Americans are a sunny people, optimistic by nature and by virtue of experience. But just because things usually work out for the best for our unusually blessed country doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take big problems seriously. Consider COVID-19, the mysterious coronavirus that emerged from central China late last year and that has been marching around the globe.
The coronavirus is a highly contagious pneumonia like-ailment that is at least several times more deadly than the flu and for which there is currently no vaccine. In just a few short months, it has sickened more than 100,000 and killed almost 4,000. While there are almost certainly many, many undiagnosed cases of the virus, 4,000 deaths for 100,000 cases points to a fatality rate of 4 percent.
When we get a better sense of the true denominator — how many people have the ailment altogether — we will get a better sense of the actual fatality rate, but all experts agree it is far higher than influenza, which has a death rate of 0.1 percent in the United States.
Even a true fatality rate of 1 percent would lead to untold catastrophe if the world were to suffer a pandemic. If half the country were to be infected and the death rate were 1 percent, a city the size of Philadelphia would be wiped off the map. Some sniff that the COVID-19 “only” is a serious danger to the sick and infirm — as if that makes it any better.
The good news is, while coronavirus is not yet effectively contained in the United States, it has yet to spread beyond specific hard-hit clusters like Seattle and Santa Clara County, California. That means we still have time to stop the spread. Over the weekend, President Trump’s former FDA chairman, Scott Gottleib, gave a sobering interview on CBS television where he urged sensible, fact-based precautions that could be taken.
“We have to implement broad mitigation strategies. The next two weeks are really going to change the complexion in this country,” Dr. Gottleib said, pointing specifically to actions that hard-hit cities like Seattle can take. “Close businesses, close large gatherings, close theaters, cancel events,” he urged.
Some individual institutions have taken the responsible decision of kiboshing major events. Austin, Texas, cancelled its famous South by Southwest Festival. Pearl Jam delayed its upcoming tour. This is “panic,” some say. But it’s not: It’s actually prevention, a key component of modern medicine.
Absent effective mitigation the coming weeks, Americans could be in for a very unpleasant spring and summer. Not only would deaths increase, but our way of life would come under siege. We know this because we can see what’s happening in other countries that have failed to manage their outbreaks early on. China locked down millions as the virus ravaged vast swaths of the country. Italy has now followed suit and essentially shut down its entire economy as a way to stop the spread. It has quarantined millions to boot. Israel has effectively ended all tourism by making all people who enter the country endure a 14-day quarantine.
We Americans may be cock-eyed optimists, but Dr. Gottlieb is suggesting we take two strong doses of cold-eyed optimism and call him in the morning. We’d do well to heed his call.