As anyone who follows me on Twitter or follows my work here knows, I’m unhappy with the public response over coronavirus — from the World Health Organization, to the president and CDC, down to my local school’s superintendent. I haven’t found the declining rates of transmission in South Korea all that reassuring, because, unlike Seoul, we are not undertaking massive testing and investigation nor shutting down public gatherings and schools. At the public level, I think America may be currently making the same mistakes made in northern Italy two weeks ago.
But at the private and individual levels, we may be doing much better than Italy. Despite some embarrassing videos of people fighting over rolls of toilet paper, many people are preparing well enough to be an asset to their communities. Unnecessary air travel is down dramatically. Some airports are shockingly empty. Major companies are already encouraging remote work. Big movie releases are delayed. Private colleges and schools are closing. At some appointments locally in Westchester (where we’ve identified around 100 cases), I’ve noticed people washing their hands upon entry. Grand Central Terminal is less busy. Not everyone is making adjustments, but many of us who can are making meaningful “social distancing” changes. And that may make a huge difference in keeping the disease from having the dangerous exponential spread that collapses a health-care system.
And one last encouraging note. Italy is still drowning to the point where its doctors are testing only symptomatic cases, which is why Italy’s mortality case rate seems so out of line with South Korea’s. Nearly 40 percent of Italy’s cases are of people over 70. Less than 10 percent of South Korea’s are. In New York, testing capacity has grown to the point where we’re testing “known contacts” of known cases, and turning up asymptomatic carriers, who can be alerted of the need to self-quarantine. That’s not quite as good as South Korea, but it’s better than Italy or Iran.
Every delay of a major spread gives the health-care system more time to prepare for a peak surge of cases, more time to study treatments that work, and more time to develop vaccines if coronavirus ends up being a two or three-year event. Do your bit.