Rolling Thunder

            “What we’re seeing is that this illness has no mercy, against any kind of gender, age, or race.” Joseph Varone, MD, Houston physician, June 30th.

            “The epidemic is out of control across the southern United States.” Peter Hotez, MD, Houston pediatric virologist and vaccine scientist, July 7th.

            CNN’s John Berman: “Do you see an end in sight, or a plateau?” Rebekah Jones: “Absolutely not, especially if schools are opening next month, then we’re on a third wave of this first wave of catastrophe.” Rebekah Jones is a former Florida State data scientist fired last month for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 statistics, speaking on July 8th.

Dear Students,

These quotes, which you can find on CNN videos, come from three different kinds of experts, and all of them are visibly upset about what they are seeing and saying. But the greatest anguish is in the face and voice of Dr. Varone, who has been interviewed many times since the above quote, in his hospital, on the front line of the spreading American epidemic. He is devastated. He goes to work every day to take care of people of all ages who are more and more numerous and more and more sick with a virus that could have by now been controlled.

I feel as if I am in a time warp. I am watching heroic doctors and nurses in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, Houston, El Paso, Miami, and other southern cities describe, on the verge of tears, the exact same overwhelming of hospitals that we saw two months ago in Queens, Brooklyn, and The Bronx.

Hardened medical professionals are begging—in mirror images of their April northern counterparts—for us to behave differently. They are telling us that they can’t handle any more coronavirus patients. They are running out of ICU beds, and if they had the beds, they would not have the professionals to staff them.

All the governors of these southern states had to do was watch how Andrew Cuomo of New York get that state’s epidemic under control, and do the same thing—except that they didn’t have to be taken by surprise and be a little late with it like he was. But instead of imitating him, heeding his warnings, and starting earlier, they denied they would ever have to face what he faced. Now they are facing it, and are headed for worse.

In the past few weeks I have likened the surging case numbers to lightning and have repeatedly said that I would wait to hear the thunder, namely the surge in hospitalizations. Leaders of our country and of many states told us we could ignore the case numbers because they were only the result of more testing. Never mind that the case numbers were rising much faster than the number of tests. Never mind that the proportion of tests coming out positive keeps going up and up and up.

We were also told that because the surging cases were at an average age that was younger we would never see a surge in hospitalizations.

But they already knew that younger people too could get very sick, and that younger people inevitably also infect older ones, so this was not wishful thinking, it was lying. Lies on top of lies. Lies, lies, and more lies.

In Miami-Dade County, since June 24th, hospitalizations have gone up 87%, ICU patients 91%, and patients on ventilators 108%. That is a doubling time of a little over two weeks, and it’s not just Miami. More than 50 Florida hospitals have reached their ICU bed capacity. The 7-day average of new daily hospitalizations in Florida meandered around 150 during April and May, declined into early June, hit an inflection point around 110 on June 7th, rose steadily, hit another inflection point around 170 a week ago. The average climbed more steeply from there, reaching around 270 on July 7th. There is no indication yet of the slightest  bending down of this curve.

In Texas, the count is reported differently, as the total number of people in the state in hospitals with COVID-19 on a given day. This number hovered under 2,000 in April and May, rose slowly but steadily in early June, then rose more steeply, increasing almost every day, to a total of more than 9,000 on July 7th. The Phase 1 opening in Texas began on May 1st, and proceeded despite rising cases, which were not supposed to produce rising hospitalizations—unless you believed the science, which said they were almost inevitable.

In Arizona, the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals (click on the icon for “Hospital COVID-19-Specific Metrics” in the lower right then on the appropriate button across the top), the number on ventilators, and the number in ICU beds have all risen steadily and sharply since early June. According to The Arizona Republic, “85% of current inpatient beds and 91% of ICU beds were in use” as of Wednesday, July 8th. Native Americans are suffering most, extending the pattern of white people bringing them deadly diseases beginning with the arrival of Columbus.

