Covid-19: March 12 edition

Lowell General Hospital

It was 13 years ago this month that I launched this blog. Since then, I have used this site to capture in words the major events of our time (which is why Paul Marion and I called our 2017 best-of-the-blog book History as It Happens). Mindful of that tradition and with last night’s double barreled news that the actor Tom Hanks is infected by coronavirus and the National Basketball Association suspending (cancelling?) its season because a player was similarly diagnosed, it’s time to write about Covid-19, the rapidly spreading and novel virus that the World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday deemed a pandemic.

For many years I’ve been in the daily habit of scribbling notes about worldwide events. Amidst many mentions of impeachment, being on the brink of war with Iran, and the quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, mentions of coronavirus began appearing in my notes on January 22. Below are my notes from that day through yesterday. Interspersed in italics are notable regional events as described in a Boston Globe article yesterday (“Two weeks of the coronavirus”).

January 22, 2020 – “The coronavirus seems to be spreading in China. The BBC (which is the radio station I listen to for news) has been reporting on this for several days.”

January 30, 2020 – “Another big story is how the coronavirus is spreading. It’s mostly in China but increased news coverage will cause people elsewhere to get nervous.”

February 1, 2020 – A student recently returned from Wuhan, China, is the first confirmed case in Massachusetts.

February 25, 2020 – “Coronavirus is spreading: Iran, Italy and South Korea all have cases. The CDC warns to prepare for a pandemic.”

February 27, 2020 – “Stock market down due to coronavirus.”

February 28, 2020 – “Stock market down 10 percent. Trump and his allies claim coronavirus is a news media/Democratic hoax.”

March 2, 2020 – “Coronavirus spreading around U.S.”

March 2, 2020 – Massachusetts gets its second confirmed case: a traveler recently returned from Italy.

March 5, 2020 – A Middlesex County women, recently returned from Italy, is diagnosed.

March 6, 2020 – Five new cases announced in Massachusetts. All had attended a conference of the leadership of Biogen, a Cambridge-based, multinational biotech firm at Boston’s Marriott Long Wharf on February 26 and 27.

March 7, 2020 – Five more cases: three from Biogen, one recently back from Italy, and one of unknown origin in a Berkshire County resident.

March 8, 2020 – “Newspapers mostly about virus. Big conferences like South by Southwest being cancelled. Italy orders a region-wide lock down.

March 8, 2020 – Fifteen new cases among Biogen attendees.

March 9, 2020 – “Huge drop in stock market. Biggest since 2008 crisis. Driven partly by virus but also by oil glut. Russia and Saudi Arabia failed to agree on oil production cuts so now both are flooding the market to drive down the price. The main casualty of this will be U.S. fracking companies so it will damage the economy in oil producing regions of the U.S. At the same time, the virus will curtail consumer spending which otherwise carries the economy. A New York Times analysis says we could be in for a long recession.”

March 9, 2020 – Thirteen new cases in Massachusetts.

March 10, 2020 – Governor Baker declared a state of emergency. Colleges are closing and won’t reopen even after next week’s spring break. There will be online learning only for the rest of this semester.”

The virus has certainly now taken center stage in all of our minds. Of course, the usual suspects (i.e., those who ridicule concern about climate change) are disparaging the steps being recommended by health care professionals that are intended to keep us all safe. The skeptics cite statistics of how many get the flu each year and how many die from it, implying that this is just another go-round of the annual seasonal flu.

Well that’s not the case. This is not the flu. The symptoms may be similar, but this is a new virus that’s never before been seen in humans so no one really knows how it acts or reacts. The biggest difference between the two is that covid-19 is far deadlier than the flu. According to the director-general of the World Health Organization as quoted by Business Insider, “about 0.1% of people who get the flu die, the coronavirus’ death rate is now at about 3.4%, based on the current numbers of cases and deaths.”

The 3.4% death rate may prove to be high once we get a better idea of how many people are actually infected (the higher the number who get it and survive, the lower the death rate) but many other experts set its death rate at 1% of those infected as opposed to .01% with the flu. One reason we don’t know how many have already been infected (besides the federal government’s testing fiasco) is that many who get the virus have mild symptoms and don’t go to a doctor or a hospital.

Mass General Hospital ambulance entrance

And the relative mildness of the symptoms experienced by some could pose a major risk to others who are older or already in poor health. Let’s say a young person goes to a social event, gets infected without realizing it, then visits an elderly relative and infects that person. The elder could be following all preventative guidelines but could still become infected by the infected visitor. That’s an example of why it’s so important for everyone to follow the “social distancing” recommendations.

