I’ve been watching birds through the window all week. They gather at the feeder my son recently set up and tuck into the bluebird house he fastened to the fence. I recognize many of them by sight, and I am learning to identify their calls. What astounds me is the sheer number and variety of birds all around me. On a recent weekend, my son observed 15 different species in our yard. Yet I hadn’t really noticed them before.
The reason I’ve been watching through the window is that I’m practicing social distancing during this time of the coronavirus. As a person living with lung disease and a suppressed immune system, I am especially vulnerable to the virus. If I contract COVID-19, I may very well die from it. And I’m not the only one.
As the pastor of a downtown congregation, I regularly look out into the crowd on Sunday mornings. I see dear friends who also have lung disease. I see others who are immunosuppressed. I see members of the community undergoing chemotherapy. I see many who are over 60 and 70, in high-risk categories due to their age. What astounds me is the sheer number and variety of vulnerable people. Yet I’m not sure everyone else really notices us.
Mixed in with the birdsong I’ve been listening to this week have been the comments from friends, acquaintances, and even some of our public officials that downplay the seriousness of the threat. It’s not so bad, they say. We’re overreacting. This will all blow over soon. These comments completely disregard the lived experience of all the people I’ve just mentioned. We feel an entirely rational fear of a virus whose mortality rate may be 2 or 3 percent for the general population, but is 4 percent for those over the age of 60, 8 percent for those over 70, 15 percent for those over 80. For people like me with underlying lung disease, the odds are higher still. Imagine how you’d feel if you were watching birds through the window, trying to breathe deeply and not worry, wondering how long you might have to live, and then hearing people suggest that it’s not so bad.
The reason it is so bad is that people can carry the virus and give it to others before they ever know they’re sick. According to current data, every person with COVID-19 now passes it, on average, to two others, which explains the exponential growth rate we’ve seen over the past week in places like Italy and Spain. The virus is passed if those who have it cough or sneeze near others. It is also passed through surface contact, if we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our eyes, noses, or mouths. COVID-19 is a respiratory disease which infects the lungs and leads to pneumonia in the most vulnerable patients. The only ways we know to slow the spread are regular hand washing and sanitizing, cleaning surfaces often with disinfectant, and social distancing and staying home in order to achieve what is called “flattening the curve.”
Flattening the curve is a reference to the bell curve of the infection rate. As epidemiologists look at the spread of COVID-19, one thing worries them most of all. If we fail to socially distance ourselves and the virus spreads quickly, then the infection rate will spike, overwhelming our health care system and its ability to respond. Our hospitals haven’t got enough respirators and intensive care unit beds to handle everyone getting sick at once. As Jonathan Cohn recently reported for HuffPost, we have approximately 45,000 ICU beds in this country. In a moderate COVID-19 outbreak, we would need 200,000 beds. In a severe outbreak, we would need close to 3 million. Put simply, we won’t have the ability to take care of everyone.
Yet if we stay home to slow the spread of the virus, then instead of spiking, the infection rate curves more slowly over time. People will still get sick, but not all at once. The system, while stressed, may be able to handle the increased patient load. Most importantly, “flattening the curve” buys us valuable time as researchers rush to work on treatments and vaccines. The longer we can draw this out, the better chance we have.
It’s enough to make those of us who are vulnerable very anxious. By vulnerable I don’t just mean those of us who live with chronic illness or other underlying medical risk factors. I mean those of us who will be made vulnerable by missing a paycheck, a school lunch, or a ride on public transportation. Think of everyone around you, from the older members of our community to the ones stocking store shelves. We should be astounded by the sheer number and variety of those who are now vulnerable. We should open our eyes and notice who is all around us. We should demand that our public officials treat this as the emergency that it is and provide support to all who will be affected by social distancing.
Act decisively, flatten the curve, and save lives.
Jeremy Rutledge is a senior minister at Circular Church.