We are faced with a once in a century public health crisis that has bought society to a halt, that threatens to overwhelm health systems and that may yet bring economies to their knees. Over the last few weeks, the unthinkable - that a virus affecting one city in one country would have a similar impact everywhere else in the world -- became thinkable and now inevitable.
As cases of Coronavirus infection rise exponentially and testing remains thin on the ground, it is difficult to intuitively understand how bad this crisis can get. Simple back of the envelope calculations project a ten-fold increase in cases every 16 days. As of March 19, 2020, there have been approximately 7,000 cases reported to the CDC. This number is widely acknowledged to be a significant underestimate. If it is assumed (for ease of illustration) that there are ten thousand current cases, then in approximately two weeks there will be one hundred thousand cases, in one month one million cases, and in two months one hundred million cases - a staggering 1/3 of the US population.
Of course there is plenty that can be done to “flatten the curve” and buy time. The radical social distancing and hygiene measures that have been recommended are of urgent importance for everyone. However, even with these measures these are sobering numbers. The rough calculus is that the more people have Coronavirus, the greater the chance that those most vulnerable will be exposed which increases the number who will need ICU care which will rapidly be overwhelmed with inevitable consequences.
Those already marginalized in society - immigrants, the homeless and those with long-term mental health conditions are at particular risk from serious complications. These populations, as ever, have been largely forgotten in the broader discourse around Coronavirus. Many people in these populations have difficulty accessing health care and have low levels of trust in the health care system. It is these people who more than ever need our support.
That’s why we are asking everyone to do their part by practicing social distancing until the crisis recedes. We need to adopt all the measures provided by health authorities to “flatten the curve”: wash your hands and use hand sanitizer often; avoid touching your face; limit social interaction keeping a safe distance between others; and most importantly, we need to stay home if it’s possible for us to do so. It may sound drastic, but these are unprecedented circumstances that require unprecedented actions.
If you or someone in your family is experiencing symptoms or suspects being infected by COVID-19, you can call 2-1-1. This resource has been made available for Massachusetts residents who have questions about the virus or need a referral, and the services are being provided in multiple languages. And if you need help enrolling in health insurance, please know Health Care For All’s HelpLine is still taking calls in English, Spanish and Portuguese and is there to help you.
- Trishan Panch, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer at Wellframe, and Health Care For All’s board member