California’s governor announced on Wednesday that hospitalizations for COVID-19 have increased 44% and ICU admissions by 34% in the past seven days. For Los Angeles County, the three-day moving average of patients hospitalized with the virus peaked at around 2,000 on April 29, declined to around 1,300 on June 15th, and rose twice as fast to return to around 2,000 yesterday. Available ICU beds are around all-time lows for the epidemic. “This is the explosion we warned about,” said a professor of public health at UC Irvine.

And in our own state of Georgia, where Emory will reopen partly live on August 19th, the seven-day moving average of the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 declined steadily from 1,500 on May 15th, stayed under a thousand for most of June, then rose much more sharply than it fell, doubling to almost 2,000 today, with no end in sight. On Tuesday, Brian Kemp, Georgia’s governor, announced a marketing campaign to encourage Georgia businesses to be safe, including no mandatory anything.

Hospitalizations are rising in more than 20 states, so I could go on, but you get the idea. In every state, black and brown people suffer more than whites, and where there are Native Americans, they suffer most. All these states are trying to backtrack on aspects of their openings. (See the impact of early opening here.) They can still do something, but it better be big, and it better be now.

All the above graphs are what are known in statistics and business (among other fields) as hockey-stick curves. It’s what start-up companies dream of. You’re holding the hockey stick and your sales are flat for a while (the part of the hockey stick that you hit the puck with) and then there’s a long upward zoom that goes to the sky, or at least up to your chest. The upward zoom is straight and fast.

For sales, this is a great curve. For a disease outbreak, not so much.

Remember, we are now counting hospitalizations, the thunder. There is no argument that more testing leads to more hospitalizations; not even the world’s most empty hairdo could argue that. Only more disease leads to more hospitalizations, especially in a time when you’re hoping to stay out of the hospital and doctors are trying to keep you out. Also (a teensy reminder of good news from prior updates) remdesivir, dexamethasone, more sophisticated oxygen management, and maybe even a resurrected chloroquine are shortening hospital stays. Yet admissions stay ahead of discharges. Way ahead.

But what about deaths? Ah yes, the deniers are still holding that ace: declining or stable deaths. There are three reasons: 1. the above treatments have made the disease less deadly; 2. the average age of cases is going down steadily, and younger people are less likely to die of it, so far; and most importantly, 3. death is a lagging indicator—hospitalizations are doing the hockey-stick thing now, but we have to wait a few weeks before we know about deaths.

I would add that these upward-leaping hospitalizations also lag infections, by days to weeks. So whatever risks Americans took on the July 4th weekend are not yet reflected in these numbers. All that is ahead of us.

At the risk of straining the metaphor, we had the lightning (skyrocketing cases), we’re having the thunder (the hospitalization hockey stick), but we have not yet had the flash floods and drownings: a sudden surge in deaths on top of the 132,000 we have had already. We may not have it. But we have to do more than hope.

Sometimes when I watch an interview with a nurse or a doctor, and I remember those who risked or gave their lives to save us from our own stupidity, it’s hard for me to hold back tears. As the celebration of our independence passed, and it was not balanced with any wisdom about how to use that freedom, I was not proud of my country.

Look at New York (which opened in such a way that its cases dropped in half after the opening), or almost any other advanced country and you will see how it should have been done. Heck, look at Uruguay, Rwanda, or our sister state of Georgia (in Asia, capital Tbilisi) and you’ll see how we could have saved at least a hundred thousand Americans.

To any young person going through this I say: I was young once, and I loved it. You are losing part of it, and I am sorry for your loss. But I promise you: if you do the right thing now, it will almost certainly be behind you in a year. And you will live to brag for six decades about how you made it through that deadly pandemic of 2020.

But if you get it and have lingering lung damage, as some young people do, you may not have the breath to brag so loud. And if you bring it to your grandparents and kill them, you will shudder with shame whenever 2020 is mentioned.

Your choice. That freedom’s real.

Dr. K

 

 

 

 

 

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