow social distancing and other precautions. We are not yet doing that. The number of deaths in the U.S. passed 9,000 today and is doubling approximately every 3 days, which would put us over a hundred thousand in 10 days or so. If we act properly and lengthen the doubling time to 4, 5, or 6 days, it will take longer to get there. But bear in mind that the increase continues to be exponential at those longer doubling times.
- The Congress, especially the Senate, has offered too little too late to offset much of the disastrous economic effects of the pandemic, and as usual the poor and minorities will suffer most of the consequences, including worsening health, inadequate access to care, and premature and preventable death. Poor families have the greatest psychological vulnerability to the post-traumatic effects of this experience. Families at all socioeconomic levels have seen increases in domestic violence.
- Something that I have been reluctant to mention in these announcements, but which more and more authorities are considering, is the possibility that this is only the first wave. The flu pandemic of 1918-1919 had three waves. We must watch closely what happens in China, South Korea, and Japan as they declare the virus beaten and relax social restrictions. The virus is currently spreading in the Southern Hemisphere of the planet and may get worse in their winter, even as it may get better at the same time in our summer. I wish I could promise you that Emory will have live classes again in the fall.
We all need to adapt to situations that are psychologically abnormal. You can do it. Facetime or Skype with your friends and family. Have Zoom rituals, club meetings, and parties. Go outside with a homemade mask and run or walk while social distancing. Watch those movies you always wanted to see, binge-watch those hot TV series, even maybe read a book that’s not assigned for school.
Whether we have one wave or more, we will in time have treatments and a vaccine. Those who have had the virus and recovered will slowly begin normal life again. They will help restart the economy. This will end.
Your great-grandparents lived through World War I and the flu pandemic of 1918-1919. Your grandparents lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Your parents lived through the Vietnam War, 9/11, terror of terrorism, and the Great Recession. If any of your generations were in the developing world, they saw and lived through other terrible things. You can live through this. Just do what you’re supposed to do and help others as best you can. Do your homework and study. Come to class online. You are still a college student and you still have great dreams. You will live to see your dreams come true.
- A note on terminology: I said in an earlier announcement that a ventilator is the same as a respirator. The Medline Plus dictionary of the U.S. National Library of Medicine says, “A ventilator is a machine that breathes for you or helps you breathe. It is also called a breathing machine or respirator.” However, other authorities use the word “respirator” to mean something entirely different, namely the top-flight hospital grade N-95 masks that screen out at least 95 percent of airborne particles not carried in oil. Because of the two meanings of “respirator,” I will avoid this word going forward. COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by one of many coronaviruses; this coronavirus is designated SARS-COV-2. However, we all know that today “coronavirus” or even just “the virus” will pretty much get the message across.