Commentary: Observations on a catastrophic month

March 2020 will go down in history as the month that many Americans started taking the coronavirus seriously. In the first couple of weeks, schools, businesses, and state governments determined that the US wasn’t going to dodge the virus bullet, started to fear a replication of Italy’s experience, and began what eventually led to the near shutdown of many parts of our country, including the Commonwealth.

Related: In NY Times op-ed, Bill Walczak makes case for wearing masks as a national policy

Massachusetts leaders did this despite continuing statements by the president (and by certain governors, such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis) that it was a problem that could be largely ignored. By the end of the month, the US had the most cases in the world, with no sign that it would plateau soon. Because we as a country were so late to the fight, slowing the spread or “flattening the curve” of the pandemic is the best we can hope for now.

We know now that there were several government and non-government studies over the past few years looking at the possibility of such a viral scenario developing in the United States. These included one done just last summer featuring a simulated test of our systems that pointed out the problems that eventually became our failings when the real virus hit this year.

In 2018, Bill Gates, in a lecture to the Massachusetts Medical Society, cited the danger of a pandemic hitting the US “in our lifetime” and pointed to a report from the Institute for Disease Modeling predicting that if a contagious, lethal, and airborne pathogen on the order of the 1918 flu pandemic hit the US, it could result in 33 million deaths in 6 months. So government officials were aware of the danger, and what we needed to do to deal with such a pandemic, but the Trump administration cut the very department that should have been helping to prepare us.

The US is now the center of the COVID-19 disaster, and, as predicted, our health care system is being overrun in several parts of the country.

And we’re still fumbling when it comes to several critical issues:

• Testing. If we really want to put a lid on this virus, we need a test that tells us in minutes, not days or weeks, whether someone has the virus, and we need to do them on everyone, probably multiple times – and not only when someone has symptoms, as we can carry the virus for several days before having symptoms.

China determined that 79 percent of its confirmed cases were the result of contact with people who were untested. We all need to know our status, not once, but at any time, if we’re to successfully separate those carrying the virus from those it could kill. Countries more successful at managing the pandemic are making this happen.

• Masks. China made billions of masks and had people wear them in public to contain the virus. Americans are being told that not everyone needs to wear one. Sometimes we’re told the truth – that we don’t have enough for the medical providers. But we’ve also been told that they don’t work unless you have symptoms. On the other hand, we’re told that “infected people can carry the virus for several days before showing any signs of illness” (Boston Globe).

Recently, some health agencies have been recommending using bandanas over your mouth and nose due to the lack of masks, which could be seen as a different kind of risk (looking like a bank robber). In any case, it is criminal that we still cannot produce enough masks for everyone.

• Personal Protection Equipment. Medical providers are still seeing patients without appropriate protection, including masks, and hundreds of our medical providers are getting the virus (and presumably spreading the virus), thereby reducing the number of providers available to treat people who get the virus. Can we indict the folks responsible for this travesty? Oh, that’s right, the president can’t be indicted for a crime while in office. (But could we indict US Senators Burr and Loeffler for unloading stock after hearing a congressional briefing while telling their constituents not to worry?)

It amazes me that we’re still talking about these basic needs that should have been handled months ago.

Finally, our state budget is taking a whack from the virus. By law, it has to be balanced for its fiscal year, which ends June 30. When are we going to be told how much tax money is expected to be lost, how much money will be needed to pay for keeping our state going in a crisis, and what we will need to cut to balance the books?

How will we be able to implement the new Chapter 70 education foundation budget, which re-balances education funding toward needy communities? Should the Legislature rescind the recent income tax cut and deductibility of charitable contributions? (Please see my article on why we should do so.)

If we can’t quicken our pace, our state budget will be just one of many crises in a very drawn-out health and economic catastrophe.