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Editors’ Expressions: September 11, 2020

This is my sixth take, maybe seventh. It’s hard to blog ahead on the coronavirus.

Things started slow, but man, are they moving now. My first draft for this week’s column dealt with the case confirmed at EMS Today. Doesn’t that seem like forever ago? It’s been 11 days.

Each day’s headlines bring new horrors. CNN at the moment reports grocery stores now need security, funerals are being livestreamed, the Dow’s in freefall, the first senator is infected, and the surgeon general is warning worse lies ahead. Our COVID-19 page is being constantly updated with developments for EMS as well.

We’re scrambling here as you are there, monitoring developments, sifting news from noise, and trying to present good information to keep the front lines safe, current, and effective. It’s always a challenge with major events, but especially this time. From the news perspective as the response perspective, this time is different.

With 20 years at EMS World, I don’t say that hyperbolically. SARS was bad in 2003, and H1N1/swine flu was really bad in 2009–10 (had it, wanted to die). Neither, however, had people stripping store shelves and hiding at home. Neither shuttered businesses or had the scale of economic devastation COVID-19 is already bringing (economists say 2.25 million Americans are expected to file for unemployment this week).

For havoc of this magnitude, you have to go back to 9/11. It’s not an inappropriate parallel, with some caveats.

As 9/11 exposed unreadiness, in America and throughout the world, for large-scale terrorist attacks, so did the COVID-19 outbreak expose unreadiness, in America and throughout the world, for the sudden emergence of a highly contagious new viral threat.

Both left leaders starting from behind and tentative in their initial movements against dangers that, while recognized, hadn’t been fully appreciated or prepared for (maybe we’ll talk about Crimson Contagion next time). Both left citizens bunkered down, fearful, and vulnerable to being misled. Both were initially nebulous threats whose full parameters and best responses took time to suss out.

To be sure, both will have profound ripples. As 9/11 gave rise to an entire new industry of homeland security, so seems COVID-19 likely to have long-lasting impacts across a multitude of fronts.

The best will include stronger frameworks and refined approaches for mitigating similar threats. Note this good idea that may outlive COVID-19: As James Careless reported last week, Washington’s Eastside Fire and Rescue may have family members take tablets inside to 9-1-1 subjects before crews enter to help them determine what PPE to wear. Beyond EMS, look at the explosion of telecapabilities, redundancies, and workarounds we’ve developed in just the last month.

With this outbreak as with 9/11, we had to ascertain, adapt, and push back. With the 9/11 terrorists and their networks, we were ultimately pretty successful. But life sure changed, as you’re reminded with every trip to the airport.

I wonder about businesses that won’t come back. I wonder about the wave of unemployment now arriving and the glut of overqualified applicants across every sector once it’s over. I wonder if kids will ever go to physical schools again. I wonder if we’ll have to Purell when entering venues. Maybe the elbow bump will replace the handshake altogether.

It won’t all be bad. In law and communications and response structures, we’ll certainly be better prepared for the next pandemic. Quality people left jobless may find new careers in EMS. And all that handwashing can only be good.

It’s easy to imagine some of the coming changes, impossible for others. But believe it: Whatever the final count of COVID-19 ends up being, things are going to change—a lot.

Reference

1. Dawood FS, Iuliano AD, Reed C, et al. Estimated global mortality associated with the first 12 months of 2009 pandemic influenza A H1N1 virus circulation: a modelling study. Lancet, 2012 Sep; 12(9): P687–95.

John Erich is the senior editor of EMS World. Reach him at john.erich@emsworld.com.

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