Tag Archives: epidemics

Gang of Imbeciles

Woodall Rodgers Freeway, heading into downtown Dallas, sat nearly empty at 7:26 am on Tuesday, March 24, 2020 – the first morning after Dallas County’s “shelter in place”. This stretch of highway is normally packed with vehicles during morning rush hour. Photo by Lynda M. Gonzalez, Dallas Morning News).

“Greatness in the last analysis is largely bravery – courage in escaping from old ideas and old standards and respectable ways of doing things.”

James Robinson

Crises can make or break a leader.  The 1979-81 Iran Hostage fiasco decimated Jimmy Carter’s final year in office and assuredly caused him to lose his 1980 reelection bid.  The 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing helped secure Bill Clinton’s image as a stalwart president.  The Hurricane Katrina debacle, on the other hand, proved George W. Bush was incompetent and ineffective as Commander-in-Chief.

The current COVID-19 scourge is Donald Trump’s national crisis.  It could be the savior of his presidency; the one element that ensures his place in the pantheon of great world leaders.  Or it could be his death knell; the catastrophic event which will equate him with failure, except his most devoted followers.  As things appear now, it’s turning into the latter.

Yesterday, March 26, Trump signed a roughly USD 2.2 trillion stimulus package unanimously passed by the U.S. Congress.  Because the COVID-19 mess has created a new set of “social distancing” protocols aimed at subverting the virus’ spread, a large number of Americans have suddenly found themselves jobless.  Restaurants, nightclubs, gyms, and tattoo parlors have been forced to shut down.  History will determine if that achieved its intended goals.  But, as of March 26, the number of jobless claims set a record at 3.3 million.  Who would’ve thought an invisible microbe could wreak such havoc?

Amidst this cataclysm, our dear leader, Donald Trump, has openly considered easing restrictions to the practices of social distancing.  Earlier this week, he suggested the U.S. could return to normal by Easter.  “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.  That’s akin to the captain of the Titanic shouting, “Pool party!”

It’s almost painful to watch Trump and his band of clueless minions pretend this crisis will obey a presidential command.  Many conservatives tried to explain George W. Bush’s pathetic handling of the Hurricane Katrina fiasco by claiming his adversaries wanted him to stop the storm from terrorizing the Gulf Coast.  I heard a few actually say that aloud!  And I had the pleasure of telling them, ‘No.  The issue was RESPONDING to the hurricane!’  Bush and the Republican Party were quick to declare war on Iraq in 2003.  But, when a REAL threat emerges, they failed miserably.

If anything, the start of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. some forty years ago proved how dangerous social conservatism can be to a health crisis.  Admittedly, thousands of people didn’t come down with HIV in a matter of days, as with the COVID-19 virus.  But the reality is that national policy should never be based on individual predilections or religious ideology.  Every time people make health-based decisions on their own personal religious beliefs, people die.  Every single time!

But the AIDS epidemic showed that a slow federal response to a health concern can be lethal.  I’m watching the COVID-19 pandemic unfold here in the U.S. in stark realism.  As of March 27, the U.S. has achieved the dubious distinction of the most number of COVID-19 cases in the world.  Meaning we’ve now surpassed China and Italy.  Trump always declared America is #1 – and what do you know?!  The old bastard has finally been proven right!

I really don’t want to see Donald Trump fail in this entire imbroglio.  It’s not good to wish your national leader stumble and falter as a national crisis of any kind grips the nation.  But, thus far, Trump has shown no real leadership, with the exception of the aforementioned stimulus package.

It doesn’t need to be this way for him – or for anyone.  This could be his golden moment to prove he’s an authentic leader, not the failed businessman / tax cheat others claim he really is.  Every country’s leader is forced to confront a national emergency of some kind or another.  It just comes with the territory.  The U.S. presidency, in this case, is not school a crossing guard-type of position.  It requires more fortitude and clarity than most jobs, when in fact, the presidency is not a standard job.  It’s more of a calling – kind of like human rights work, or teaching.

