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We need to rediscover our fear of COVID-19

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Nosyrevy

We need to rediscover our terror of COVID-19, and fast.

New York’s first hit from the coronavirus this spring landed like a heavyweight’s haymaker. On March 13, as the state’s schools and economy shuttered, 95 new infections were recorded. Three weeks later, 10,000 patients were being diagnosed every 24 hours.

So we listened, and acted. We pulled together and persevered, out of fear and out of love.

The infection numbers alone never would have been enough, just as skyrocketing numbers aren’t frightening New Yorkers into caution now. The fatalities, though, as the disease was soon killing twice as many people in the state daily as normally die of all causes, were alarming. So, too, were patients spilling into hospital hallways and intubated victims gasping goodbyes. Seeing the refrigerated trucks idling, storage for cadavers morgues could not take, was wrenching. Relentless pressure from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public officials to stay home, stay distanced, wash hands and mask up began to find receptive ears.

Must such tragedy and fright recur before New Yorkers heed pleas to take precautions, for our health and the health of others? Must we be awash in corpses and tears before we act?

On Oct. 11, the nation saw 44,283 new infections and that rate of spread had public health officials begging Americans to rediscover their caution. Thursday brought 163,402 new infections. Hospitalizations, which lag infection spikes, are setting records. COVID-19 deaths, which lag hospitalizations, are skyrocketing, too.

But as the numbers exploded elsewhere this autumn, New York seemed to have a handle on its own situation, with positive test rates dipping below 1%.

That’s not the case now. COVID-19 is again a mounting threat, because:

  • For more than 100 days starting in early June, infections in New York never exceeded 1,000 per day. On Sept. 26, that ceiling was busted, and by Oct. 21 the daily number doubled to 2,029.
  • Last week, new cases exploded, with 3,149 on Nov. 9, and 5,401 just three days later, an eye-popping number Cuomo shared in a conference call Friday.
  • The Institute for Health Metrics projects that by January the state will be experiencing 20,000 new cases a day.
  • Deaths, already increasing nationally and in New York, will accelerate. By January, it’s estimated the nation will be losing about 2,000 people to COVID-19 each day, with the total fatalities hitting 439,000 by March. By January, New York could be losing 150 people daily to COVID-19 and the death toll is projected to hit 45,562 by March.

It does not have to be that way. We can again adopt behaviors that will stop the spread and save lives, heading off disaster rather than inviting it.

New rules announced by Cuomo last week closing bars and restaurants at 10 p.m. make more sense than it might seem. Contact tracing is showing it’s the drinking behavior that comes later and not the dinnertime dining causing the spread. And clear mandates on businesses are more enforceable than distancing and masking standards for customers. Nassau and Suffolk county police departments, which have been deputized with state authority, must enforce them. Closing gyms at 10 p.m. is a precursor: if New Yorkers don’t tighten up immediately, everything will soon shut down, all the time.

But closing bars at 10 p.m. stops the spread if patrons don’t head to house parties. Those have been banned, too, if they include more than 10 people, but it’s impossible to enforce. At every point, the key to success is voluntary caution: the rules do more to signal than prevent, or punish.

Schools remain open, and keeping them open ought to be our highest priority, as long as it is safe. They are not a key source of infection spread, and their continued operation is crucial.

New York City is on the edge of closing schools if infection rates creep a bit higher. And on Long Island, chatter is increasing about reverting to remote learning-only throughout the holiday season, as most colleges are doing. That could help us avoid a holiday COVID-19 tsunami and keep terrified teachers and their families safe and sane, and it’s worth considering.

It will be months before enough people are vaccinated to alter the challenge, and with the federal government AWOL, Cuomo and other elected officials and leaders have to do everything possible to push for safe behavior. Cuomo, set for a summit this weekend with the governors of five northeastern states to align strategies, should consider resuming his public updates, sending a clear signal that we are again in crisis.

We should be thinking about preventing the spread of COVID-19 with our every move. We shouldn’t be having big holiday parties. Seeing grandma isn’t worth killing her. But avoidance isn’t the only possible precaution. We can also, at gatherings, wear masks, stay six feet apart, skip kisses and ban hugs.

And we can avoid indoor restaurants and bars and gyms and house parties.

What New York accomplished in tamping down this spread once was awesome. We have the ability to do it again.

We just have to rediscover our terror, and channel it toward caution.

The editorial board