Dr. Sarah Cody. That’s the name of a local government employee probably unknown to almost everyone reading this. Yet I think there’s a good chance that a million or more Americans will owe her their lives. And therein lies a tale…
Last Tuesday President Donald Trump announced that he expected to lift most health restrictions recently imposed due to the Coronavirus epidemic and send the country back to work by Easter, a possibility that shocked and horrified nearly all mainstream health professionals.
No need to worry, I said. I predicted that the exponentially-growing Coronavirus death toll in his home city of New York would have reached such horrifying levels by Easter that his Wall Street friends would persuade him to “pivot” away from such a foolhardy proposal.
At the time I made that prediction, Coronavirus deaths in New York were running at around 50 per day, and they soon jumped to 140 per day, then reached 209 in a 24-hour period by Saturday. Wall Street Wizards are quite familiar with exponential growth, the fundamental basis of compound-interest, and presumably they began to notice what was happening outside their own windows. So on Saturday, Trump announced that rather than any relaxation, he was instead considering an unprecedented federal quarantine of the entire State of New York as well as adjoining parts of of New Jersey and Connecticut, though he later backed down under fierce pressure. Just five days had made all the difference in the world.
The unimaginable human disaster now facing our country has several obvious roots. Our oceans had protected our home front from any attack during the two world wars while modern medicine had rendered disease epidemics a fading memory for three generations. Our arrogant and incompetent national leadership simply could not comprehend the possibility that their missteps might actually kill hundreds of thousands or millions of Americans. Moreover, our mainstream media was equally oblivious, and even if they had sounded the alarm, they had hysterically cried wolf so many times about so many ridiculous things that nobody would have taken them seriously.
But an important contributing factor is surely the inability of most individuals to grasp the unusual dynamics of an exponentially-growing process. In such a situation, seemingly insignificant delays can have enormous consequences.
Let us consider a very simple example in which two similar cities each happen to have 1,000 Coronavirus infections, with a doubling-period of 3 days.
Suppose that the first city immediately implements a complete lock-down, thereby drastically reducing the spread of the disease, and then uses that window of opportunity to track down and temporarily quarantine all the infected. Assuming a 1% death rate, 10 total fatalities will result.
Now suppose the second city takes exactly the same approach, but merely delays implementing the policy for a single week. During that lost week, the number of infected will grow to 5,000, and the resulting five-fold increase in cases requiring hospitalization may overwhelm the local health care system, thereby increasing the death rate to 5%. The result is 250 fatalities. So the delay of a single week has increased the death toll by a factor of 25.
I live in Palo Alto, and every now and then I see a squirrel wander into the middle of a street, then remain frozen in fear as an approaching car bears down upon him. Almost invariably, the squirrel leaps away to the nearby pavement at the last moment, saving its life. But occasionally I have noticed the remains of a youthful squirrel who did not react in time.
For a month or two, our national government and its top health officials seemed similarly paralyzed with horror as they began to recognize the oncoming locomotive of a deadly disease rapidly approaching them. But during this crucial period, they did little or nothing and vast numbers of Americans may die as a consequence.
The Coronavirus is extremely contagious and once it has significantly established itself within a community, the only effective means of halting the rapid spread is through a full social lock-down. This approach had been especially necessary in America, given our woeful lack of adequate testing capabilities.
China completely locked down and quarantined the city of Wuhan at a point when only 300 detected infections and 17 deaths had occurred, thereby strictly confining all 11 million residents to their homes. Not long afterward, similar measures were applied to the 60 million residents of the surrounding province of Hubei, and later extended to include some 700 million Chinese across the country, a medical quarantine perhaps a thousand times larger than any such previous effort in human history.
These remarkable Chinese actions shocked and astonished many observers around the world, certainly including myself. But they succeeded brilliantly, and China seems to have almost entirely stamped out the deadly disease at the final cost of just a few thousand deaths. Millions perhaps even tens of millions of Chinese owe their lives to the decisiveness of their bold and courageous national leadership.
China and America have different political systems, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The ruling Chinese Communist Party can impose by immediate fiat national policies that are almost unimaginable under America’s Constitutional system, and order these implemented at speeds that seem impossible to us.
I was aware of no precedent in modern American history for locking down a major city for health reasons, an action that appeared completely contrary to our widespread notions of civil liberties and constitutional rights. Moreover, during January and February various anti-China pundits had had a field day attacking and vilifying “totalitarian China” for shutting down its entire economy and confining so many hundreds of millions of its citizens to their own homes, thus rendering it seemingly impossible for any American political leader to propose similar measures.
With so little testing and a three week lag-time between infection and death, only the tiniest sliver of the gigantic Coronavirus iceberg bearing down on the U.S.S. America was visible to the public, and our insouciant mainstream media paid almost no attention to this terrible oncoming danger. Therefore, I regarded it as almost inconceivable that America’s dysfunctional government would take such difficult steps quickly enough to halt the spread of the disease before it became fully endemic and uncontrollable.
My own Santa Clara County was then the national epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak, and the local morning newspapers carried more and more indications of its rapid, almost invisible spread, with a couple of firefighters testing positive one day and a few TSA workers found infected the next. I assumed this pattern of reports would continue and grow exponentially until California was entirely submerged by the rapidly approaching tsunami wave of disease.