Navy hospital ship U.S.N.S. Comfort arrives in New York Harbor.
As often happens in natural disasters, or in this instance a global pandemic, circumstances evolve rapidly. Information flow hits overdrive, and we as at-risk consumers are inundated by a tsunami of news. While trying to make sense of a crazy situation, there frequently comes a crystalizing moment that serves to bring home the reality of an oncoming calamity.
For me, during this time of Covid-19, that moment came at the conclusion of a work meeting I attended Tuesday, March 24. It was a weekly conference call that takes place. Nothing remarkable about it, aside from at its conclusion, staff was informed that this would be our last day of working in the office for the foreseeable future.
A telecommuting policy was circulated requiring our signatures by end of business that would shutter our office and send staff home in concurrence with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s “Stay Safe at Home” order.
This was no huge surprise mind you. Schools closed March 13 in Frankfort. Non-essential businesses were no longer open, elective medical procedures ceased, public congregation was limited, all major sporting events were cancelled and the concept of “social distancing” had become common vernacular.
I am thankful for employment allowing the flexibility to telecommute. That being said, I reside in a house with a family of five. The concept of working from home sounds easier in theory than reality.
I’ve previously weathered two other notable disaster scenarios. I lived in Washington, D.C. in 2001, during the September 11 attacks, and resided in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When one has to scramble for safety and is sent home for undetermined amounts of time, reality gets bent, and can fold inward on oneself or others who are cooped up together. There are good days and bad days.
As soon as my Tuesday conference call ended, I speed dialed my doctor to get an appointment for the following morning. Knowing I would soon be quarantined within four walls with my family, three cats and a Guinea pig for weeks, I felt it best to utilize any pharmacological remedies attainable.
In Covid-Land, finding joy is a peculiar shaded animal to trap. For some, locating a few rolls of toilet paper or hand sanitizer on grocery shelves may be reason to celebrate. For me happiness was securing a prescription of Xanax from my doctor with lots of refills.
This is what we are down to in America. Finding aid and comfort in mundane spaces overlooked in our pre-Covid lives. Fevered runs on supplies at groceries, Lowe’s, Walmart or Save-A-Lot were the new norm, as folks tried to find essentials no longer readily available.
There wasn’t panic in the air so much as a look of disbelief on the faces of those I saw in stores during my daily travels to retailers. Haphazardly at first but soon routinely, shoppers began appearing with masks, bandanas or neck gaiters covering their faces.
Was it really coming down to this? That was the question I could see in everyone’s eyes, including my own.
Covid-19 was no longer in Wuhan, or Washington state, or California, or New York. It was in Kentucky, solidly, with more significant numbers of cases weighing heavily on the bordering states of Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee.
Concerning reports had begun appearing on national news sites in January about a strange sickness that originated from a live animal and seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei, China. Anyone who remotely followed previous outbreaks of Ebola, H1N1 (2009 Swine Flu Pandemic), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), would instantly grasp the severity of possible repercussions from what was described occurring in China beginning Dec. 31, 2019.
A cluster of people came down with a mysterious viral pneumonia-like illness after frequenting the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. This was a notoriously unsanitary 540,000 square foot shopping space, the largest wholesale seafood market in Central China, with some 1,000 separate merchant stalls. It sat a mere 1/2 mile away from the Hankou railway station, which linked the virus to all of Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million people, and to the rest of the globe.
Primarily the virus transmits person-to-person through close contact, often the result of coughing, sneezing or talking, as small droplets are exhaled. It also can be contracted by touching contaminated surfaces where these droplets rest, then touching your face.
The time from exposure to onset of symptoms averaged five days, but could fall between two to 14 days. Complications included acute respiratory distress. Common symptoms were fever, cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and loss of smell.
On Jan. 11, 2020, Chinese state media reported the first documented death from this as yet unidentified novel coronavirus. In turn, the Chinese government rapidly shut down everything in Wuhan, closing air and rail stations, as cases spiked dramatically along with related deaths.
Prior to the end of February, positive cases of Covid-19 were documented on every continent globally aside from Antarctica. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic.
Aside from considerable death and sickness, the result of essentially shutting down all the industrial supply countries was a disruption in global supply chains. Massive layoffs of workers ensued. Economies collapsed. Education systems shutdown, as approximately 98 percent of the world’s students were sent home.
