Like it or not, we are all in this pandemic side by side and have no choice but to work closely together within our communities, our state, our nation and our world.
I am a primary care physician with an additional degree in public health, but I do not need any degrees to see what is right in front of our eyes. The pandemic is much like a brush fire. When the fire first ignites, its embers blow in the wind and create a few nearby hotspots. We can stamp these out. In pandemic terms, it’s a few scattered cases. We find the hot spots with testing and then stamp the virus out with isolation and contact tracing.
In Maine and in the United States, we are already past that stage. The hot spots are spreading widely and coalescing into major fires. We can subdue the fire now with intense mitigation — universal physical distancing — or we can let it burn itself out in a series of cataclysmic fires. It’s up to us.
I’m working from home now, but as I speak with my co-workers at a rural health center in Maine, I am acutely aware of the shortages of personal protective equipment, shortages of testing availability, and the difficulty of keeping staff and patients safe. I am appreciating the key role that telehealth will play. And my heart goes out to my colleagues who are risking their own health to fight this pandemic.
It’s predictable that our earliest responses are characterized by denial. Just look at our initial national response. My own initial response upon reading about the disease in early February was that it would be a worldwide issue and it would be bad, much like the flu. Maybe, I thought, the media and public health experts were overblowing the whole thing. Wrong.
Let’s get past our denial. This disease spreads at an alarming pace. It initially spreads slowly, but eventually reaches a rapidly accelerating slope that gets steeper at a faster and faster pace. It is a virus that knows no state or national boundaries and does not recognize humans as the dominant life form. It does, however, have a striking vulnerability. It is just a packet of RNA and cannot survive on its own. It requires human beings to congregate in order to survive and propagate.
Around the world, experts are working on potential therapies and vaccines. Right now though, there are no magic cures. Our best defense is to deprive the virus of its hosts by maintaining physical distancing. Later, as we subdue the fires, we can employ containment with testing, isolation and contact tracing.
This pandemic will not be the last pandemic. It will flow and ebb. Hot spots will come and go. The economic fallout is, and will be, catastrophic. There will, however, be no economic recovery until there is a pandemic recovery. The federal government needs to take the lead in both areas.
No one knows when the worst of the pandemic will pass. It will surely not be in a few weeks. Even if the worst of it passes in a few months, we will likely have intermittent flare-ups until we have an effective, widely deployed vaccine.
It will do no good to pretend that we can create safe havens or effective geographic quarantines. The embers are too widespread. We need a national and worldwide response that is coordinated and sustained.
As individuals, we can still find ways to reach out while maintaining physical distance. We can urge our state and national governments to be clear-eyed and to follow the guidance of their medical experts.
Our response will not be a sprint but a marathon. We are all in this together and we will be in it for the long haul. The sooner we recognize this, the better.
Philip Elkin of Stonington is a primary care physician.