Another reason that “social distancing” is so important is to spread out the onset of the disease. Many people will get it but if all get it at the same time it risks overwhelming our healthcare system. If the density of people infected is spread out over a longer period of time, our doctors and hospitals will be better able to handle the increased load (and as anyone who has recently interacted with our health care system knows, there is not a lot of excess capacity hanging around waiting for a pandemic to strike). For example, let’s assume Lowell General Hospital has 20 ventilators. Let’s further assume that the virus infection becomes widespread in Lowell and LGH suddenly has 75 patients desperately in need of a ventilator (as in they won’t survive without one). Who decides? This is what’s happening in Italy right now. It’s important to take this seriously.

So perhaps the biggest risk we face is from people not taking this seriously. People are scared, but they also don’t want to disrupt their lives. That mentality is what can turn a very bad situation into a disaster.

Thus far, the disruption to day-to-day life here in Lowell has been minimal, – unless you are a student or employee of UMass Lowell which shut down yesterday for the semester. The public schools and other public offices remain open. Some conferences and gatherings have been cancelled or postponed. More will follow and the disruption will last for months, not weeks.

From time-to-time as events warrant I’ll post other installments on this topic. Please jump in with your comments and observations.

6 Responses to Covid-19: March 12 edition

  1. Joseph Boyle says:

    On February 21st:

    The American media began heavy coverage of the domestic coronavirus story.

    The stock market began its downturn.

    Joe Biden’s months-long declines in the National and South Carolina Democratic primary polls ended, and his rise began.

    These trends accelerated in subsequent days, but Feb 21st was the inflection point in the data.

  2. Nancye Tuttle says:

    Thanks for your excellent summary of this frightening pandemic, Dick. More and more events in the region are being cancelled or postponed. The Chelmsford Center for the Arts just sent an email that it will be closed indefinitely. I wish all the area schools would do the same to help stop the spread. People need to take it seriously. Really.

  3. Paul Sweeney says:

    Has any thought been given to cancelling Lowell Walks? Under the circumstances I would think that would be a wise decision. And since we have zero leadership at the federal (and even the state) level we all have to provide our own leadership using common sense

  4. Khien says:

    Thanks Mr Howe. I think this is helpful. However at the rate at which things are going on right now, instead of too fear and confusion, people should observe the prevention techniques provided like washing of hands, using sanitizers, taking vitamin C, be more aware of our surroundings because there is no clear cut vaccine or test as of now.
    Personally, there is not much one can do but be observant, pray ofcourse for the spirit of discernment to know where to go or be and just hope for the better. Again thanks for the detailed analysis.

  5. DickH says:

    We have CANCELLED the Lowell Walk (Irish Acre) scheduled for this Saturday, March 14, 2020. Check back here over the weekend for a virtual tour of the Acre.

  6. David Kalivas says:

    Thank you for such an eloquent statement about the need to take this unknown virus seriously. Thus far, all signs are pointing to a spread of COVID-19, which has a high transmission and mortality rate and the more people who become infected the greater risk posed to our at-risk populations and the greater chance this virus mutates with the possibility of additional waves. Two weeks ago, Italy had approximately 150, now they have over 12,000 cases with over 800 dead. Singapore, Hong Kong, and S.Korea quickly exerted stringent measures to contain it, we have not. In the U.S., both our national and state governments have missed the boat on containing COVID-19; it is now in the community and beginning to spread. Isn’t it time for serious mitigation measures to try to limit what appears to be the early stages of an epidemic in this state? Even though the governor declared a state of emergency, he did not take bold steps to shut down all state agencies, allow public employees to work from home (excepting essential personnel) and to enforce a lock down of the communities for the next three to four weeks. Many schools and universities/colleges have closed for the next two to four weeks, so have museums, but many have not. Too many are still resisting closing or moving services online for whatever reasons they can think of, not clearly understanding the urgency of this potential epidemic in our area. The purpose of shutting down schools, colleges, universities and providing assistance to businesses during a shutdown is to prevent the spread of the virus before it happens. The governor (and state legislature) may choose to wait until cases multiply and overwhelm our health care system, but we shouldn’t wait for that, we need to think of preventive measures before it becomes catastrophic. If the state doesn’t act with full measure, then we need to push our local institutions to begin taking measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. This is not panic; this is what must be done when a pandemic hits your regional and local community and begins to spread. It would be calming to know something is happening to mitigate this potential epidemic in Massachusetts. Best wishes to all of us.