As I view it in this moment of national surrealism, Donald Trump is not listening to the tragic sounds of that call.

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Getting Viral

“If a severe pandemic materializes, all of society could pay a heavy price for decades of failing to create a rational system of health care that works for all of us.”

Irwin Redlener

We Texans like to consider ourselves a hardy lot.  Not much scares us – not communists, Islamic terrorists, hurricanes, triple-digit temperatures, or even gingivitis.  When the 2014 Ebola scare hit Dallas, locals rumbled through their daily routines without any real concern that a fatal microbe – one with a roughly 90% death rate – lurked in the air.  Actually, it was in the bloodstream…of a handful of individuals.  Ebola, like HIV and bad attitudes, is a blood-borne pathogen and therefore, not transmittable via the air.  Thus, I thought it odd that the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW), an annual gathering of film, music and media artists in Austin, had been canceled this time because of the current, ongoing coronavirus outbreak.  I still can’t believe that Austin – a city that prides itself on being “weird” – has been humbled by a viral intruder.  But it has.  Sadly, thousands of weirdos from across the globe will not be able to descend upon the capital of one of the most conservative dominions in the United States and find kindred souls through their mutual love of art and music.  And humanity’s mutual love of going to work and to school, shopping and taking vacations also has been undermined by a wicked little microbe.

For COVID-19 – the critter formerly known as a coronavirus – the mystery continues unabated.  I haven’t seen this much hysteria over a disease since AIDS popped up nearly four decades ago.  With the death toll now exceeding 3,000 and the confirmed number of infections pushing 100,000, COVID-19 is proving to be a formidable bacterial opponent.  The flu-like virus has reached every continent except Antarctica and (as many of these things tend to do) shows no signs of slowing.  What are we bipedals on the third rock from the sun supposed to do?

A century ago the world was recovering from two cataclysms: the Great War (World War I) and the “Spanish flu”.  It seems the latter followed the former.  Millions of people displaced across Europe by the ravages of conflict – sickened and hungry – inadvertently created a cesspool of illness.  To this day, no one really knows where exactly the Spanish flu evolved (some say the Midwestern U.S. was the point of germination), what made it so lethal, or why it spread so quickly and so far.  In the ensuing decades, some virologists declared that the closest analogy is the 14th century “Black Plague”, a scourge that managed to ravage much of the known world – from Western Asia to Northern Africa to Iceland.  The “known world”, of course, being what European scholars thought existed, circa 1300 C.E.

The “Black Plague” was a Eurasian pandemic; a merciless spread of the bubonic plague across regions that hadn’t yet realized the beauty of handwashing and Kleenex.  From roughly 1347 C.E. to 1352 C.E., the ailment took approximately 20 million lives.  It impacted commerce and trade and terrified ignorant souls into comprehending the fragility of their existence.  It shaped the entire region; one of the birth places of modern humanity; a womb of agriculture and farming.

The 1918-19 Spanish flu remains the most severe pandemic in recent virological history.  Doctors in both Europe and the U.S. first identified the virus in military camps in the spring of 1918.  Within two years the virus, now identified as a strain of avian H1N1, had directly affected roughly 500 million people and killed an estimated 50 million.  And much like the 14th century “Black Death”, the “Spanish flu” retreated into the annals of medicine, once it appeared to have inflicted enough agony upon a vulnerable populace.  In a time before antibiotics, contemporaries of the “Black Death” and “Spanish flu” resorted to isolation, quarantine, prayer and general hysteria.  So what’s new?

In the century since the “Spanish flu” quagmire, the planet has experienced two similar microbial outbursts: the 1956-58 “Shanghai flu” and the 1968-70 “Hong Kong flu”.  The Shanghai menace was an H2N2 avian virus first reported in China in early 1956.  It had originated from a mutation in wild ducks and combined with a pre-existing human strain.  A vaccine was introduced in 1957, and the pandemic slowed down.  A second wave developed in 1958, however, and went on to become part of the regular wave of seasonal flu.  Overall, the “Shanghai flu” killed about 5 million people across the globe.  By 1968, the H2N2 Asian flu had disappeared from the human population and is believed to have gone extinct in the wild.

