One year in, when we maybe finally have the coronavirus a bit on the run, there’s a new outbreak emerging in the land.
It’s a pandemic of preening. Of crowing and boasting about who slayed the COVID-19 monster the bestest.
“Florida got it right, and the lockdown states got it wrong,” the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, declared triumphantly last weekend, unwisely speaking of the coronavirus in the past tense.
“We will not be sheep,” echoed South Dakota’s governor, Kristi Noem. “South Dakota is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close.”
Arguably the worst for prematurely spiking the ball was New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo. He put out a book last fall called “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic” — just as the deadliest third wave of the virus was building.
Ahem, but if we had Florida’s COVID-19 death rate out here in Washington state, we would have 120% more deaths than the nearly 5,000 we’ve suffered so far — so 6,000 additional residents would have died.
If we had South Dakota’s death rate, we’d have more than 11,000 additional deaths. New York’s? An incredible 13,600 additional deaths.
Now the red-state governors above were highlighting the economic trade-offs of virus shutdowns, which is certainly fair. I have been a critic of our own state’s often tepid help to struggling businesses, arguing that if we’re going to shut them down, we’d better also prop them up.
But that anyone would strut about like a rooster when we’re still in the weeds of a pandemic that has killed half a million Americans is itself an illustration of a fundamental problem. Which is that this virus is still mysterious, evolving. And many don’t seem to even want to know what it’s up to.
I’ve been following of late the startling findings of a University of Washington infectious disease researcher, Helen Chu. She’s been involved in two studies in the past few months that reflect the ways the coronavirus could still make absolute fools of brash, victory-declaring politicians.
One, based on Seattle patients and just released, deserves much wider attention. It found that an alarming 30% of recovered coronavirus patients, including those who only had mild symptoms at the start, were still fatigued or had other COVID-19 lingering effects up to nine months later. These included “brain fog” and loss of smell, but about 8% said it was debilitating, in that they were “not able to lift heavy objects, or stand or walk unassisted for more than a short period of time.”
The study found this “long-hauler” syndrome hit 27% of younger patients (those 18 to 36 years old), 30% of people aged 37 to 64, and 43% of people 65 and older.
With nearly 30 million confirmed infections in the U.S., and likely many more, the study concludes that “even a small incidence of long-term debility could have enormous health and economic consequences.”
That could sure cast the lockdown versus freedom debate in a different light — if we look back at all this a year or two from now and “long COVID,” even among younger people, turns out to be a serious thing.
Chu’s other study has special importance for our state. Since last winter, when the first outbreak in the U.S. hit here, she and other researchers had been surveying patients in the Seattle area for the antibodies produced by the coronavirus. What they found, released in December, was that our reputation as some sort of COVID Ground Zero was an illusion. In fact, only about 1% of the Seattle area population had been exposed to the virus by the end of the first wave.
Later work by other modelers has estimated that now, a year later, just 10% of Washington state residents have been exposed to the coronavirus. Estimates published March 1 show we rank almost last, 45th in the nation, for coronavirus exposure. Connecticut is No. 1, with 40 to 60% of its residents exposed in the past year. In the states mentioned above — Florida, South Dakota and New York — an estimated 30% or more of the people have had the coronavirus.
In other words, we’re basically COVID-19 virgins.
“The low percentage of Seattle-area adults with serologic evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection indicates that the vast majority of the local population may remain susceptible to COVID-19,” Chu’s group wrote. “This has important implications for public health as the pandemic evolves.”
Yes, on the one hand, it’s what we wanted to happen, to keep it at bay. The irony, though, is that the better you do the riper you are as the target — it may make us a bigger sitting duck for a major outbreak right now, as we begin to ease up, than almost any other state. And it means it’s crucial that we be faster and more organized at vaccinating, because we have so much further to go than other states. But to date, we have not been.
The only sure bet about the coronavirus is that it isn’t done surprising. If there’s any year-one lesson they should be trumpeting on about, it’s that a little of humility is in order.