There has been no going to church on Sundays, nor are any typical political or cultural events taking place. Frontline medical workers have declared a worrisome shortage of critical personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to guard our doctors, nurses and first responders. Ventilators are coming up short. These are particularly crucial in sustaining life from acute respiratory illnesses such as Covid-19 causes.
On Jan. 21, the first case of Covid-19 was documented in the U.S. in Washington state. That this virus was a clear and present danger to America was blatantly obvious. President Donald Trump and his team of neophyte yes men inexplicably chose to make a joke of the illness it caused, stating it was nothing but a media hoax, and would disappear in no time.
Meanwhile China was heavily impacted by this deadly new strain of virus, and the contagion rate in Italy worsened rapidly. People were stranded on cruise ships raging with infection. Senior centers were recognized as particularly vulnerable to contagion. But Trump only saw this as an attempted hit job on him, similar to his claims surrounding the Mueller Report or his impeachment over the Ukraine call.
On Jan. 31, Trump restricted travel of Chinese nationals from entering the U.S., but left open the passage of Americans returning from China and failed to lock the door to foreign nationals flowing into the United States through European airports.
The travel restriction was prescient but incomplete. What it did successfully accomplish was to slow the spread of contamination, and bought the administration six weeks. This extension of time could have been used to better prepare the nation for what was certainly to come, fix the testing problem or obtain critical supplies of protective gear. Instead Trump squandered this precious time belittling the “Wuhan flu,” and held large campaign rallies where he boasted of the virus being a hoax manufactured by the fake news media.
Unable to resist an available spotlight, Trump convened the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Its stated purpose, to coordinate and oversee the administration’s efforts to monitor, contain and mitigate the spread of Covid-19. In reality it was more of a PR grab. Trump was clearly unhappy about the positive news coverage Gov. Andrew Cuomo was receiving for his frank and honest daily press remarks concerning New York’s dire situation.
Vice President Mike Pence was named chairman, but this was a Trump-led circus. Several notable health experts were named to the task force’s roster, including Dr. Deborah Birx, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Jerome Adams, U.S. Surgeon General.
These briefings were a mess from the start. The primary reason being Trump wanted to stand before the media and appear to have answers for combating Covid-19, but lacked the requisite knowledge or honesty to make his inclusion useful.
It was a lot of name dropping by Trump, and bluster about conversations had with world leaders or other confidants. Instead of better informing citizens, task force updates were disinformation campaigns.
The medical professionals who should have been leading these discussions were sidelined. The deal was either back the president’s questionable take on the severity of the coronavirus or get marginalized. Frequently things grew contentious during the updates, as Trump tried to control his fake narrative, but the press did its job and pushed back.
The more Trump flailed at trying to draw attention away from the growing number of U.S. infections, the clearer it became that the president had abandoned his leadership role over the pandemic, and punted this unprecedented public health challenge to the governors, mayors and local municipalities to manage on their own.
By March 26, the U.S. became the country with the highest number of Covid-19 cases, with more than 82,000 citizens testing positive. Yet testing itself was a national disgrace. For such a resource-rich country, full of cutting edge medical research facilities, to not develop reliable and plentiful testing opportunities was incomprehensible. It was as if Trump wanted testing to fail in order to artificially keep the contagion numbers low and limit the truly disheartening numbers of those infected.
But this was Trump at his dark, narcissistic core. He was willing to sellout the infirm, elderly, and vulnerable to illness and death, if it improved his re-election prospects. This was proven daily at task force briefings as Trump repeatedly ignored scientific warnings, medical advice and common sense over his nativist political instincts. Choosing instead to lie to the American people about the severity of Covid-19 and disavowed basic safety measures that could have saved lives.
The true sin here is the Trump administration’s refusal to take the virus seriously. It forced the medical community into a corner. Doctors and scientists with first person knowledge of the human wreckage caused by Covid-19 had to waste valuable time and resources to correct misperceptions about the virus passed on by Trump and echoed by the Republican establishment, making health professionals’ jobs to keep Americans safe that much more difficult.
Lacking any coherent national strategy to combat the virus, we as citizens have been left to wait, as our children do their school work at home virtually. We wait, as birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated quarantine-style without family or friends to attend. We wait, as healthcare workers and the sick pass away in isolation without the companionship of loved ones. We wait, as the infection and death count grows exponentially by the day.
We wait for a grown up to again inhabit the White House.