US poised for hellish month as coronavirus surges

 

Tens of thousands of doctors, academics and nurses were scheduled to descend Monday on McCormick Place, Chicago's giant convention center that was supposed to host the American College of Cardiology's annual scientific sessions.

Instead, McCormick Place will open this week as a field hospital, eventually expanding to accommodate as many as 3,000 people in need of care from the deadly coronavirus exploding inside the United States.

Officials across the country are bracing for the worst public health crisis in a century, a crisis that will become starkly severe this week.

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Beginning this week, some hospitals are expected to reach their maximum capacity, case counts will rise exponentially, and the number of available ventilators and beds in ICUs will plummet. Models and projections show the month of April will be a public health catastrophe unlike anything in modern memory.

Tens of thousands of Americans are likely to die from the coronavirus in the coming weeks, a consequence of American leaders failing to heed the lessons learned in other countries about the value and success of taking drastic steps. 

New York already has more than 50,000 cases, and officials worry they will soon see new clusters explode in New Orleans, Chicago and Detroit.

“No state, no metro area will be spared, and the sooner we react and the sooner the states and the metro areas react and ensure that they put in full mitigation, at the same time understanding exactly what their hospitals need, then we’ll be able to move forward together and protect the most Americans,” Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Birx is coordinating a response that began too late and has acted too slowly, months after President TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE, who on Sunday extended the federal government's social distancing guidelines after talking up the idea of reopening parts of the economy by Easter Sunday, downplayed the seriousness of the threat, a tone that sent the wrong signal to the rest of the administration.

Trump continued to play down the threat throughout February and early March, despite increasingly agitated warnings from the administration's own public health officials and from outside experts. 

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The U.S. now has more confirmed coronavirus cases than any other nation, and the number is growing more rapidly than anywhere else. 

The number of confirmed cases has grown by almost 20,000 per day in the last three days alone. The number of new cases will rise even more quickly in the next few weeks, as will the number of deaths.

“There is no credible way to say that we didn’t see this sort of event coming, and there's no credible way to say we didn't think it would do in the U.S. what it did in China,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who oversaw the U.S. Agency for International Development's response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 and 2015.

Ugly scenes in China and Italy, two of the world’s hardest-hit countries, are set to be replayed in the United States. In both of those countries, the number of deaths rose so rapidly that morgues and crematoria were overwhelmed, leaving coffins and body bags piled in parking lots. 

New York City officials have told the Department of Homeland Security that its morgues are already nearing capacity.

Trump and other officials who compared the coronavirus to the flu are set to the see fatalities from the coronavirus far exceed the seasonal illness’s death toll. 

An analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington found that between 38,000 and 162,000 Americans will die of the coronavirus in the next four months alone. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday the death toll could come close to 200,000 in the space of a few months. A recent model from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a worst-case scenario in which as many as 1.7 million Americans would die.

Some governors across the country have taken decisive action to shut down society as much as possible, conscious that the economic damage they are doing is nothing compared to a nightmare scenario where the virus causes both economic catastrophe and human calamity. The governors, Democratic and Republican alike, have put their careers and reputations on the line to force disruptive measures that will nonetheless save lives.

But many say they are still staring at apocalyptic scenarios in their own backyards, with little help from a federal government that downplayed the extent of the danger and failed to stock up on the necessary supplies. 

“Our numbers are climbing exponentially. We knew it was a matter of time, not if, COVID-19 would come to Michigan. We took aggressive measures. We've been on the front end of aggressive measures that states have been taking. But we see this astronomical rise,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." 

Others are refusing to take the kinds of steps necessary to impose the social distancing practices that will deny the virus its next victims. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisDeSantis pushing to host Republican National Convention in Florida Florida bars and theaters to reopen starting Friday, DeSantis says DeSantis says he's sending 500 National Guard troops to DC MORE (R) reiterated on Saturday that he will not close beaches in his state, comparing them favorably with New York's subway system. DeSantis has required those coming into his state from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to stay in quarantine; meanwhile, 4,077 of the 4,246 confirmed positive cases in Florida have occurred in Florida residents.

In the meantime, the United States is preparing to open dozens of field hospitals in the most dramatic effort to increase the health care system's capacity in a hundred years. If even the rosiest projections are correct, those field hospitals will soon teem with COVID-19 patients suffering serious symptoms.

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Those hospitals will stand at iconic sites known for much different reasons to local residents. The Javits Convention Center in New York will soon have nearly 3,000 hospital beds to treat non-COVID-19 patients in order to free hospital space. CenturyLink Field in Seattle, home of the Seahawks and Sounders, will have hundreds of beds. Fairgrounds in Miami-Dade County and Salem, Ore., and arenas and dorms at Yale University and Wayne State University will all be repurposed to take care of the sick. The North American International Auto Show in Detroit has been canceled after the Federal Emergency Management Agency picked the arena where it was to have been held as a field hospital.

“Wars and plagues are remembered differently. Collective memories for war seem to be born instantly, fully formed,” the author Laura Spinney wrote in "Pale Rider," a sweeping history of the Spanish flu outbreak. “Memories of cataclysmic pestilence build up more slowly.”

There are plenty of monuments to war and the people who fight them. There are few memorials or monuments to the victims of diseases that have swept the globe, beyond the AIDS quilt and statues at the World Health Organization's headquarters in Geneva.

The United States is building its own monuments now, locations Americans will drive past or stop to visit in the future and remember those who were treated and those who treated them. 

When the coronavirus recedes, the Javits Center, McCormick Place, the fairgrounds and stadia and arenas will all mean more than they do today because of one of the worst months in American history.