By HOWARD LUKS MD, JOEL TOPF MD, FACP, ETHAN WEISS MD, CARRIE DIULUS MD, NANCY YEN SHIPLEY MD, ERIC LEVI MBBS, FRACS, BRYAN VARTABEDIAN MD
“EVERYTHING WE DO BEFORE A PANDEMIC WILL SEEM ALARMIST. EVERYTHING WE DO AFTER WILL SEEM INADEQUATE”
Last updated 3/18/2020.
Why are we writing this?
The COVID-19 pandemic has reached a point where containment is no longer possible. The COVID-19 threat is real, and rapidly getting worse. Many of you are very nervous, some are unsure of the validity of the information you are reading. As physician leaders, we felt it was important to craft a resource you can rely on as being scientifically accurate and one which contains as much actionable information and guidance as possible.
Accurate, actionable information during an epidemic can save lives. Physicians are on the front line of this epidemic. Not only are we treating the sick, but we are also cringing at the misinformation spread through both traditional broadcast and social media. Evidence matters. Unfortunately, evidence is often slow, methodical, and boring and has a tough time against clicky headlines and exaggeration. We believe that an accurate representation of the current COVID-19 pandemic followed by a set of actionable steps you, your loved ones, politicians and local officials can utilize is of paramount importance and ultimately could save tens of thousands of lives.
COVID-19 isn’t just the flu?
COVID-19 has been described by some as “just a cold”, or just like the common flu. COVID-19 is not the common flu. COVID-19 is an order of magnitude worse than the flu. The fatality rate is approximately 10 times worse than the flu.
The flu spreads from September through April in the US, and June through August in the Southern Hemisphere. Yes, it does cause severe illness in many, but it does so over a longer time course. Time is a variable that is working against us during this COVID-19 outbreak. COVID-19 victims will be presenting to a hospital in need of critical care at a rate that is far higher than occurs with the flu.
In addition, these patients will be requiring hospital treatment over the course of a few weeks rather than the 3-4 months of a typical flu season. The healthcare system in the USA is not ready to handle tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people over a short time frame. In Italy, the healthcare system buckled under the strain and the healthcare teams are now forced to make horrible life and death decisions.
We are in strange days, and they
are only going to get stranger as COVID-19 works its way further through our
society. It makes me think of Benjamin Franklin’s response when asked
what kind of nation the U.S. was going to be: “A Republic, if you
can keep it.”
The versions of that response that COVID-19 have me wondering about are: “A federal system, if we can keep it,” and, more specifically, “a healthcare system, if we can keep it.” I’ll talk about each of those in the context of the pandemic.
In times of national emergencies — think 9/11, think World Wars — we usually look to the federal government to lead. The COVID-19 pandemic has been declared a national emergency, but we’re still looking for strong federal leadership. We have the Centers for Disease Control, infectious disease experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, and a White House coronavirus task force. But real national leadership is lacking.
Some of the most important engineering lessons were demonstrated on the tank battlefields of World War II when German Tigers faced off against Soviet T-34s.
The Tiger tank was a technical masterpiece of for its time with many features that did not appear in allied tanks until after the war. Despite its much heavier armor it was able to match the speed of lighter enemy tanks and keep up with its own light tank scouts. The armor featured almost artisanally welded interlocking plates. The ammunition featured innovative electric trigger primers and high penetration tungsten shells. The double differential steering system allowed the Tiger to rotate in place. A complex system of interleaving wheels distributed weight evenly, improved off-road mobility and even allowed mobility with damaged tracks.
But while the Tiger was a star on the blueprints, it was a disaster on the Eastern front, not because of its combat performance but because it was a logistical and operational nightmare. The heavy armor made the tank a gas guzzler, which made tanks inoperable when supplies were low. The electric trigger primers would fail in cold weather. When rotating in place the gearbox would often break and German training manuals forbid the maneuver. The highly specialized internal mechanics made production slow and meant the tank often could not be repaired in the field but had to be sent back to Germany, and the great logistic costs meant that Tigers couldn’t drive to the front but had to be brought there by rail.
