The past nine months have been baffling for Dr. Michael Saag, a prominent HIV/ AIDS researcher and professor of medicine at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
“I have been trying for nine months to influence change, but my efforts, and all of my colleagues’ have failed to communicate effectively,” Saag said.
The response to COVID-19 that Saag has witnessed has left him baffled, dumbfounded, frustrated and angry, the infectious disease expert said.
“I don’t understand how folks don’t get this,” he said. “I’m dumbfounded at the number of people on social media who say things that are not true, and their comments get passed off as truth … I’m angry because I see and talk with the loved ones of those who died and I know, deep down, most of these deaths would have been prevented if we all had acted together in a responsible fashion.”
Saag sees his colleagues working day in and day out making sacrifices to care for people.
“They work long hours, and they are frequently the only (communication) between the patient who is dying and the family,” he said. “This takes an emotional toll. It is hard enough to do it once but doing this every day and sometimes several times per day is unimaginable. Knowing that a more coordinated, effective response from the public would eliminate this is demoralizing.”
Saag said it was a mistake that so many failed to follow the lead of national health experts this year.
“Those countries that did listen have virtually no cases now,” he said. “They are beginning to return to normal activities today.”
Saag believes those countries, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Mainland China, had a more successful response because of their experience with SARS-1 in 2003.
“They learned what worked and didn’t work from that experience,” he said. “They were prepared, not only in terms of what to do, but how to bring their countries together in a response that works.”
While the United States knew what worked scientifically, Saag explained, the country resisted and generally claimed the sacrifice would be to great.
“The economy would suffer too much. Businesses would go bankrupt. But, if we had done this well, supported the businesses through the down time with stimulus and bail out funding( the CARES Act for example) early on … we would have been like the countries in Asia.”
Saag added that the United States’ GDP continues to fall, while many of the recovered countries’ GDPs are now rising.
“Our resistance to messaging was a short term gain, but a long term loss,” he said. “And sadly, this loss includes loss of life, in numbers many times higher than in any war we have fought except for WWII and the Civil War, but we are rapidly approaching those numbers now.”
We are currently in the worst part of the pandemic right now, Saag said.
“In Alabama, we have had more cases and deaths during the last five days than we had during the first three months of the epidemic,” he said. “And it’s going to get worse.”
For now, Saag says people need to stay at home as much as they can.
“There is no true safe spot in any indoor venue where groups of people gather,” he said. “This especially includes bars, indoor restaurants, beauty salons, churches, synagogues, mosques and gyms.”
The virus is now so widespread you should assume anyone you see is potentially infected, he said.
“The peak time of infectivity is in the 24 hour period prior to the onset of symptoms, continuing into the first three days of symptoms,” Saag said. “Most people who spread the virus to others often do so without feeling sick, or just before feeling sick.”
According to Saag, people should not currently gather in groups larger than four or five.
“With the current rate of infection in most communities in Alabama, if 10 people are in a room together, the likelihood that one person out of the 10 has COVID is 50-55 percent. If there are 25 people, the likelihood that one person of the 25 is infected is 85 percent, and if there are 50 people in a room, the likelihood is over 99 percent,” Saag said. “Outdoors is better than indoors, but no gathering of more than four to five people is safe right now.”
If people don’t take the proper measures for the next four to eight weeks, according to Saag, death rates and cases will continue to grow, and hospitals will become overwhelmed and unable to provide proper care for not just COVID patients but patients with any disorder.
Saag said people now need to do what they have been asked to do from the outset of the pandemic.
“Wear masks, avoid crowds — especially where folks are not wearing masks— keep distanced from others at least six feet and wash hands frequently,” he says. “ I would add that for the time being do not let more than three to four others in your home and stay home unless it is essential to go out.”
Saag likened the current situation to a hurricane that is about to hit our communities.
“It is up to us to make a difference,” he said.
Saag is hopeful that a vaccine will end the pandemic in the United States.
“Once a vaccine becomes available, I urge everyone to take the vaccine.”
Sadly, Saag explained, it is important that people even stay at home for Christmas and until the numbers begin to come down.
“We will have other Christmases, as soon as next year if the vaccines are widely adopted. We have been through wars. We know what it means to sacrifice. We need to sacrifice right now. We are at war, and we are losing badly at the moment. But we can change this if we all pull together, as a state-wide community, to do the simple things. It is not easy, but it is absolutely necessary.”