This is not the flu
COVID-19 is scary. For those of us with immunocompromised friends and family, loved ones in countries in lockdown, and family working in hospitals and other high risk locations, the pandemic is even scarier. People are dying and will continue to die at rates that many Americans, including highly educated and otherwise in-the-know people, seem not to understand. Dr. James Lawler, an infectious diseases specialist and public health expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center who has treated patients infected with COVID-19, estimates that 96 million people in the United States will eventually become infected. This would translate to five million hospital admissions, of which two million patients would require intensive care. Still not convinced that COVID-19 is a big deal? Keep in mind that, according to the American Hospital Association’s 2018 survey, America has only approximately 925,000 staffed hospital beds. Fewer than a tenth of those beds are for people who are critically ill. If these figures were not worrying enough, remember that two thirds of US hospital beds are generally full, and the coronavirus coincides with the peak of a severe flu season. What’s more, the US, at 2.8 beds per 1,000 people, has substantially fewer beds per capita than do Italy and China, at 3.2 and 4.3 beds per 1,000 people, respectively.
If COVID-19 is allowed to spread, without interventions, at the rate projected, it will overwhelm our medical system. Doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, and other health care providers will inevitably contract the virus and be unable to work. Other essential hospital personnel, such as housekeepers and kitchen staff, are also potentially in harm’s way. People with pre-existing conditions will suffer. Those who need medical attention for something other than the coronavirus during the outbreak will have reduced access to the care that they need to recover. In Italy, the country with the second largest number of cases, hospitals are already being forced to triage patients in dire need of ventilation machines or respirators, often deciding whom to save based on the patient’s age. Gastroenterologists, cardiologists, and other specialists are being conscripted to help care for lung patients as pulmonologists become too few for the growing number of cases, something for which hospitals such as Mount Sinai in New York City are already planning.
What helps? Social distancing. Restrict the number of people you see, and encourage those people to do the same. Send one member of your family to the pharmacy and the supermarket. Forgo unnecessary outings: avoid the gym (lift your little siblings! Run outside!), the movie theater (Love is Blind will keep you occupied for a solid day), and other indoor social settings. Contain the spread of the virus and flatten the curve to avoid the complete devastation of hospitals and infrastructure. What does not help? Large social gatherings and “quarantine parties” (this is not a snow day!). The spread of misinformation about COVID-19 being no worse than the flu (Dr. Lawler suggests a conservative estimate of 480,000 coronavirus deaths, while, according to the CDC, a maximum of 50,000 people have died from flu-related illnesses this season). Insensitive remarks about groups that are most vulnerable to the virus.
Now is the time to practice empathy and to work on putting things in perspective. None of us want to stay away from our friends, extracurricular activities, social lives, vacations, college tours, and other hallmarks of the teenage experience. However, we must put the health and safety of our global and local community above our own desires, now more than ever. In short, stay home, wash your hands, and take care of yourself and your loved ones.