This was the week that the United States and our region became the global epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic.
Across the country, the national death toll rose to near 1,200, with over 40 percent of those deaths in New York City and New Jersey.
For weeks, as conditions continued to deteriorate here, our national government under the leadership of Donald Trump has been in various stages of denial and obfuscation.
Since January, the administration has been responding to this deepening national emergency by trying to layout a narrative that would help the President’s re-election bid and keep Wall Street humming.
Not since the American Revolution, when England’s King George the III punished us for acting in our own self-interest, has our “national leader” been so out of touch with our circumstance.
This has given rise to what I call the Free Republic of Reality, led by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. These Governors formed a compact of mutual aid and support as a coordinated public health response to a rising death toll they could not ignore.
It did what a nation must do in a time of existential crisis, combined forces under the basic principle that all lives matter and that all commercial interests must be subordinate to the preservation of life.
Just what is government for if not that?
On Tuesday, Gov. Murphy reported that New Jersey had recorded 17 deaths COVID19 related deaths, the most in one day since the start of the outbreak. With 3,675 cases at that time, our state now had the second highest number of cases of any state in the nation.
Just 48 hours later, New Jersey had 6,876 cases confirmed and reported 81 deaths. Nineteen people had died in the same span of time. A day later, 19 more New Jerseyans perished.
The New York Times described an “apocalyptic surge” on Tuesday in which over one 24-hour period 13 patients died included one patient as young as 38 years old.
The Times recounted that some patients died in the emergency room before getting a bed, while people stood outside all day waiting for the chance to get tested but ended up going home without being seen.
That same day, Kious Kelly, 48, a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan died from COVID-19. Basic protective medical gowns were in such scarce supply in the Mount Sinai system that nurses improvised by pressing Hefty-brand garbage bags into service.
It is hard to overstate the significance of the reports of COVID19 infection and deaths among our health care workers who are on the frontlines of our war with this invisible killer.
When that line does not hold, as it did not for a while in China and Italy, there is the very real likelihood of a collapse of the public health system with dire consequences for the entire population as the hospitals become hotbeds for the infection they are trying to suppress.
The Feb. 7 COVID19 linked death of Dr. Li Wenliang, 34, a Chinese ophthalmologist, who practiced in Wuhan and had been punished by officials for trying to warn his colleagues about the virus, was a key inflection point.
For weeks, much like President Trump, the authoritarian government had tried to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak, including sanctioning the brave young doctor before he died. The heroic whistleblower was forced to falsely confess he had spread lies that sowed unnecessary public panic.
After wasting precious time, the Chinese national government reversed course and put 150 million people in Wuhan on a stringent lockdown. It was much more stringent than what we are experiencing here and was accompanied by rigorous testing, tracing and fever surveillance.
Contrast that with the unmitigated living nightmare we are experiencing with President Trump telling all of the states to fend for themselves on the free market for life saving personal protective gear like surgical and N-95 masks as well as for ventilators.
At the same time, as my colleagues and I have reported at the Chief-Leader, the unions representing nurses and the New York City’s EMS service have been warning that the CDC’s expedient watering down of occupational health standards to compensate for the scarcity of equipment, risks their members health, that of their families and the very viability of our entire response.
By mid-week, the FDNY 911 daily medical call volume exceeded 6,400, more calls than on 9/11 when the WTC was attacked and collapsed. New York City’s prepared ad hoc morgues to handle what they expect to be thousands of deaths.
The chair of the New York City Council’s Health Committee Mark Levine told MSNBC that the municipal hospital system “was already straining” and that “we maybe in a situation where we don’t have the staff, equipment, the beds to adequately serve everybody.”
He continued. “As for the morgues and the number of deaths, this is a city of 8.5 million people. There are projections that 50 percent of us will get the virus and most of us would not need medical care…but if just one percent of the population were to succumb that would be an event that would dwarf 9-11 by orders of magnitude.”
In the crucible of this virulent scourge the political subdivisions that had always defined us as New Jersey and New York something new has been forged that transcends those borders.
We have a proximity to New York City from which there is no divorce.
We are adjacent and intertwined with bloodlines and familial ties of concern that knit us together now perhaps closer than ever in this time of tribulation.
Even though so many families are hunkered down in our homes, we’ve become keenly aware of our neighbors because we are by necessity now so rooted in place without the frenetic distraction of coming and going.
Now, the biblical instruction to ‘love they neighbor’ is the ultimate situational awareness because deep down we all know what our hyper-commerce had let us forget.
Our fates have always been tied together like limbs of the same body. We now see an injury to one as an affliction that we all must bear as we try to learn from each tragic loss to try and avoid the next one.
Our circumstances are intertwined not as a spiritual abstraction or moral imperative but as a biological and scientific fact.
We know something is upon us of a scale that’s beyond the edge of our lived history. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic killed 50 million people around the world and 675,000 in the United States.
In our region New York City recorded 20,403 deaths, 3.9 per 1,000 residents in a city of five million, ranking it one of the more successful municipal public health responses to that pandemic.
By contrast, Philadelphia with a population of just 1.5 million recorded close to 13,000 flu related deaths just between the middle of September 2018 through November of that same year.
Decisions by municipal officials to hold a massive World War I War bond parade, despite the virulent flu outbreak, would have not only have deadly consequences for the “City of Brotherly Love” but for southern New Jersey counties Camden and Gloucester.
Revisiting the news clips of the era it become readily apparent that contagious disease is not warded off by borders, armed guards or the mighty Delaware or the Hudson.
In retrospect, public health experts credit the range of local responses which included shutting down schools, commerce and public assembly as what made the difference in the size of the local toll.
As it turns out, the jurisdictions that were the most proactive and aggressive in implementing these social distancing measures had greater success reducing their per capita death tolls.
As we await the latest grim overnight reports from our region’s hospitals, we need to be heartened that with every passing hour the Free Republic of Reality grows.
It is a new nation born of necessity, informed by medical science, guided by the public health, and inspired by an unshakeable love of our neighbor.