We can't put the COVID-19 genie back in the bottle, but our response to the coronavirus already can prepare us for any future reoccurrence or similar dangerous pathogen.
Because no one had ever dealt with a virus in the U.S. as lethal as this one, no one knew exactly what to do when it invaded our country. The same infectious disease experts we rely on for advice now played down the potential for the disease in January. The same Democrats who criticize President Donald Trump now lambasted some his early actions to combat it. The same scientists who predicted up to 2.2 million deaths now scramble to explain why we've had fewer than 55,000 cases to date.
We rushed to close down business and schools, clear out hospitals for incoming virus cases, and told people to stay home. Those measures certainly slowed the spread of the disease, but they also collapsed the humming economy.
Now, as the country reopens its economies in fits and starts, it's instructive to look at how some current statistics can inform our reactions in the future.
* As The New York Times' Bret Stephens pointed out in a column Tuesday in the Times Free Press online edition, the number of virus deaths per 100,000 residents in New York City (132) — as of last Friday — was more than 16 times those in America's next largest city, Los Angeles (8). If New York City proper were a state, he suggests, it would have suffered more fatalities than 41 other states combined.
Although New York City is the country's center of commerce, it's also one of the most crowded cities in the country, which has made coronavirus more easily transmissable. Faster travel restrictions into and out of and throughout the city following discovery of cases might have slowed the spread in the rest of the country. Yes, it would have paralyzed trade in that city briefly, but it might have prevented an economic collapse across the country.
Japan, according to Heather MacDonald, writing in The Spectator, with an elderly and similarly tightly compacted population of 126.5 million, did not implement a nationwide economic lockdown but emphasized the need to avoid confined spaces, crowded places and close contact. As of April 26, the country had had only 360 deaths.
* As of April 23, according to MacDonald, 99% of individuals who died from COVID-19 in New York City had pre-existing conditions, where the presence of or absence of those conditions was known. Long before the virus was ever heard of, doctors could say with certainty that people with pre-existing conditions — not just in New York City but across the country — were more susceptible to the likes of flu and pneumonia because their bodies did not have the strength to fight them off.
COVID-19 or no COVID-19, people with pre-existing conditions take their lives into their hands every time they're around large groups of people. At the first sign of a COVID-19 virus reoccurrence, people with such conditions should give themselves a shelter-in-place order.
* The same is true of the elderly. In New York City, per MacDonald, the rate of death for people aged 75 or older is 950 per 100,000 people, seven times higher than the citywide average (which is, of course, much, much higher than most states). And the rate of death for people aged 17 and younger, is 0. As with preexisting conditions, older people cannot fight off viruses as the young can.
So in the case of a reoccurrence, senior citizens need to stay at home and away from crowds of families or strangers. And the screening of workers and visitors in senior living facilities (nursing homes were responsible for 23% of COVID-19 deaths nationwide) and retirement communities must become a priority.
* Statistics show Hamilton County's death rate from the virus has looked well above what it actually is because of the lack of testing done. While the ability to test people here has jumped quickly in the last few weeks, such an ability is needed throughout the country at the dawn of an outbreak.
The ability to test anyone, the necessary equipment to test, and the availability of labs to analyze tests are just now getting where they should have been two months or more ago. A reoccurrence cannot find us unprepared in this area again.
* Stay-at-home orders not only have wrecked the economy, but they have kept people who fear they may have symptoms of heart attacks or strokes from going to emergency rooms for fear of contracting the virus. They have kept people from getting crucial cancer treatments, heart surgeries or being screened for diseases that might have been caught in time.
The orders have increased incidents of domestic violence and likely pushed up drug abuse and suicide numbers, if not over one's economic condition and their businesses then over their isolation.
What's done is done. While we may not be able to undo it, we can think smarter and plan better for the rest of this outbreak and the next time around. Keeping people apart saves lives, but it doesn't have to be everybody and everywhere and forever. And if we can test, it doesn't have to lead to an economic apocalypse.