Then, in 1968, the “Hong Kong flu” arose.  Developing from an H3N2 avian virus, it first appeared in Hong Kong in July of 1968.  Within two months, the virus had spread across Asia and into Europe.  By autumn, it reached the Western Hemisphere.  As with the Spanish flu, the Hong Kong flu appears to have come to the United States along with military troops arriving home from battle.  In this case, it was the Vietnam War, which had begun to impact all of Southeastern Asia by 1968.  In total, the Hong Kong flu killed approximately 1 million people.

AIDS bears some similarities to all of the aforementioned influenzas disasters, in that it appeared unexpectedly and incited mass hysteria.  But HIV germinates within blood and blood-related elements.  Despite warnings from religious zealots and other uneducated morons, it cannot be transmitted via sneezing and coughing.

The most recent influenza-style epidemic was the 2002-03 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus.  Officially dubbed SARS-CoV, it is thought to be an animal-borne microbe – perhaps bats, which spread to other mammals, such as wild felines.  It somehow spread to humans and was first identified in southern China in November of 2002.  It infected about 1,800 people and killed less than 300.  No known SARS cases have been documented since 2004.

The contemporary COVID-19 has sparked the usual rash of histrionics.  The sight of people clad in hazmat attire scrubbing walls and airline seats is matched only by the plethora of wary citizens navigating the streets of the world’s metropolises while wearing face masks.  Aside from the SXSW event, Chinese New Year events saw dramatic shifts in travel and attendance, and the latest installment of the James Bond franchise, “No Time to Die”, has had its worldwide premier delayed from April 10 to November 25.  Italy, which has experienced the greatest number of COVID-19 infections outside of Asia, has seen an overwhelming drop in tourism to some of its most famed landmarks.  Saudi Arabian authorities have suspended the year-round “umrah” pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest place, in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.  The usual masses of people circling the granite Kaaba at Mecca’s Grand Mosque has been reduced to a handful of brave souls.

Here in the U.S. we’ve seen a run on hand sanitizer, face masks, generators, non-perishable food items, and even hazmat suits.  People are refusing to shake hands and will touch elevator buttons and door handles only if there’s a latex glove or a paper towel between them.  I can only suspect that the same has occurred in other countries.  These precautions are not unwarranted.  In a world with a population rapidly approaching 7 billion, it’s not illogical to envision millions of people literally dropping dead on the streets.

While the epidemic seems to have slowed in Wuhan, China (the place of its birth), it continues across the planet.  We’re far from the death toll of even the Hong Kong flu.  And most of the fatalities have occurred in individuals over the age of 65 and / or in people with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.  This should be expected of any viral scourge.

My greatest concern, however, is that the real biological menace – the one that could wipe out literally millions, if not billions of people – has yet to emerge.  Such a pandemic would be unprecedented in human history.  And it would impact everyone, much like the 1918 Spanish flu, which affected even strong, healthy people.  The very young, the very old and the very sick are always the first victims of any airborne disease.  Epidemiologists will continue to march across the globe in search of the next viral threat, and the rest of us will continue to wonder if our time will end in the depths of elderly sleep or swaddled in the confines of plastic.

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Worst Quote of the Week – February 28, 2020

“Is this perhaps a ploy to try to take down President Trump’s roaring economy that we have by sabotaging the markets, by creating fear porn and fear-mongering while they’re also killing Chinese people by the thousands?  Is that a strategy that the deep state would actually use?”

– Conspiracy theorist Ann Vandersteel, speculating that the coronavirus outbreak may have been orchestrated by the “deep state” and/or the British government in order to destabilize global markets, weaken the American economy and prevent President Donald Trump from being reelected.

Sometimes, when people become severely ill with an influenza-type agent, they begin to hallucinate and start seeing things that aren’t there.  In this case, however, the new coronavirus (COVID-19) seems to be inducing phantasmagoric hysteria in a variety of people.  Then again, that often happens when folks don’t read more than religious texts and a TV guide.  It’s almost unfortunate fatal viruses don’t target stupidity.

