A Turn to Normal

May 3, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Deaths from the Covid-19 virus passed a milestone this week. More people have died from the virus than the number of Americans who died fighting the Vietnam War (Strochlic, 2020). I wanted to compare that with other gruesome milestones.

One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans (CDC, 2019). 62,000 were World War 1 soldiers, more than the number of war casualties (Gilbert, 1998). That is our next milestone. The flu was called the Spanish flu only because newspapers in neutral Spain first reported the disease (Flanagan, 2020). Under wartime restrictions, the media in other countries were not allowed to report the casualties.

Some talking heads have portrayed this disease as just a bad flu. Is it? During the moderately bad 2018-2019 flu season there were 490,000 people hospitalized (CDC, 2019/01). The 2017-2018 flu season was severe. The CDC estimates that 800,000 people were hospitalized for that season’s flu (CDC, 2019/11).  The agency reports 136,000 people hospitalized for Covid-19 (CDC, 2020). That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

 New York City has about 40,000 Covid-19 hospitalizations, 3/8ths of those in the entire country (NYC, 2020). A 2012 survey by the city identified about 26,000 hospital beds (NYC-IBO, 2012). Large city mayors around the country look in horror at the refrigerated trucks parked outside some NYC hospitals to hold the dead bodies.  

Nine million people live in NYC. The Census Bureau estimates that there are 327 million Americans, more than 30 times the number living in NYC. I will use a 20x multiplier instead of 30x. Multiplying 136,000 Covid-19 hospitalizations by 20 produces 2.7 million hospitalizations, 3-1/2 times the severe flu season of 2017-18.

The American Hospital Association estimates that there are about one million beds in the U.S. (AHA, 2020). In an emergency, hospitals can increase their bed count but not when the emergency is a highly infectious disease. Areas of the hospital must be set aside exclusively for Covid-19 patients.

The first wave of the Spanish flu epidemic washed over the U.S. in the spring of 1918. The tsunami – the killing wave – came in the fall of that year, when many people thought the worst had passed.  We all want to get back to normal, even if that is a new normal. We hope that normal does not invite abnormal.

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Notes:

Photo by 丁亦然 on Unsplash

AHA. (2020, February). Fast Facts on U.S. Hospitals, 2020: AHA. Retrieved from https://www.aha.org/statistics/fast-facts-us-hospitals

CDC. (2020, January 8). Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States – 2018–2019 influenza season. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/2018-2019.html

CDC. (2019, March 20). 1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html

CDC. (2019, November 22). Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States – 2017–2018 influenza season. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/2017-2018.htm

CDC. (2020, April 24). COVID-View Weekly Summary. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/covidview/index.html

Flanagan, E. (2020, March 14). Spanish flu: How Belfast newspapers reported 1918 pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-51818777

Gilbert, M. (1998). A history of the twentieth century. London: HarperCollins. (p. 532).

NYC. (2020, May 1). COVID-19: Data. Retrieved from https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/covid/covid-19-data.page

NYC-IBO. (2012, November 15). How Many of the City’s Hospitals, and Hospital Beds, Were at Risk During Hurricane Sandy. Retrieved from https://ibo.nyc.ny.us/iboreports/printnycbtn5.pdf

Strochlic, N. (2020, April 28). U.S. coronavirus deaths now surpass fatalities in the Vietnam War. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/04/coronavirus-death-toll-vietnam-war-cvd/

Faceless

April 26, 2020

by Steve Stofka

In the name of public safety, our elected officials are picking winners and losers. In the process, they are selectively destroying businesses. Their job is to protect lives, they claim. Faceless legislative staff craft regulations that destroy some lives while they protect others.

In my neighborhood there is a Sprouts grocery store in a strip mall. That’s open. Next to it are several clothing stores, all closed now. A nail salon – closed. A mattress and bedding store is closed. The liquor store is open.

Across the street is a Walmart with a grocery store inside. The parking lot is almost full. Wal-Mart restricts access to the store entrance to safely stagger customers. There are a lot of signs and tape on the floor to remind people to stay six feet back when waiting in line. Most people are wearing masks.

The chiropractor across the boulevard is temporarily closed. We elect state and local politicians who delegate the work of governing to office staff. A committee decided that people with pinched nerves in their necks and backs are not important. Can’t work because you are having muscle spasms? Too bad. Some bureaucrat has decided that your pain is not essential. Stay home and ease the pain with marijuana or alcohol. Those store are essential. It is a slap in the face to those with chronic pain.

A month ago, the mayor’s office of Denver issued a stay-at-home order that did not include liquor stores and pet stores as essential businesses. What will be closed next? By mid-afternoon, just two hours after the edict was issued, cars crowded the streets of Denver and adjoining counties. People lined up inside liquor stores. Two bottles of Seagram 7. A few quarts of vodka. Four cases of Bud. Panic buying or those looking to profit from the coming shutdown. Social media alerted the mayor’s office and they immediately amended the order.

In some office buildings, therapists cannot get into their office because the building is locked. They are non-essential. Where are their patient notes? In the locked building. Got problems? Try Zooming your therapist. Remember – your government committee is trying to keep you safe.

Therapists and chiropractors not essential. Oil and gas extraction is essential because, well, it just is. The drop in demand for gasoline has produced a glut in oil. Companies are storing the extra in super tankers on the world’s oceans. Got back problems? Rub some crude oil on it.  

President Trump suggested that “medical doctors” – not the other kind of doctors like PhD doctors – but medical doctors could inject disinfectant like Lysol into people infected with the coronavirus. It’s OK if medical doctors do it. The maker of Lysol was quick to issue a warning. Do not inject Lysol into your body, they warned.   

Mr. Trump has become the country’s voodoo doctor. The warm weather was going to kill the virus. Then it was a malaria drug. Now it is Lysol. Put on your voodoo doctor headdress, Mr. Trump. Get your cauldron fired up and cook us up one of your special potions. The folks at Fox News will endorse your medicine. 

The President is the visible menace. The folks who work in our state and local offices are the invisible threat. A select few decide which businesses are essential, whose pain gets treated and who is important. They decide who gets unemployment insurance and who does not.  Many small businesses will not recover. It can take ten years or more to build up enough savings to start a small business. A second mortgage on a house is often used to capitalize a business. A faceless committee in a government building says your business is not important. Bye-bye business. Bye-bye savings. You can give up your dream and find work somewhere. Hope you can keep your house. It’s not essential. You are not important.

If – when – businesses reopen, business owners have a lot of questions. Will the state exempt businesses from liability if a customer or employee gets sick? Does the state have that power, the governor asks. The state has the power to issue edicts that crush small businesses but not the power to help business owners recover. You are not important.

After three deaths due to corona virus, the health department shut down a Wal-Mart store in our area (Butzer, 2020). Wal-Mart has deep pockets and legions of lawyers. Will an insurance company insure a small business against a coronavirus lawsuit? How much extra premium will it cost? What is the protocol? Should a business owner hire someone to screen customers before they come into the establishment? