Every week feels like a year, every day a month and every hour a day. That’s what it’s like when you’re running out of toilet paper in the Time of Covid.
Given the awful outcome more than 3,000 fellow Americans have suffered as a result of this terrible disease, the search for toilet tissue barely rates as trivial, but it does add to the confusion of these momentous days. Even in the aftermath of hurricanes I don’t recall ever being so concerned, nervous and excited all at once about procuring a rather mundane product.
Confusion is the watchword. I hardly know what to think at all, and when I do settle on a thought or opinion, it’s often blown up or at least challenged within hours. Few of us living have ever been so unsure of health, economic stability and even political structure all at once. The experts tell us the virus could kill 100,000 or 200,000 Americans. Other experts say we can expect 30 percent unemployment — 30 percent! — in the second quarter. We’ve been used to a 10th of that. Those are both horrible to contemplate.
Some say this could be over in a few weeks, others talk about it going on even through the summer. It’s hard to wrap my brain around how we could survive as a nation if we stay shut down for two or three months. When people talk about civil unrest, it’s not hard to imagine that either. I know plenty of people loading up on guns and ammo.
For business owners there’s confusion about what exactly this stimulus package will do. We’re all calling one another relating what we’ve heard from this accountant or that banker or another business owner who talked to some financial guru. Even the bankers who are getting set to manage handing out these loans are confused about what Washington’s intentions are.
Employees are confused about what the future will be for them and it’s impossible to really say when you have no idea what the government loans will be like for your business. Those of us familiar with SBA loans in the past know they’re generally very onerous in terms of paperwork and rigid in terms of generosity. But now the money is supposed to flow. We shall see.
It’s confusing because a substantial loan at amazing rates could really help a lot of businesses. Most could never hope to get such loans during normal times. But if the loans aren’t enough, they won’t really mean much. And on top of that it’s impossible to know how deep the economic damage will be and whether we’re just taking on more debt with little chance to repay it.
Locally, confusion continues as decisions continue to be made without the public getting much information. We’re told “the peak” is two weeks away. Or is it a month away? Mobile County Health Department Director Dr. Bert Eichold continues to withhold the simple numbers of available beds and ventilators available here, to the point Mayor Sandy Stimpson could tell us 50 percent of the beds and vents are available at Friday’s press conference, but not what that means in real numbers. Why this information is being held back from even the mayor is confusing.
It’s also hard to know what to make of 50 percent remaining. The Harvard Global Health Institute Bed Capacity and COVID-19 estimates showed Mobile County’s hospitals with only about 40 percent of their capacity remaining, so has availability actually gone up? Several people I know who work in the hospitals say they’re as empty as they’ve ever seen them right now because elective surgeries have been canceled. It’s already been five days since Gov. Kay Ivey shut down most state businesses proclaiming we’re about two weeks out from the peak, so shouldn’t we start seeing our hospitals fill?
Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth released a “simple math” prediction last week of what’s coming our way. It predicts hospitalizations will increase by 73 percent every three days until May 1, when 245,499 cases of COVID-19 have hit Alabama and 31,914 hospital beds are needed. His chart also projects 6,382 ICU patients. All of these numbers would swamp the state’s health care facilities — if they’re accurate. Ainsworth’s decision to “go rogue” with his own COVID-19 study led to squabbling between him and the governor.
And if all of this isn’t confusing enough, there’s talk about having to go through some of this again in the fall when there’s a second outbreak. It’s hard not to wonder if some people think this should be the new normal.
I like to look at numbers and stats, as well as history when public policy takes a huge turn. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention places the number of flu cases as high as 54 million and deaths in the U.S. between 24,000 and 62,000 since October of last year. Granted, that’s a big range, but annual flu deaths are routinely 40,000 or even more in this country. So what do we do about that next year? What’s the threshold for quarantining everyone and shutting down the economy? Next flu season are we going to try to keep 40,000 or 50,000 people from dying through these same measures?
There’s even confusion about the metrics of what we’re dealing with here. As testing has ramped up across the country, so too has the number of confirmed cases. The number of negative tests remains huge comparatively, but both reporters and government officials breathlessly announce each day the new “hotspot” “exploding” with cases.
But you can look at charts of when states reported and see that maybe a particular state had only done a couple hundred tests and had a handful of positives, but turned in 3,000 test results on one or two days and the caseload is exponentially higher. But does that mean that many more people were actually sick?
Steve Goodman, a professor of epidemiology at Stanford University, calls those numbers “almost meaningless” in an article published a few days ago. What?!
A statistician from UC Berkeley, Jacob Steinhardt, muddies the waters further, saying we really need to be watching hospitalizations to know how fast the disease is progressing, not positive tests. (You getting this, Dr. Eichold?)
So, we’re not even sure we’re using the right numbers to make these big decisions.
Let’s just hope the confusion clears and the toilet paper comes back before we end up with a mess too big to clean up.
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