As the coronavirus sinks its roots into American society, the progress of the disease will be predictable, unpleasant and manageable.
The illness – and government reaction to it – will grow geometrically, meaning that the virus and measures to limit it will increase dramatically and quickly.
That’s important to remember, so that we can be prepared, and so that we can resist the impulse to hysteria being promoted by politicians and the media.
Thankfully, modern Americans have been safe for generations from pandemic diseases. But as a consequence, we have forgotten the intrusions on life necessary to escape plague and pestilence. Facing the realities necessary to push back against disease will be difficult and disquieting.
Like the announcements of recent days. Colleges closing, the NBA suspending its season, St. Patrick’s Day parades cancelled. Soon, some schools will close, many businesses will be disrupted, and the nature of our society will change for a time.
The battle against the coronavirus is something of a delaying action, meant to stem its explosive growth in our midst. Public health officials will be keeping an eye on two things – the number of critically ill patients, and the number of available hospital beds. The goal is to keep the former below the latter. Because when we have more sick people than medical capacity, grama dies on a gurney in the hallway.
This is one of the ways coronavirus is different from the flu. The flu kills many thousands every year, but it does so within the capacity of our medical system, meaning that many more thousands are saved. Not only does the coronavirus have a seemingly far higher mortality rate than the flu, it would also strike in such a fashion as to deny most acute patients life-saving medical care.
We are blessed with a good medical system in the United States, but it is scaled for normal patient loads with a reserve for regional emergencies. But when the entire country is hit with an influx of acute patients, the reserve will be quickly expended and the system will be overwhelmed. That will deny care to patients of all kinds, not just the coronavirus.
Certainly, the coronavirus seems to primarily be an acute illness only for the elderly, and even then mostly for the elderly with other health problems, like diabetes, heart disease, lung disease or high blood pressure. That means the very large majority of Americans will not be significantly sickened by this. But the very large majority of Americans will be transmitters of this disease, and in a nation this large, there are more than enough elderly and infirm people for the coronavirus to completely overwhelm our hospital system.
At that point, though just a few of us are acutely ill, all of us are in crisis.
Clamping down hard against transmission of the disease is meant to delay and suppress the movement of the virus through our population. That does a variety of things. It will help keep the number of patients at any one time within the capacities of our medical system, and it will run the clock as researchers scramble for treatments and vaccines. It also buys time as we wait to learn if this is a seasonal virus – meaning that it is suppressed in the spring and summer, like other such viruses.
The warmer and more humid weather of spring and summer might suppress the disease, but we won’t know until spring and summer. Fighting the virus hard now delays its spread into our population, hopefully bringing us closer to the natural protection of the changing season. The five or six months of warm weather then provide more time for the discovery, manufacture and distribution of treatments or preventatives.
Fighting the virus hard now also buys time for our business and pharmaceutical communities to gear up and produce the test kits, ventilators and antivirals necessary to treat a population as large as ours. The United States is no longer primarily a manufacturing country, and the things we need are typically made in other countries, most notably China. In times like these, that comes back to bite you. So we scramble to start making the medical instruments and drugs we need to treat a nation of more than 300 million people.
We don’t have enough of those things now, but we might in time. So we have to buy time.
So we have to clamp down.
As irksome and as irrational as it seems. As disruptive as it undeniably is. As awkwardly and as maddeningly as it will be implemented. In spite of our own frustrations, in spite of the politicizing of the issue and process, in spite of the fact that not everything they do will make sense or work.
In spite of the fact that there will be a significant economic hit, including upon the small businesses in so many of our local communities.
It has to be done.
We have to move hard to slow the transmission of the coronavirus through our population. The only available way to do that is to fight person-to-person transmission. That means we have to keep people away from people. That means we have to do things that look like an overreaction. So we shut down the colleges and put the NBA on hold. We hole up, and we wait for the storm to blow over. We hole up, and we wait for the cavalry to come over the hill.
And we pray, remembering that God is our refuge in every storm, no matter how big, and the master of every monster, no matter how small.