For most of Bucks County and across the country, COVID-19 has changed life in dramatic and unexpected ways. By Wednesday, Bucks had eight confirmed cases.
Reassurance is measured in a wealth of toilet paper as 401k’s plummet. Bottles of hand sanitizer are collected as if they were Aztec gold pieces from the Treasure of Cortes. Lines reminiscent of pre-Christmas Black Friday shopping extend outside of supermarkets in the early morning hours waiting for the doors to open – all too often to empty shelves.
Village streets are quiet. Shops are tightly shuttered on normally bustling spring-like days. A new lexicon has crept into everyday language, from “social distancing” to “self-quarantine” to “flattening the curve.” Shaking hands has morphed almost overnight into elbow bumps, and handwashing is creating a minor epidemic of dry, chapped skin, perhaps a harbinger that hand lotion might be the next hot item once the pandemic resolves.
And while some of what is happening can be driven by panic, NIH Immunology expert Anthony Fauci has said, “If it looks like you’re overreacting, you’re probably doing the right thing.” Still, fear propels much of this “overreaction,” perhaps a response to what has been perceived by many as an underreaction by the federal government.
The magnitude of the problem in many other countries is still better characterized than it is in the United States thanks to aggressive testing. A promise of more tests in a fumbled presidential press conference last Friday that erroneously implied coordination with a Google website was swiftly followed Monday with the largest daily point loss in U.S. stock market history.
The COVID Tracking Project, which sources data directly from state public health authorities, has finally shown a more measurable increase in U.S. testing this week. But at only 41,000 total tests performed as of March 16, the United States trails other countries like South Korea which tests half that many in a single day.
The distance we must close in catching up is daunting. The total number of tests per million people in the U.S. is around 100 while South Korea has tested well over 5,000.
As of Tuesday, March 17, Bucks County was the fifth most impacted county in Pennsylvania with confirmed COVID-19 infections. With eight of the 96 confirmed cases in the state, Bucks County trails adjacent Montgomery county, which at 32 cases is the current hotspot for COVID-19 infections, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. There have been 975 tests administered for exposure across the state yielding 96 positive results.
Mitigation efforts by Gov. Wolf’s administration on March 16 urged non-essential businesses across the commonwealth to close for 14 days, expanding an earlier recommendation that was limited to Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties.
The governor defined essential businesses as healthcare, pharmacy, veterinary practices and biomedical facilities, postal and commercial shipping outlets, food processing and agricultural facilities, trash collection, public transportation, commercial lodging facilities, laundromats, gas stations and vehicle repair facilities, home repair businesses, and grocery and convenience stores.
While the guidance fell short of an enforceable directive, restaurant dining has been prohibited. Eating establishments across the state are limited to delivery, take-out or drive-through operations.
The mitigation efforts are aimed at preserving the viability and efficiency of hospital facilities, staff and equipment, which may be overrun by a concentrated peak of cases far outnumbering available staffed inpatient and intensive care beds, ventilators, and other equipment. Even if a given group were eventually infected despite social distancing and self-quarantine, such efforts would help disperse cases over time, flattening that peak to a more manageable level.
Italy models what some fear is in store for the U.S., where over 31,000 cases have overwhelmed the health care infrastructure; 2,500 deaths reflect an 8 percent mortality rate. Both number of cases and deaths have doubled in the past four days. By comparison, South Korea currently has 8,300 cases with 81 deaths, equating to only 1 percent mortality.
While demographics and cultural practices are variables, the dramatic difference has been largely attributed to how quickly and aggressively South Korea reacted to flatten the curve.
Dr. Timothy Block, president of both the Hepatitis B Foundation and the Baruch S. Blumberg Institute at the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center in Doylestown, expressed an optimistic, science-based perspective.
While not directly involved in the current pandemic, his reassurance is well-based from an institute whose founder, Dr. Baruch Blumberg, addressed another pandemic. Blumberg discovered the virus which causes Hepatitis B and not only developed testing but a vaccine as well.
Block said that the investment by the scientific community in molecular virology and basic, solid science has paid off already with COVID-19.
“Consider that it was first reported Dec. 29 and only 10 days later it was sequenced, cloned and identified,” Block said, adding that testing kits were available worldwide within two weeks. By comparison, testing for Hepatitis B took six years to develop after the virus was identified.
Block expressed faith in the researchers, adding that one example – an antiviral drug called Remdesivir – has shown promise against emerging coronaviruses in laboratory models and may prove relevant to the current pandemic.