The Morning Jolt

Health Care

Preparing for the Coronavirus Disruption

Iraqi medical staff check passengers arriving from Iran at Najaf Airport, Iraq, March 5, 2020. (Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters)

No matter our politics, no matter our race, creed, or color, it is at moments such as this that everything that divides us falls away, and we realize what unites every last one of us as human beings: None of us can stop touching our face.

On the menu today: why we need to take bigger steps now to avoid worse outcomes down the road, why we may need to embrace bailouts for coronavirus-affected industries, the not-quite-reassuring situation at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, New Hampshire’s political leaders insist it’s diverse enough to keep voting early in the presidential nominating process, and some much-needed fun with pop culture.

It’s Time for Precautionary Measures to Go Viral, Too

Every time I write about medical issues, I try to preface it with the disclaimer that I am not a doctor nor do I play one on TV.

That said, it’s probably time for everyone to start preparing for coronavirus to be extremely disruptive. By the time you get this, the markets will probably have started another brutal day, with stocks plummeting and oil prices tumbling fast. (The short explanation: Besides the coronavirus shutting down various industries and supply chains, OPEC and Russia are in a price war and slashing prices, as demand falls because of fewer people flying on planes, coronavirus quarantines, etc. This could be good news for consumers of oil, but this is going to be terrible for any country with an oil-based economy.)

The more resources and steps we throw at this problem early in the process, the better off we will be down the road. If you are among those higher-risk populations (elderly, preexisting health problems, compromised immune systems), you should be limiting your exposure to large crowds. If you’re not sure if you’re in that higher-risk group, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, “people with underlying conditions such as heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, and other conditions that cause suppression of immune system particularly among the older adults, are at a high risk of serious disease if infected with the novel coronavirus.” The CDC is recommending people in these groups stock up on supplies, take everyday precautions (wash your hands often, try to avoid touching surfaces in public places), and avoid crowds. This means canceling or postponing those travel plans.

The CDC now recommends travelers, particularly those with underlying health issues, defer all cruise-ship travel worldwide. “Older adults and travelers with underlying health issues should avoid situations that put them at increased risk for more severe disease. This entails avoiding crowded places, avoiding non-essential travel such as long plane trips, and especially avoiding embarking on cruise ships.”

It is a near-ironclad law of human nature that some people will not follow the directions of quarantine. Just this morning, in the St. Louis area, they’re dealing with two family members of a person infected with the coronavirus that attended a school dance and party at another house. There is a report that in Japan, a man dealt with the news of his infection by going to local bars and trying to spread it as widely as possible.

The good news is that there are probably plenty of Americans who are asymptomatic, and who are going to not even realize that they have the coronavirus, and simply think they have a cold. The bad news is that these people are still contagious. Even if you’re not in a higher-risk category, you could end up spreading the coronavirus to someone who is.

The United States has 52 million citizens above age 65, and according to the CDC, 21.7 percent of those people are in “fair or poor health.” That gives us about 11 million people who we really need to keep away from coronavirus exposure.

Assume we can prevent half of this population from being exposed and keep the fatality rate to 2 percent. That still adds up to 130,000 fatalities. That’s two to four times the death toll from recent flu seasons. The good news is that because we have generally excellent health-care facilities in this country, many will pull through — but they’re still looking at lengthy stays in intensive care units. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans will need to be hospitalized in an ICU, but estimates range from 200,000 to 2.9 million. The United States has “about 46,500 medical ICU beds in the United States and perhaps an equal number of other ICU beds that could be used in a crisis.”

You can see the problem, right? Once the ICU beds fill up, the prospects for the rest of the high-risk population who get infected get a lot worse. Whether or not people die depends upon whether or not they get exposed. Those of us who are not in high-risk categories have a responsibility to ensure we don’t accidentally spread it to those who are in high-risk categories. The “average American” is indeed going to be fine. But just about every “average American” cares about at least one person — a parent, grandparent, friend, neighbor — who is at higher risk.