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Update: Ebola Hits Dallas

On October 5, a hazardous-materials crew cleaned outside the Dallas apartment building of a nurse who was infected with Ebola.

On October 5, a hazardous-materials crew cleaned outside the Dallas apartment building of a nurse who was infected with Ebola.

As some have feared and others predicted, the Ebola situation in Dallas has worsened. The man who became the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States was identified a couple of weeks ago as Thomas Eric Duncan, a 42-year-old Liberian native who arrived here on September 20. He died of the disease early on October 8. The facts surrounding Duncan’s case have changed almost as quickly as promises from the mouths of Texas politicians. But, then again, when the media hurries to publish a story, the truth almost always gets lost in the chaos.

Duncan had been accused of lying on a questionnaire he was given upon boarding a flight from Monrovia to Brussels on September 19; one that asks travelers if they’ve had recent contact with an Ebola patient or have recovered from the ailment. We learned almost as soon as news of Duncan’s dilemma became known that he had carried a pregnant 19-year-old woman to and from a taxi cab shortly before he departed Liberia. The woman died of Ebola not long after she’d been turned away from a local hospital because they were filled to capacity. Then, some of her other relatives got sick and died. By the time she passed away, Duncan was already in Dallas.

Now, news reports claim that neither Duncan nor any of the pregnant woman’s relatives were aware she had Ebola. Apparently, the latter didn’t realize it until after she died. Such is the case in Liberia and other developing nations of West Africa. The health care infrastructure is as pathetic as the road infrastructure. That’s why it doesn’t surprise me that the pregnant woman was turned away from a hospital.

“If he had known he had Ebola … he would not have put the love of his life in a situation like this,” family friend Saymendy Lloyd said of Duncan after he died.

But, officials at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas should have known better than anyone in a ramshackle hospital in Liberia. It’s bad enough that – when Duncan first arrived on September 25, complaining of fever and nausea – the hospital merely sent him home with a prescription for antibiotics. Now, we’ve learned he had a 103° temperature that night. I’m not a healthcare professional, but even I know someone with a 103° temperature needs to be hospitalized. Then, there’s the breakdown in information. The nurse who saw Duncan initially recorded his temperature in the hospital system. But somehow, that crucial bit of data got lost in the electronic shuffle. Hospital officials were quick to blame the software, which was designed and distributed by Epic, a Wisconsin-based firm that controls about 20% of the U.S. market in electronic hospital records. Another piece of lost information – Duncan revealed he’d recently traveled from Liberia.

Someone once told me that computers are only as smart as the people who operate them. No, I responded, they’re only as smart as the people who design them. Actually, it’s both. Presbyterian Dallas’ story keeps shifting, so hopefully they’ll settle on a final version before the book and TV-movie come out. Regardless, none of it leaves me with any sense of confidence in the U.S. health care system. The U.S. has spent more time and money building prisons and sports arenas than health care facilities. Our backward-thinking politicians have made sure oil companies got large tax breaks, while funding for education is always put up for a vote – and fails.

Yet, it’s gotten worse. A nurse who tended to Duncan while he was in isolation at Presbyterian has now tested positive for Ebola. The news just broke, so there aren’t too many details, except that she’s a 20-something native of Fort Worth. Supposedly, her apartment has already been cleaned out, although reports state her dog is still inside. Hopefully, the animal doesn’t suffer the same fate as the pet of a Spanish nurse last week. I mean, I’d rather sacrifice the entire Texas State Legislature instead.

And, the drama continues.

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Ebola Hits Dallas

The Ebola virus.

The Ebola virus.

