Coronavirus: Here We Go Again

Here we are six months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Massachusetts had collectively accomplished the immense work of masterfully managing a deadly surge and bringing cases down to inconsequential. When the virus started surging down South, it was easy to say, “Oh well, they just haven’t seen what we’ve seen, when they do they’ll change their course…”

And they are. The governor of Texas had been an ardent opponent of public health science, refusing to implement mask requirements despite pleas from public health experts and citizens, and even hosting massive maskless right-wing political events in late June. They paid dearly for this dumb defiance, with a surge in cases overwhelming hospital facilities by mid-July — and he has since changed his tune on masks. But cases are still surging, and there are swaths of Texas where there are no hospital beds available, with sick patients are being airflighted hundreds of miles away in order to be admitted. Or worse, if their prognosis is poor, being involuntarily assigned to palliative care only. Meaning, allowed to die.

What’s even more depressing than witnessing the unnecessary sickness, suffering, and deaths in places like Texas is expecting the same again here. We’re seeing the cases ticking up locally, and with it mounting evidence that we will surge again. Massachusetts COVID-19 wastewater tracking shows viral particles are now again at rising levels we haven’t seen since late March:

The proof is in the poop, folks.

Our infection rate (which I went on and on about in this post) has been at a concerning critical level for two weeks now:

From COVIDACTNOW, data for Massachusetts.

Read the fine print on this graph: “the total number of active cases in Massachusetts is growing at an unsustainable rate. If this trend continues, the hospital system may become overloaded. Caution is warranted.”

One colleague who works in intensive care at a smaller hospital texted me last week: “Uptick in COVID numbers here… Intubations of the positive patients has returned Ugh”. For her and others who provide the highest-risk care for the sickest patients– intubations– the persistently upwards trends on the graphs translate to real live dying people.

Hospitals here are now fully preparing for a second surge. And yet we are actually still debating schools reopening. Three area summer schools have had COVID-19 cases, triggering quarantines and anxiety. Despite calls by the largest teachers’ unions to plan for remote-only classes this fall for the majority of students (and allowing for in-person programming for those students with the greatest needs), only a handful of districts have opted for this safer option.

Many people around me are still insisting that kids don’t spread this virus, they don’t get sick from this virus, but that’s old thinking based on “old” evidence (the early, faultier studies that were rushed out during the emerging pandemic). Mounting evidence suggests that not only can kids carry and spread SARS-CoV-2, this virus that causes COVID-19, they can also get very sick and even die from it. We urgently need to know more about how this virus interacts with kids, and while massive studies are currently underway, decisions are already being made about this fall.

School officials are stuck between all these facts and a hard place… A REALLY hard place: Pressure from the teachers, parents and the feds. I posted my thoughts on our local Facebook page last week:

My Facebook post in a private local group generated 194 reactions and 144 comments.

Most of the comments were supportive of a safer strategy, but many were pushing for schools to open. Parents have concerns, and feel that if businesses are reopening, school should as well. They said things like this:

Parents are desperately seeking a return to normalcy and free childcare and everything else school has come to provide to make up for the failings of our society. Yvonne Abraham from The Boston Globe summed it up best in a column this week titled “Listen To The Teachers”:Some parents are angry at teachers for trying to put the brakes on in-person instruction. Their eagerness to get their kids back into classrooms is understandable. Remote learning is hard to make work, even for those with more advantages. Of course teachers want to see their students in person again — especially those who need their help the most. But teachers know better than anyone the weight that reopening schools will put on them. Right now, they see it as too great a risk — not just for them, but for all of us.

Meantime, the feds, desperately seeking a return to normalcy ahead of the November election, are forcing schools to make the difficult decision between safety and funding. And school officials have been largely left on their own to consider the data and heed the calls from all of these stakeholders: the teachers, the feds, and the parents. It’s an impossible ask and I do not envy them one bit.

Perhaps luckily, our rising COVID-19 cases will likely make all the debate a moot point. Experts are already calling for a rollback on our reopening plans. School officials will likely be relieved when this happens.

I will too.

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