Commentary: If we want schools and the economy to restart, we’ve got to accept some facts and deal with them
In reporting on the coronavirus since January, I’ve interviewed dozens of infectious-disease researchers, epidemiologists and other scientists and health experts, and this much is crystal clear: The terrible situation we’re in now was widely, loudly and frequently predicted since very early on. Many U.S. political leaders didn’t listen then. If they don’t listen now, it will just get worse. At least, that’s what the experts say. Here’s a review of lessons not learned, the foibles that got us here, and the sad fact about who must take responsibility to change the course of the growing pandemic.
1: We knew in early February that this already was or would soon be a global pandemic. And we knew then that the handful of U.S. cases were just a prelude…
“It’s very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic.”
—Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, February 2, 2020
“We are preparing as if this were the next pandemic.”
— Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said February 3, 2020
“It appears we are currently in the early stages of a mild pandemic.”
— Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, February 5, 2020
But from the beginning, the experts were ignored and the reality distorted…
“It’s an unforeseen problem.”
— President Donald Trump, March 6, 2020
“It’s something that nobody expected.”
— President Donald Trump, March 14, 2020
“Nobody could have predicted something like this.”
— President Donald Trump, March 30, 2020
2: We knew in early April, when New York City was in the midst of its crisis, that the disease would spread across the country. “Every state will experience their own curve and their own peak,” Mark Cameron, PhD, an immunologist and medical researcher in the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, said on April 4, joining a chorus of experts predicting same.
3: Three months later, after economically and socially brutal shutdowns, every measure of the Covid-19 pandemic is now going in the wrong direction nationwide: New cases are soaring, hospitalizations are rising, and deaths, which lag behind both of those metrics, are starting a long-predicted uptick.
4: Like few other threats to the health of American people and the economy, the response to the Covid-19 pandemic nationally and in several states is marked not by missteps but by outright refusal to listen to health experts and accept established science. From Feb. 10 through July 1, President Trump has predicted at least 19 times that the coronavirus would just go away, including claiming that “like a miracle, it will disappear.” The White House has silenced the CDC repeatedly and announced the U.S. will withdraw from the World Health Organization. Mind you, these are the two top health organizations in the world when it comes to pandemic response. This is, plain and simple, antiscience.
5: The lack of a national plan, of leadership from the top, and the White House’s outright dismissal of advice from health experts, are the main reasons that the United States leads the world in Covid-19 deaths, with 24% of the global total despite having just 4.2% of the world’s population. You don’t become №1 in deaths by doing more testing.
6: We can’t get the U.S. economy going or safely restart schools without healthy people — workers, teachers, parents and kids. We won’t have healthy people if we don’t stamp out the pandemic. “States that opened without controlling Covid had to close,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former head of the CDC, tweeted today. “It’s 100% predictable: schools that open with either extensive spread or without careful planning will have to close. It’s SO important that our kids get back to school. That’s why it’s so important we do so thoughtfully.” (Here’s what educators and scientists say is needed, and here’s why federal funding for school reopenings would make sense.)
7:Without serious effort, the pandemic could get much worse this fall. And it will be around for years to come, barring a vaccine, which so far is still at least months away and may never happen (successful vaccines are really hard to do). And no, natural herd immunity is not the answer, unless you just get a kick out of a million or more Americans dying.
8:The virus spreads incredibly easily, mostly through the air when people are within 6 feet of each other for some length of time, and especially indoors, and double especially if they’re not wearing masks. If that sounds like a rally, it is. We know this. We’ve known this for months. Any confusion over the value of masks has been cleared up for weeks.
9:The virus does not respect borders. It goes where people go. One state’s vigilance can be nullified by another state’s ambivalence, by one traveler, one ember.
10: The lockdowns were totally squandered, by opening back up too quickly and too widely and not requiring masks in public, and failing to limit large indoor gatherings.
11: The reopening of bars and indoor dining and large indoor gatherings should have been on a delay, allowed only after evidence showed that other reopenings were not causing outbreaks.
12: The party atmosphere that was fostered with total lifts of lockdowns helped wipe out all the gains, the flattening of the curve, and in fact caused a surge in infections among younger adults, which is partly behind the soaring number of cases now.
13: The more the virus spreads, the harder it will be to bring under control. Contact tracing, which can work early on in smaller outbreaks to get isolate people who might have been exposed, is near impossible to conduct when you have 60,000 new cases daily. Every new case, meanwhile, represents greater odds of additional infections.
14:There is no question that a serious, national strategy should have been, and still should be, put in place to fight this pandemic, just as nearly every other nation on the planet has done. There is no indication that will happen. But we should not throw up our hands.
15: Nothing should be more important for the White House and the nation’s governors right this moment than getting this pandemic under control. “This should be our number one national priority right now,” Caitlin Rivers, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said June 26. “We are headed in the wrong direction at top speed.”
16: The science and on-the-record evidence on all the above is solid. We are where the scientists predicted we would be, where all of them hoped we would not be. Anyone who says “Who knew this would happen?” was simply ignoring the evidence that was everywhere, in the media and in verbal and written briefings to top officials (and even a White House pandemic playbook created by the previous administration).
17: Yes, science is not perfect, and we can quibble about some details, the fumbles of communication, the uncertainties and evolving understanding of a novel virus, the late-coming advice on masks. But epidemiologists and other health experts have been remarkably prescient about the risk and the need for a national plan, and if we don’t listen to their advice now, they’ll tell you to expect 1 million or more American deaths before this is over.
18: People who don’t wear masks when around other people in public are either ignorant of the facts or self-centered and uncaring of their fellow humans. Some say shaming doesn’t work, but that’s not shaming, it’s just facts. We cover our genitals in public. We don’t smoke in restaurants anymore. We make our kids wear seatbelts. We stay at home when we have the flu. We get vaccines. We do things for the good of public health. Mask refusal is not about liberty. It’s about death.
19: Even without state or national leadership, there are three selfless and highly effective things we can all do toward the goal of making the nation, and the economy, healthier, and hopefully getting kids back to schools so parents can go back to work: Avoid large indoor crowds, keep distance, wear masks. The pandemic response should not have to be planned by the people, but it seems to have been left to us.