Coronavirus, Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19–names that confuse, strike fear, and bewilder the general public. These words have become part of our every-day lexicon. There is not a day that goes by when there is not at least one discussion of the virus and how it is upending everyone’s lives. What started as a conversation in December about a new virus in remote China has now roared into a world-wide pandemic with no end in sight. We have never experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. We have heard of SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, and Ebola, but the majority of these diseases occurred outside of the United States. Coronavirus is literally on our doorstep and we are unprepared. Summit County, Utah has wisely issued a shelter-in-place order to protect its citizens. For the well-being of all Utah citizens, other cities and towns across Utah should follow Summit County’s lead and initiate shelter-in-places orders.
Humankind has survived many previous epidemics including the plague, smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis. We have learned how to survive these diseases by studying them, understanding how they attack our immune systems, and creating treatments and vaccines to prevent them. We educate people about these diseases through intensive public health education. We teach people how these diseases are transmitted and how to prevent them.
Coronaviruses have been around before and will be with us long after this pandemic. Coronavirus, which mainly causes common colds, also includes SARS, MERS and most recently COVID-19. In order to stop the SARS outbreak of 2003 scientists used scientific approaches including epidemiologic and infection control to stop the epidemic. During the SARS epidemic, 10% of the infected population died. During the MERS outbreak the death rate was 30% for those infected. COVID-19’s death rate worldwide is approximately 1 to 2 %. In Italy, the death rate for COVID-19 is 7%. The reason the death rate in Italy is so high is because their healthcare system is completely overwhelmed, and they have not been able to provide good quality healthcare to save those who are infected.
Like Italy, the United States is overwhelmed by COVID-19. In order to apply effective scientific approaches, such as epidemiology and infection control that worked with SARS, we need widely available, quick, and efficient testing. At this point, we have not been able to implement widespread testing in the US. Because of this deficiency and because of asymptomatic transmissions, we do not know who is infected and who is not, and we have been largely blind to this large epidemic.
The U.S. should have begun widespread testing earlier, as occurred in Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea. At this point, we are literally playing catch-up with people’s lives. Hospitals do not have enough personal protective gear for their staff and front-line workers; we are asking the healthcare community to put their lives on the line while wearing bandanas and scarves. Nurses in some parts of New York City are wearing garbage bags as protective gowns. The U.S. is supposed to have one of the best healthcare systems in the world, but we are woefully unprepared for the onslaught from this virus. The federal government has been ridiculously slow to respond to the overwhelming need for equipment and protective gear for healthcare workers. Doctors, nurses, and respiratory techs are literally begging for equipment and protective gear on social media, in the press, and from their families to underscore their incredible needs at this time.
The United States is the wealthiest country in the world and supposedly has the best healthcare system on the planet. Yet, hospitals in New York City are repeating the travesty in Italy. They are totally overwhelmed, and people are dying in the emergency rooms before ever being seen. Serious crises reveal great leaders. Not all leaders rise to the occasion, but the great ones always do.
In this country, some states’ governors and mayors have become our great leaders, filling in the absence of such leadership at the federal level. It is high time for all of Utah’s leaders to rise to the occasion and put shelter-in-place orders in position. Utah’s leaders must recognize the seriousness of COVID-19 and act appropriately in order to save lives.
Laurie Hofmann is a Better Utah board member.