Okay, I’m being a bit dramatic. But, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have confirmed, along with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas, that an unidentified man has tested positive for the Ebola virus. This is the first time that someone in the United States has been diagnosed with the deadly hemorrhagic fever. Since March of this year, Ebola has wreaked havoc across Western Africa; killing nearly 3,100 people and sickening thousands more. Before now, outbreaks had been limited to rural areas in Central Africa. This epidemic has been the deadliest and most widespread since medical aid workers accidentally discovered and identified it in September of 1976. With roughly a 90% fatality rate, Ebola quickly supplanted smallpox as the most lethal pathogen known to humanity. The current epidemic, however, has had a fatality rate of about 60%.

And, I just knew it would be a matter of time before it would reach a major metropolitan area outside of Africa’s largest cities. I’m actually surprised it hasn’t occurred sooner. I recently told a friend it was never if, but when it would hit. I even added that, with our luck, it would pop up right here in my home city of Dallas, Texas. Sometimes, I just think too damn much.

Confidentiality laws in the U.S. prevent the man’s identity from being released, but officials at first said he traveled directly from Liberia – the hardest hit of the countries in the Ebola outbreak – to Dallas on September 19 to visit relatives who live here. Now, we know that he traveled from Liberia to Brussels on the 19th, and, the next day, from Brussels to Washington, D.C., and then on to Dallas. He began getting sick with fever a few days later and sought medical treatment at Dallas Presbyterian on the 24th. Doctors there just thought he had a bad fever and sent him away with some antibiotics. The biggest health threats, as far as local officials are concerned, have been West Nile virus, HIV and bad driving. The man’s condition worsened, and he returned to the same hospital via ambulance on September 28 where he was immediately placed into isolation. But, here’s an interesting fact: a nurse who tended to him the first time asked the man if he’d been to West Africa, and he purportedly said yes. The nurse is believed to have recorded that information, but the doctors either didn’t catch that (no pun intended) or ignored it.

Now, the CDCP is trying to backtrack and find everyone who’s been in contact with the patient. Earlier today Texas Governor Rick Perry and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings took part in a press conference at the hospital where they and the facility’s officials emphasized that they have the matter under control; adding that everyone must remain calm. It’s important to note that Ebola is a blood-born pathogen and – while highly infectious – isn’t contagious. You have to come in contact with an infected individual’s bodily fluids to risk exposure.

I understand that. But, who’s to say hospital workers who first treated the man weren’t lax in cleaning up after him? Among the people he came in contact with are 5 children who attend four different schools in Dallas. Knowing the poor sanitary habits of children (and plenty of adults), it’s possible they could bleed, vomit and / or be careless about cuts and scrapes without realizing the severity of their actions. Anything is possible when dealing with people.

I’m not one to panic, but I am somewhat of a health freak. I’m always washing my hands. I take showers more than once a day. Even my dog is cleaner than most people. Technically, the U.S. has far more resources to combat any deadly epidemic, including media and community outreach avenues. But, I don’t have much confidence in the CDC’s ability to handle this Ebola situation. I certainly don’t have any confidence in the city of Dallas’s ability to do the same. Another troubling fact – a friend of the man contacted the CDCP to inform them about him. In other words, the CDCP didn’t learn of the individual’s possible Ebola infection from Dallas Presbyterian.

I only have to look back at the U.S. government’s response to AIDS, when it was identified in 1981. Because the first victims were gay men, drug users and prostitutes, the government didn’t take it seriously. They reacted with moral condemnations. And, any time people make medical decisions based on religious ideology, people die. If the government had taken AIDS seriously from the start, there might at least be a vaccine by now. Conversely, the U.S. government did respond quickly to swine flu and Legionnaires’ disease; both of which came to prominence in the fall of 1976. They even jumped into action during the 1982 Tylenol poisoning cases, despite that being an isolated incident.

In August, health officials in Liberia and Guinea quarantined entire neighborhoods in a futile effort to stem the Ebola outbreak. If other people in Dallas start getting sick with Ebola, I’d like to see authorities institute a lockdown in a city of roughly 4 million people, which is dissected by major highways and where most everyone has a vehicle. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

In the meantime, I’ll try to predict something more positive happening – like a mass die-off of politicians and rap singers.

Top 10 Deadliest Known Viruses.

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