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VICTOR JOECKS: Radical responses to coronavirus now reasonable

The more seriously we take coronavirus, the less serious the outbreak will be. That’s the time-sensitive paradox confronting governments, businesses, travelers and families.

The outbreak in the United States is now tracking along the same path as Italy two weeks ago. That’s concerning because the death toll in Italy just passed 1,000. On March 1, coronavirus had killed 34 people in Italy. On Wednesday alone, it killed almost 200. As of Thursday afternoon, 39 people in the United States had died from the disease.

In one sense, those aren’t big numbers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 80,000 people died from the flu during the winter of 2017-18. A normal flu season kills 8,200 to 20,000 people. But just looking at the raw numbers is a mistake, even when it’s President Donald Trump doing it.

What’s worrisome — terrifying, is more like it — about a pandemic is that the numbers are small until they aren’t. That’s the danger of something growing exponentially. If that term isn’t familiar, here’s an example.

Consider the number 2. It’s a small number unless it’s growing exponentially. If you multiply 2 by itself seven times, you’ll get 128. Doesn’t seem so bad. Multiply 128 by 2 seven more times. That’s 16,384. Multiply that answer by 2 seven more times and you’ll get 2,097,152.

Whoa.

That’s what can happen when someone with coronavirus goes into a workplace, Walmart or a house of worship. He can be contagious up to 14 days before he himself shows symptoms. He can pass the virus to those he interacts with and possibly those he didn’t. Recent tests indicate that coronavirus can survive in the air for several hours.

One person can infect hundreds of others. In turn, those people can infect tens of thousands, who can infect millions.

This is not something to underestimate. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the death rate from coronavirus is 10 times higher than the flu. Compounding the difficulty is a potential sudden spike in cases that overwhelms the medical system.

The United States has around 46,500 medical ICU beds, according to scholars with Johns Hopkins. They estimate a similar number of other ICU beds could be used in a crisis. In a moderate scenario, they estimate 200,000 people would need ICU care. In a very severe scenario, that number balloons to 2.9 million.

Either way, it’s urgent that new cases be spread out over as long a time as possible.

Stopping large group gatherings is an important tool in that effort. Officials in locales ranging from San Francisco to Ohio, from Seattle to Florida have done just that.

Closures in Nevada have been more modest. Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara has suspended out-of-state travel, athletics and after-school activities. Gov. Steve Sisolak has yet to announce any restrictions on gatherings, but that could change.

That wouldn’t be an easy decision to make, but it’s become a reasonable option.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen to him discuss his columns each Monday at 10 a.m. with Kevin Wall on 790 Talk Now. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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