I’m no expert in infectious disease epidemiology, so take with a grain of salt any opinions I offer on that subject. But some people are experts, so I’m listening to them rather than relying on my own hunches or caring about what someone writes on Facebook.
I only have time and patience for useful information at the moment – for example, that the symptoms of having the coronavirus include fever, cough and shortness of breath – so it’s been days since I’ve scrolled through my Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Instead, I’m more interested in what people like Dr. Anthony Fauci are saying. The 79-year-old has served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under six presidents going back to President Reagan.
On Sunday, he said on CNN in response to a question that “it is possible” that the coronavirus could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Preventing that from happening will require Americans to accept changes to their daily lives even if critics call it overreacting. He said the United States could be as bad as Italy, where 368 people died in one 24-hour period over the weekend. However, he added, “I don’t think we’re going there if we do the kinds of things that we are publicly saying we need to do. … For a while, life is not going to be the way it used to be in the United States.”
Fauci’s remarks came on an eventful day in Arkansas, where Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced he was ordering public schools closed no later than Tuesday for the next four days, and then they would reopen two weeks later after spring break.
We’ll see if they actually reopen. Ohio has closed its schools for three weeks, but its governor said they could remain closed the rest of the year.
One of Hutchinson’s principal advisors is Dr. Nate Smith, Arkansas’ secretary of health, who along with Hutchinson has been leading the state’s response and giving daily news briefings. He previously served as the Department of Health’s branch chief for infectious diseases and as the state epidemiologist. He’s also an ordained Anglican Church minister who with his wife, Kim, served two terms as a medical missionary in a Kenyan hospital, where one of his roles was serving as an infectious disease consultant.
In an infectious disease epidemic, this is a person whose words should carry a lot of weight. By the way, the Smiths adopted four children from Kenya.
Last week had the feel of Dec. 7, 1941, or Sept. 11, 2001 – dates when American life changed. The Pearl Harbor attack led to the United States entering World War II and later becoming the world’s most prominent superpower. The September 11 attacks led to a constant and costly state of permanent vigilance against terrorism and to wars that never seem to end.
And last week seemed to be the start of … what? No one knows, and that includes Fauci and Smith. But they know more than I do about how to lessen the virus’s impact.
As I write this, 85 Americans and 6,603 people worldwide have died, and those lists will grow. The worldwide economy has been completely disrupted. Many businesses cannot survive in this environment for long. People will lose their jobs.
Perhaps, when this is under control, the United States and other countries together will invest what’s needed to combat all viruses, our common enemy. Maybe Americans will take a greater interest in all infectious diseases and stop coldly dismissing the tens of thousands who die annually here because of the flu. Maybe we’ll stay home from work more often when we’re sick so we don’t infect others. Maybe we’ll permanently get in the habit of washing our hands correctly. If we’re going to do it for five seconds, we might as well do it for 20.
In the meantime, let’s hope Americans give greater weight – not blind allegiance, but greater weight – to people like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Smith than what they see on Facebook. If we’ve ever needed only useful information, it’s now.