As anxiety levels rise in the region over the rapidly escalating coronavirus crisis, an alarming lack of coordinated and consistent actions by public agencies, companies, schools and other organizations threaten to deepen its consequences and overwhelm medical facilities in the weeks ahead.
Our highway traffic jams have vanished. Caltrain is operating with fewer passengers than on holidays. Airlines are rapidly cutting their schedules. Conferences, sporting events, nonprofit fundraisers are being canceled or severely downsized. Restaurants are serving a fraction of their normal numbers of customers. Stanford is directing its undergraduates to stay away from campus spring quarter.
Throughout the region, there are an increasing number of examples of aggressive steps being taken, often at great cost, to minimize risks to employees, seniors, students and the general public.
That is the "good" news.
But the potential magnitude of the impacts of the new coronavirus and its rate of progression based on what is happening around the world, in New York and in Washington state call for local leaders to do more and to establish more specific guidelines and expectations. Even small delays in implementing more stringent measures will amplify the looming medical challenges in the days and weeks ahead. The rapid escalation of the problem in Italy, which on Feb. 21 had 17 cases and on Wednesday was reporting 12,462 cases in spite of imposing extreme restrictions unthinkable just days ago, is a warning to us of where we might be in another three weeks.
To its credit, Santa Clara County, with 48 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday, including at least 21 community spread cases and one death, became the first in the country earlier this week to take an obvious but bold first step to ban any gathering of more than 1,000 people. But now, just days later, that order seems grossly inadequate. New developments, which include increasing appeals by health officials and the declaration of a pandemic by the World Health Organization, are happening so rapidly that official guidance to the public can't keep up. And inconsistencies abound.
The county's action has triggered other public agencies, including the city of Palo Alto and the Palo Alto Unified School District, to cancel or limit most gatherings of more than 100 people, yet more than 12,000 Palo Alto public school students are in close contact with each other in classes every day.
The inconsistency of decisions by public and private schools on closures sends a confusing message to the public, just as do the decisions by some organizations not to cancel lectures, meetings and performances. For example, Kepler's has canceled its author events, but the Art Center is continuing with its classes. Some service organizations, such as Palo Alto Rotary, are suspending their weekly meetings. Some groups are waiting for COVID-19 cases to surface before acting, ignoring the fact that doing so will expose many more to danger.
Decisions to cancel events often carry with them large economic hardships, and this is one place where city, county and state governments should be coupling mandatory cancellations with some type of financial assistance so organizations are able to get relief.
More than anything, city and county officials must heed the advice of infectious disease experts who are sounding the alarm that urgent steps need to be taken now to reduce all unnecessary person-to-person contact in order to slow the exponential growth of infection. We are lucky to live next to the brand new and expanded Stanford Hospital, but even it is not equipped to handle the number of cases that could develop here in a matter of weeks.
Palo Alto declared a local state of emergency Thursday and the school board was to hold an emergency meeting late Thursday (after our deadline) to consider new steps. These are encouraging signs. Wednesday night's new guidelines from state health officials, which call for no gatherings of more than 250 people and events with fewer than 250 permitted only if social distancing of at least 6 feet per person can be achieved, should be immediately implemented locally. In practice, this will halt virtually all in-person meetings and events, including weddings, church services, lectures and performances at least through the end of March.
The public is eager to follow, but leaders must lead. Acting more forcefully now to slow the inevitable spread over the weeks ahead will increase the chances that those who are struck with serious cases will receive the medical help they need.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and Almanac here.