As the globe faces a novel, highly transmissible,
lethal virus, I am most struck by a medicine cabinet that is embarrassingly
empty for doctors in this battle. This
means much of the debate centers on mitigation of spread of the virus. Tempers flare over discussions on travel
bans, social distancing, and self quarantines, yet the inescapable fact remains
that the medical community can do little more than support the varying
fractions of patients who progress from mild to severe and life threatening
disease. This isn’t meant to minimize the
massive efforts brought to bear to keep patients alive by health care workers
but those massive efforts to support failing organs in the severely ill are in
large part because we lack any effective therapy to combat the virus. It is akin to taking care of patients with
bacterial infections in an era before antibiotics, or HIV/AIDS in an era before
It should be a familiar feeling for at least
one of the leading physicians charged with managing the current crisis – Dr.
Anthony Fauci. Dr. Fauci started as an
immunologist at the NIH in the 1960s and quickly made breakthroughs in
previously fatal diseases marked by an overactive immune response. Strange reports of a new disease that was
sweeping through the gay community in the early 1980’s caused him to shift
focus to join the great battle against the AIDS epidemic.
President Donald Trump keeps getting kicked around in court when challenges are brought against his ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations. Trump says he wants to halt the flow of people who might be planning attacks. What we cannot forget is that the kind of attack he has in mind is not confined to bombs and shootings. Trump is terrified that immigrants bring diseases with them. If racism fails, public health will likely afford Trump the rationale he seeks for making it difficult for those he does not like to enter our country.
The president is a self-described germaphobe. He has doubts about vaccines. He likely does not wake up every day to thrill at the latest advances in science. This is a president who might possibly let an infectious disease do what he has so far not been able to accomplish by impugning the country or religion of immigrants he doesn’t like: provide the basis for a ban.
The threat of a pandemic is yet another avenue he could possibly embrace to create a Fortress America. He might demand more walls, quarantine stations at airports and one-way tickets home for every potential human vector — including the frail, kids and pregnant women. No one who is sick, might be sick or who can be smeared as the source of Americans getting sick would get in.
Pandemic flu, Zika, yellow fever, West Nile and a host of other maladies are likely to keep popping up over the next four years. The news media are great at stoking fear about all of them. Public officials are ill-prepared to know what to do about any of them.
A group of nurses at Texas Health Presbyterian has come forward with a very different picture of what happened when Liberian Ebola patient Thomas Duncan arrived at the hospital with Ebola-like symptoms on September 28th. If true, the allegations are certainly unsettling.
In an unusual move, the nurses spoke anonymously to the media, conducting a blind conference call in which none of the participants were identified.
After arriving at the emergency room with a high fever and other symptoms of the disease , the nurses said the patient was kept in a public area, despite the fact that he and a relative informed staff that he had been instructed to go to the hospital after contacting the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to report a possible case of Ebola.
The CDC has noted an early and nasty start to the flu season. Perhaps their own website has caught it, because as I’m writing this, the whole thing is down. Assuming it recovers, I will insert relevant links per routine. Otherwise, I wish it well, and leave you to find your way there on your own.
It’s a bit soon to say, but the virus and the outbreak pattern at this point seem to resemble those of the 2003-2004 flu season, in which nearly 50,000 Americans died. At least two children have already died of flu complications this fall.
This is not the sort of stuff a public health physician can ignore.
So, I recently noted on LinkedIn andTwitter that I’ve been vaccinated — as I am every year — and recommend this year’s vaccine, which appears to match the prevailing viral strain quite well, to everyone else. I promptly got comments back from naysayers, including at least one self-identified microbiologist, who noted he never got vaccinated, and had “never gotten the flu.”
I believe him. But this is like that proverbial “Uncle Joe” everyone knows, who smoked three packs a day and lived to be 119. It could happen — but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Uncle Joe is that rare character who somehow comes away from a train crash with a minor flesh wound. The rest of us are mortal.
But there is something more fundamentally wrong with the “I’ve never gotten the flu, and therefore don’t need to be vaccinated” stance than the Uncle Joe fallacy. Let’s face it — those who were ultimately beneficiaries of smallpox or polio immunization never had smallpox or polio, either. If they ever had, it would have been too late for those vaccines to do them any good.