A century ago, the influenza pandemic known as the Spanish Flu infected 500 million people worldwide and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people, more than all of the soldiers and civilians killed during World War I. The pandemic lasted two years with the bulk of the deaths occurring in the final months of 1918, an outbreak that some infectious disease experts speculate was worsened by wartime troop movements.
We’ve come a long way in dealing with disease and pandemics, but it is hard to watch the current trend of COVID-19 infections and not see at least a few lessons from history. Texas last week became the first state with more than 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and days later California crossed the 1 million mark. Also last week, the nation passed the 10 million mark for infections, just 10 days after hitting 9 million.
Chicago has issued stay-at-home advisories. El Paso has prepared makeshift morgues. County and medical leaders offer stark warnings about the winter ahead. Hospitalizations are now at the highest number since April, and death totals are expected to climb. “We are at a very dangerous point in the fight against COVID,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said recently. “We are staring down the barrel of the largest spike that we have seen to date in COVID cases.”
In other words, it’s fair to believe that even while people grow complacent the virus is extending its reach. A similar pattern emerged a century ago when cases of the flu declined during the summer of 1918, prompting hope that the virus was receding. Instead it was the calm before a deadly fall and winter.
Today, the arc of past pandemics and sophisticated medical and pharmaceutical research offer hope for a vaccine and a path forward. But there is still no getting around the hard realities of community spread of a virus.
Our advice is that the nation can’t ignore common-sense precautions as we wait for a vaccine. The nation needs to brace for dangerous times and refocus on the fundamentals — wearing masks, avoiding large crowds and practicing good personal hygiene. We’ll note here that as a society we haven’t always been good at adhering to smart antiviral practices during protests, celebrations and sporting events.
The nation must take these steps to mitigate the hazards of this current wave of infections. That means ensuring the vulnerable and the afflicted get the care they need. It also means working to reduce the other effects of the virus, such as economic collapse and significant other health problems ranging from cancers going undetected when people refrain from necessary checkups to mental health issues that emerge from social isolation, and much more. Smart steps (and actions) now can stave off tougher restrictions in the coming weeks.
We all have virus fatigue and yearn for a vaccine to end this global nightmare. But we have to get from here to there, and must learn from both our immediate past and the lessons of the pandemic a century ago.
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