New York is the new Italy

Since the spread of coronavirus in the United States became obvious, I’ve had lots of people tell me that the threat of the virus should be played down, not highlighted.

“YOU HAVE A CHANCE TO BE HERO OR ZERO,” said one concerned reader who emailed me, using all capital letters to underscore the importance of his warning as he told me I was “doing us all a disservice.”

“DON’T MISS THE OPPORTUNITY TO BE THE VOICE OF CALM AND REASON IN THESE TRYING TIMES. YOU WILL BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE BY HISTORY FOR HOW YOU CHOOSE TO PRESENT YOUR STORIES,” he added.

On the flip side are those who complain that the stories don’t sound the warning loudly enough, that the threat is being downplayed. But, on the whole, there have been far more people who’ve complained that the stories being written are “sensational.”

My argument all along has been that this threat is real and shouldn’t be dismissed. Yes, the vast majority of people who are infected with the coronavirus will experience only mild symptoms. Yes, the majority of those with serious illness will recover. Yes, only a very small percentage of those who are symptomatic will die from the virus.

But it’s still a threat. We cannot allow America’s health care system to be overwhelmed like Italy’s.

I’ve heard the arguments that Italy is an outlier. But it isn’t. It’s just ahead of the curve. The death rate in Italy is over 10%, now closing in on 11%, and still climbing. Close behind is Spain, where the death rate is now above 8% … and, like Italy, still climbing.

I’ve also heard the arguments that European countries were especially hard-hit by the virus because their universal health care systems aren’t equipped to deal with it. America’s privatized health care system will handle it much better, that particular argument goes.

And now we have New York.

The Empire State — in general, and New York City in particular — has been the epicenter of the COVID-19 spread in the United States. The stories coming out of NYC have gotten progressively worse over the past week. Consider this, from the New York Times:

Even as hospitals across New York become inundated with coronavirus cases, some patients are being left behind in their homes because the health care system cannot handle them all, according to dozens of interviews with paramedics, New York Fire Department officials and union representatives, as well as city data.

In a matter of days, the city’s 911 system has been overwhelmed by calls for medical distress apparently related to the virus. Typically, the system sees about 4,000 Emergency Medical Services calls a day.

On Thursday, dispatchers took more than 7,000 calls — a volume not seen since the Sept. 11 attacks. The record for amount of calls in a day was broken three times in the last week.

Because of the volume, emergency medical workers are making life-or-death decisions about who is sick enough to take to crowded emergency rooms and who appears well enough to leave behind. They are assessing on scene which patients should receive time-consuming measures like CPR and intubation, and which patients are too far gone to save.

Read it again. Let it sink in.

In the United States, where our attitudes of exceptionalism will not allow us to believe that what’s happening in Europe can happen here, it is. Right before our very eyes. But, in middle America, we’re ignoring it. When it happened in Italy, we said “It can’t happen here.” When it happened in Spain, we said “It can’t happen here.”

Now it’s happening in NYC. Still we think “It can’t happen here.”

And it likely won’t happen on the same scale in middle America as in NYC. But it doesn’t have to happen on that same scale to overwhelm the health care system in places like Lexington and Nashville and Atlanta and Orlando. Because the health care system in those major cities — strong as it is — isn’t equipped like NYC’s is equipped. And NYC is currently being brought to its knees by the coronavirus.

Read that again: In the United States of America, as we speak, some critically ill patients are being left at home to die because paramedics are forced to make on-the-spot decisions about who can be saved and who can’t.

We saw stories like this in Italy a couple of weeks ago, when doctors began to sound the alarm about having to ration ventilators, essentially making decisions about who lives and who dies. Most of us ignored those stories. And when U.S. health authorities warned that America was on the same track as Italy, we accused the media who relayed those warnings of making mountains out of molehills.

For those who will refuse to click on the New York Times story, because it’s the New York Times, here’s more:

One New York City paramedic described responding to a suicide attempt of a woman who had drank a liter of vodka after her cancer treatments had been delayed, in part because hospitals were clearing their beds for coronavirus patients.

Another paramedic said she responded to so many cardiac arrests in one shift that the battery on her defibrillator died.

“It does not matter where you are. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. This virus is treating everyone equally,” the Brooklyn paramedic said.

Not Italy. Not Spain. America.

To be clear, the death rate in New York (and, by “death rate,” I mean a simple calculation of deaths vs. confirmed cases, which isn’t a true death rate as far as science is concerned) isn’t anywhere close to the death rate in Italy or Spain. It’s 1.5% … but it’s also climbing. A week ago, it was hovering around 0.5%. I wrote on this blog less than a week ago that it would be interesting to see what happened to New York’s death rate once its health care system became overwhelmed. Four days later, the death rate has more than doubled.

And it’s going to continue to rise. Just as it’s continuing to rise across America as a whole. I’ve written several times about how the death rate in the U.S. was hovering around 1.2%. Now it’s up to 1.8%.

See, the thing is, you don’t have to go to New York to find an area hard-hit by coronavirus. And I’m not talking about Washington state or California. You don’t even have to leave the South. Very quietly, the disease has been taking quite a toll in Louisiana. The state is up to 137 deaths now — more than half of those in New Orleans alone.

