The people doing this work have had to recalibrate their lives. From March to May, Colin Carlson, a research professor at Georgetown University who specializes in infectious diseases, spent most of his time traversing the short gap between his bed and his desk. He worked relentlessly and knocked back coffee, even though it exacerbates his severe anxiety: The cost was worth it, he felt, when the United States still seemed to have a chance of controlling COVID-19.
The U.S. frittered away that chance. Through social distancing, the American public bought the country valuable time at substantial personal cost. The Trump administration should have used that time to roll out a coordinated plan to ramp up America’s ability to test and trace infected people. It didn’t. Instead, to the immense frustration of public-health advisers, leaders rushed to reopen while most states were still woefully unprepared.
When Arizona Governor Doug Ducey began reviving businesses in early May, the intensive-care unit of Popescu’s hospital was still full of COVID-19 patients. “Within our public-health bubble, we were getting nervous, but then you walked outside and it was like Pleasantville,” she said. “People thought we had conquered it, and now it feels like we’re drowning.”
The COVID-19 unit has had to expand across an entire hospital wing and onto another floor. Beds have filled with younger patients. Long lines are snaking around the urgent-care building, and people are passing out in the 110-degree heat. At some hospitals, labs are so inundated that it takes several days to get test results back. “We thought we could have scaled down instead of scaling up,” Popescu said. “But because of poor political decisions that every public-health person I know disagreed with, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”
“I feel like I’ve been making the same recommendations since January,” says Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious-disease physician who works in public health. The last time she felt this tired was in 2014, after spending three months in West Africa helping with the region’s historic Ebola outbreak. Everyone who experienced that crisis, she told me, was deeply shaken; she herself suffered from post-traumatic stress upon returning home.
The same experts who warned of the coronavirus’s resurgence are now staring, with the same prophetic worry, at a health-care system that is straining just as hurricane season begins. And they’re demoralized about repeatedly shouting evidence-based advice into a political void. “It feels like writing ‘Bad things are about to happen’ on a napkin and then setting the napkin on fire,” Carlson says.
A pandemic would have always been a draining ordeal. But it is especially so because the U.S., instead of mounting a unified front, is disjointed, cavalier, and fatalistic. Every week brings fresh farce, from Donald Trump suggesting that the country should do less testing to massive indoor gatherings of unmasked people.