A Virus is Not Godzilla
A virus is not Godzilla. Its takeover of the world is not inevitable. Nor is a virus an act of God or a hurricane or tornado or anything else we have to passively accept as bigger than ourselves. A virus can be stopped. How? Quit giving it hosts.
You can quit giving a virus hosts in two ways.
First, you can let the tipping point of your population get infected and acquire immunity. With sufficient immunity (which can also be achieved via vaccine), the virus can’t find enough new hosts to survive. This is the “herd immunity” you’ve “herd” so much about. It’s the policy Boris Johnson was promoting for the UK several weeks before he wound up in the ICU from the virus. Herd immunity is a great strategy when you don’t think you’ll be the sacrificial heifer.
The second approach is to prevent the virus from finding new victims. On an individual level, that’s why we wash our hands, don’t touch our faces, social distance, and wear masks. On a societal level, it’s the testing, tracing, and isolation process that—God knows why—we are only now beginning to hear about.
This process—what I’ll call TT&I—works in three steps. You test to see who is infected. Determine who the infected person has been around. Isolate the infected and potentially infected for the period of time it takes to develop the disease. The virus is still looking for new hosts, but it can’t find them.
Fortunately, some states are already gearing up to put the TT&I process in place. Again, God knows why our public health system wasn’t ready to jump into action as soon as the threat of the virus was known (the Mississippi Department of Health, for example, announced they would be following the TT&I practice instead of shutdowns, but the announcement was made not in December, January, February, or early March, but mid-March, far too late, and they had to jump to sheltering-in-place instead.)
Why on earth do I think I know what I’m talking about? Because early, early on, I watched a podcast hosted by Steph Curry where he spoke with Dr. Fauci. This is exactly how Dr. Fauci explained it.
He said we had to shelter in place to stave off the virus tsunami threatening to overwhelm our healthcare system. While we were flattening the curve, we had to be gearing up for TT&I. We would thus be ready to starve the virus of hosts so that future outbreaks would be brush fires rather than conflagrations. Inherent in this is the understanding that the virus will re-appear; new cases in countries that have contained the virus are being falsely reported as “the-sky-is-falling!” news. Reappearance will happen. The point is to contain it when it does. To be in charge. To take charge.
During our sheltering-in-place, our national conversation should have been about one thing: implementing TT&I. We should have been educating people on why TT&I was needed. Deciding where to put enough tests in widespread areas so people will have ready access to them no matter where they live. We should have been having the hard conversations about how we can acceptably do tracing—the old-fashioned way with people or with newfangled technology or a combination of both—plus identifying where the tracing people and money to hire them will come from. Finally, we should have been figuring out how to help those who need help to isolate. We should have been forming plans for keeping our society alive will putting TT&I in place, instead of creating extremes of sheltering in place forever to kill the virus or opening it wide up to save the economy.
All of this is foreign to Americans. Not in theory—Mississippi has used TT&I for as long as I can remember for STDs—but in widespread application, which is why we should’ve been talking about it. TT&I money was included in one of the packages Congress passed. It’s coming to Mississippi. You know how we reacted? A political fight over whether the governor or the legislature gets to decide how the money is spent.
Am I making this sound too simple? Absolutely. The virus is, and will continue, damaging our health and economy. Implementation of TT&I will be a bitch, and still the economy will probably suffer. Plus, our understanding of the virus could transform this post into trash next week. The novel coronavirus could turn to be unlike any public health catastrophe the world has seen. The absolutely tried-and-true might not work for it. But we won’t know if we refuse to implement the tried-and-true.
All we can hope is that the TT&I process hasn’t gotten totally lost in the political bellowing that has surrounded this outbreak, feeding the virus, transforming what should have been a devastatingly frightening event into an unstoppable rampaging Godzilla.