Walczak: "Social distancing" is critical right now, not later on

(Updated on Tues., March 17, 2:55 p.m.)— One of the most iconic lines in movie history is from “Jaws,” where Brody, played by Roy Scheider, sees the shark for the first time, and realizes it’s way bigger and more dangerous than anticipated. The shark proceeds over the rest of the movie to kill the captain and destroy the boat before it is finally killed.

Scientists have done thorough analyses of how the coronavirus spreads by looking at how it has hit other countries. It spreads gradually, and then suddenly. The only way to keep down the numbers of people who will come down with the virus is to practice “social distancing.”
It took some time for the leadership of our country, state, and city to make critical decisions to allow that to happen, but in the past week, we’ve seen most of the Commonwealth shut down or eliminate in-person meetings in government, institutions, events, schools, construction and even churches.

The Catholic Archdioceses of Boston, Worcester, NY and Washington DC have drained the holy water fonts and canceled in-person Mass until further notice.

And on Sunday, the governor closed Mass. public schools, prohibited gatherings of 25 people or more, and banned on-premise consumption at bars and restaurants until April 6.

“Social distancing” is important because the coronavirus spreads very rapidly when people are close together. We saw that happen a few weeks ago in China, Iran, and Italy, where a few cases became thousands in a few days. If the virus isn’t spread because people stay away from each other, transmission will be slowed, and eventually it will diminish to a manageable disease. If it doesn’t, we’ll look like Italy, a country of 60 million people in lockdown.

As of Tuesday morning, coronavirus cases in Italy number 27,980 cases and 2,158 deaths. Spain and France have joined Italy in lockdown, and most of the rest of Europe is heading that way. Lockdown means people will only be allowed to leave their homes to buy food and medicine, commute to work, go to medical centers and banks, or take trips to care for the young and elderly.

Contrast that with Singapore, which, after the outbreak in China, closed down many parts of the country, aggressively monitored its population, and severely limited social contact. People who failed to abide by their “Stay Home” requirements have been punished. They have had 243 cases of coronavirus, and no reported deaths.

If social distancing doesn’t work and COVID-19 spreads rapidly, we will see our number of cases and deaths rise quickly, with the result that our health care system will be overwhelmed, and our economy will grind to a halt.

But many here in Boston didn’t seem to get the message or are unclear on the concept. On Saturday, I received a text reporting that bars in Adams Village were “wall-to-wall” with people. And Twitter was ablaze with pictures of Southie bars packed to the gills with people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. The park in front of my house had groups of adolescents frolicking.

By the morning, there was an outcry about the lack of safe distancing, leading to the governor closing all bars and restaurants except for take-out food a few days later.

This is not vacation time. We’ve shut down our state in the hope that our residents will practice “social distancing” and thereby limit COVID-19 infection.

People are getting the wrong impression when the media report on coronavirus infection based on confirmed cases when testing has been nearly impossible to obtain. Our government and media need to approach our situation differently.

We hear reports of the number of Massachusetts cases identified, which was 197 as of Tuesday morning – but the state had only tested 1092 people in total. South Korea is testing 15,000 people per day. We know that the number of infected residents is much higher, but we won’t know how much higher until testing is widespread.

An infectious disease physician on the radio was asked about the fact that we now have 5,000 test kits in the Commonwealth, and whether that would make a difference in getting control of the virus. She said maybe if we were doing 5,000 tests each day.

We’re not ready for this.

On Sunday, I called the special 211 number to get information on coronavirus for a friend who has symptoms. It took two-and-a-half hours for someone to answer. Some health centers are reporting that they are treating patients without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) because they can’t get any masks or gowns, thereby potentially exposing them to the virus. This is further complicated by the fact that some infected people have no symptoms, currently a prerequisite for getting a test.

Medical providers are testing positive and nationally two emergency room docs are in critical care units after being exposed. Any hope for preventing our country from turning into a larger scale version of Italy rests on our taking action now. The next two weeks will reveal whether we acted in time.

We need a bigger boat.