Sandra R. Hernández | Special to CalMatters
We have entered an important new chapter in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. After a week filled with school closures and the cancellation of major public events of all kinds, Congress and President Donald Trump are hopefully close to a deal to address the spread of the dangerous coronavirus.
This clear-headed collaboration by our political leaders is welcome for the immediate relief it will bring and because it restores — for at least a moment — the primacy of public health over hyper-partisan politics.
COVID-19 hit us where we are vulnerable. Unlike the flu, there is no community immunity to this virus. There is no treatment and no vaccine. The incubation period is long and the virus is very contagious. People are being infected and infecting others faster than the system can currently respond.
Politics may be why testing didn’t ramp up sooner. That has to stop immediately. Without widespread testing, our health care system is basically flying blind. It’s a big reason we have to take such dramatic action to contain any possible spread right now. And going forward, it is imperative that we maintain a shared, nonpartisan interest in getting the epidemiological facts that testing will reveal.
Once testing is expanded, we will better understand case fatality rates and where to target public health interventions. Having that data will take us out of the “unknown phase” we’re trapped in and enable leaders at all levels to unify around sound business decisions. It will also instill confidence and consistency to recommendations about public participation.
COVID-19 is conservatively estimated to be three to 10 times more fatal than seasonal flu. When you look at the mortality rates in China and Europe, people who also have conditions like diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease seem to be at much greater risk of developing a severe form of this infection. These are very common conditions in the United States. It means that the community at risk from exposure is large.
This is why it is critically important to hold down the spread of this virus. Though the risk is uneven, the responsibility must be shared.
It’s true that the steps being asked of so many families and organizations may feel drastic. Closing schools, upending normal business routines and cancelling events are crucial to local economies and communities. These measures have already brought upheaval and changed the daily lives of tens of millions of Americans.
It’s important to remember that these actions are not excessive – they are extremely prudent. They will buy us time, and that is perhaps our best weapon against this fast-moving virus.
Our health care system is technologically advanced, but it is also bound by physical limitations. There are only so many health professionals, beds, ventilators and masks. The sacrifices that families, schools, businesses and communities are making to slow down the spread of COVID-19 protect the health of the people who may need advanced treatment. Every time you wash your hands, practice social distancing or stay home if you are sick, you are saving lives. And we’re counting on our friends, neighbors and even competitors to do the same.
COVID-19 has no party, no race and no citizenship. Health care is a basic need, as is our core public health infrastructure and the need for paid leave when workers get sick. They should be universal, not only for the health of those who are our most vulnerable, but for the health of everyone else we know and all the people in the widening concentric circles to which we connect. When some people are left out of the health system, all of us face a greater risk.
California has been leading the way toward getting everyone health insurance coverage — and expanding access to care. As this virus spreads, this goal has never been more important.
Our nation has been vulnerable to COVID-19 in part because of the divisions that have plagued us. By working together — and with our shared sacrifice — we can rebuild our immunity and strengthen the foundation of a healthier society.
Dr. Sandra R. Hernández is president and CEO of the California Health Care Foundation, firstname.lastname@example.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.