We would be better off if everyone recognized we were in for a big fight. Allow your employees to telecommute if possible. Assure your employees that they can take as many days as necessary if they are asked to self-quarantine. (One university said that after using their maximum three sick days per semester, any infected or quarantined employee had to use other vacation and leave days. As one Twitter respondent put it, university employees with coronavirus should demand a face-to-face meeting with the university president and work out the issue with a handshake deal.) We’re probably going to see a lot more canceled big gatherings such as SXSW. It stinks, but it’s a small price to pay in a situation where lives are at stake.

(I wonder if the National Rifle Association’s Annual Meeting will go ahead as planned.)

I hated the concept of the 2008 bailouts, because it represented the taxpayers saving financial institutions and General Motors from the consequences of their own bad decisions. But the coronavirus isn’t anyone’s fault (other than maybe the Chinese government for initially underreacting and being so secretive about it). Our government throws money around like it’s nothing; saving cruise lines and airlines and hotels and other tourism-based businesses from going under and causing mass layoffs sounds like a much more justifiable argument. There’s no moral hazard here.

You’re going to hear a lot of commentary that will attempt to shoehorn every development in the fight against coronavirus into a “Trump is terrible” or “Trump is awesome” narrative. While there are plenty of bones to pick with the way the administration is handling the coronavirus — see Rich or Michael Brendan Dougherty — other countries with different leaders are experiencing the same kind of exponential increase in cases. There is no button in the White House that says “stop the spread of coronavirus” that Trump has failed to press.

For Once, Everyone’s Hoping It’s Just the ‘CPAC Crud’

As of this writing, CPAC is not releasing the name of the conference attendee who tested positive for coronavirus. The person is being treated in New Jersey.

Apparently CPAC chose to notify Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Paul Gosar that they had contact with the infected person, and those two lawmakers have now declared they are self-quarantining. (Apparently it is important for members of Congress to know they interacted with an infected attendee, but not anyone else who attended the conference.)

Close to 20,000 people attend CPAC each year, and a lot of people shake hands upon meeting. Maryland governor Larry Hogan declared in a released statement, “Due to the scale of this conference, we are urging attendees who are experiencing flu-like symptoms to immediately reach out to their health care provider.” One other wrinkle is that every year attendees at CPAC often come home with what’s nicknamed “the CPAC crud,” the usual colds and other viruses that get passed around at a big gathering. A lot of people may wonder if their post-convention illness is just a regular cold or something worse.

Here’s the thing: It’s possible this person didn’t spread the coronavirus around very much. The question is, did he cough into his hand and then press an elevator button, or touch a stairway handrail, or press buttons on an ATM keyboard . . . you get the idea.

New Hampshire Is Going to Insist It’s Representative Enough to Keep Going Second

Over in the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire political leaders insist that their state being almost entirely white has no significant ramifications for the presidential primaries. Right, right, I’m sure the lack of African Americans in the state had nothing to do with Joe Biden finishing fifth in the Granite State and then going on to roar back to front-runner status. The issue is not, as a former state GOP chair put it, “the notion is that everyone votes only for their own demographic.” As you probably noticed, Joe Biden is white. The issue is that the kind of people who live in New Hampshire are more inclined to support certain kinds of candidates — and those kinds of candidates aren’t as popular in most of the other states.

New Hampshire is 93 percent white, and the state’s residents are way more likely than the average American to be nonreligious, more supportive of abortion, more supportive of same-sex marriage, and more supportive of environmental regulations. If you don’t think that affects which candidate succeeds in that state’s primary, you’re fooling yourself.

ADDENDUM: Mickey and I finally found time to tape an episode of the pop-culture podcast, taking a look at whether the coronavirus is going to make people reluctant to go to movie theaters; the Disney+ film Timmy Failure and what happens when a book’s adaptation into a film goes in an unexpected new direction; the Netflix reality show that lots of people are talking about, Love is Blind; and all the ways that people can create online personas and the disturbing ramifications of that.

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