To understand how the United States is dealing with the threat of coronavirus, you have to hold two truths in your mind simultaneously.
First, the risk to any one individual in the United States is low. Even if you contract the virus at some point, your symptoms will likely be mild.
Second, we can ill-afford to have everyone contract the virus at once. Even if only a small fraction of the cases require hospitalization, our health care infrastructure isn’t prepared to handle the influx of cases.
Those two truths, taken together, is why the country switched this week to canceling many large events — and postponed or outright canceled sport seasons — and encouraging people to work from home.
It’s not about overreacting. It’s about flattening the curve.
That means we want to keep the spread of the virus relatively slow, so health care professionals are able to ramp up their capacity naturally and devote all necessary resources to each case.
In both China and Italy, we’ve seen the consequences of not taking these measures soon enough. Health care systems were swamped, and in some cases, doctors faced agonizing choices. Critically ill patients had longer or more painful stays (or possibly even died) because treatment had to be spread among so many at once.
We know relatively little about the disease — it’s even unsure how many people actually contract it because of testing limitations. We have no vaccine or proven treatment (although several drug treatments are currently in progress). And we have no natural immunity in the general population.
All of those truths taken together mean that we really, as a global community, have one option to slow or stop the virus: Shutting things down. That allows us to keep our distance from one another, and slow or stop transmission altogether.
It’s inconvenient, yes. The economy is already showing strain. But as we’ve seen in China and South Korea, it’s also effective. Cases and deaths have dropped drastically in China, which admittedly went about things in an authoritarian way. South Korea had fewer restrictions, but implemented widespread testing and stringent quarantine for those who were positive.
Without the testing capacity of South Korea (at least right now), the United States has to opt for blunter methods. That means canceling games, moving to online classes and postponing festivals or other gatherings.
The question is not whether we will make it through this. Of course we will. The question is whether we’re able to do so in a way that allows those who fall ill the best possible treatment.
We will save lives by doing so.