In Tennessee, we’ve been insulated from the worst of the coronavirus because it isn’t that bad here — at least, not yet. Sure, there have been 1,300 cases, and many have criticized Gov. Bill Lee for not doing enough to slow its spread. But there have been only six deaths. That’s a number that will inevitably go up substantially — as we already saw on Friday, when the total doubled from three to six in a single day. But, still, just six deaths out of 1,300 infected. That’s not bad. And so we continue to go to Walmart as if it’s a tourist destination and go about our lives without really pausing to consider, “What if?”

Meanwhile, there have been 189 deaths in Washington state. There have been 140 in New Jersey. There have been 119 in California. And 81 in Michigan. And 79 in Georgia. And dozens in just about every other state outside of New England and the West, where the states are either tiny or sparsely populated.

Why isn’t it that bad in Tennessee … yet? Why isn’t it that bad in Kentucky? Who knows. We can only thank God that it isn’t, and pray that we continue to be statistical anomalies.

But that might not happen. We can hope that rural areas won’t be as badly impacted as the urban areas — and there’s reason for that hope. But, just a couple of weeks ago, who could’ve foreseen the situation deteriorating as quickly as it has in NYC? So we have to prepare for the worst — and expect it.

If you want to call this sensationalism, so be it. Yes, I know how many people die from the flu each year in the U.S. (But, yes, I also know how many people would die from coronavirus if the current statistics hold and the same number of people are infected as are infected by flu in a given year.) I’ve been optimistic on this blog when I can be, and I’ve looked for reasons to be optimistic. I’ll continue to. But, right now, what’s happening in New York doesn’t give much reason for optimism. We hoped it wouldn’t happen here — not like in Europe. But it is. Now we’re reduced to hoping that what is happening in NYC won’t happen in other major American population centers. Yet, already, the charts show that many states — and cities — are on the same trajectory as NYC.

That should scare all of us into heeding the experts’ advise to do our part to slow the spread of this virus. We may be a rural area, we may be a conservative area, but that doesn’t mean we’re invincible.

Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

3 comments

  • Whoever came up with the term “Hair on fire” must have had the New York Times in mind.

    They create panic about a virus and when the virus starts spreading and people have symptoms they overwhelm the 911 system. Quite amazing don’t you think? I mean you get people thinking they are all going to die from the plague, saturate the news media with it for weeks so that’s all they hear when they turn on the news or get on the internet for news. Then just in case you don’t have them scared out of their wits yet you have your government actually shut the whole place down and tell them they cannot come out of their houses so you make sure they are sitting inside with nothing to do except watch the news and worry about the dire things they are being told that is coming to their city.

    They worry about dying from the virus or about grandma and grandpa dying from it. Then they worry whether they are going to have enough toilet paper to last this plague thing. Then they worry about having enough cat food for dippy. Then they worry about their own food supply (funny how toilet paper comes in front of food – I am pretty sure Walmart ran out of toilet paper before food) Then they worry about their jobs and how they will make it financially because the government, (ran by more people who are “informed” by the New York Times) somehow thought that the virus wasn’t bad enough so why don’t we simply shut down the best economy America has had in generations.

    So then when everyone is sitting quarantined in their homes, scared out of their wits, they start feeling sick or feverish or maybe feel a sore throat coming on. It doesn’t have to be the coronavirus at this time – by this time IT IS the coronavirus and they have one foot in the grave already. First thing they do is reach for the phone and call 911 because they don’t want to die of course. And so the first responder has to “make…..decisions about who is sick enough to take to crowded emergency rooms and who appears well enough to leave behind”. Duh!

    I don’t have to imagine that kind of thing is happening in people’s minds in New York City because I know from personal experience it is what happens. Come on, is there anyone out there who hasn’t wondered yet if they might be coming down with the Virus? If someone as naturally suspicious of the news media as I am thinks like that I know the people in New York City are reacting that way. Who wouldn’t in this environment of fear we are living in? So the fact that the 911 calls have only increased by 75% in New York City is encouraging rather than disheartening to me.

    And that is another strange thing about this NYT article. How in the world would a city of over 8 million people have a 911 system that would be overwhelmed by a call volume of 7,000 when their normal everyday call volume is 4,000 calls?? It just doesn’t make sense to me that a system designed for “emergencies” in the most densely populated city in America wouldn’t be designed to handle several multiples of the “normal” call rate. Maybe the people who are blaming New York’s current woes on the local government’s lack of vision have a point?

  • Just in case someone thinks my previous comment means I do not take the coronavirus serious – I do take it serious. There isn’t a doubt in my mind a lot of Americans will die from this virus. Many already have. I am over 60 and have some of the risk factors myself that is considered to make one high-risk if they catch this virus. I have several family members that would be high-risk if they caught it and we are taking strong measures to try to prevent them being exposed.
    I feel for the people of New York City and for all of our nation and what we are going through as a result of all this. I am not trying to make light of it.
    I think everyone should practice the social distancing that is advised and avoid unnecessary social gatherings ,etc like the health authorities are recommending as a way to mitigate the spread of the virus.

    However, I still retain my ability to reason logically and I know that now is not the time to panic. Be a realist yes. But look at the facts logically. When you read of how people are suffering feel empathy with them, pray for them but do not let it cloud our reasoning power in how we should set policy in response to the threat. Only facts and statistics and logic should come into play for that purpose. And I am sorry but there isn’t much logic in the reporting of the New York Times or most any other national news source.

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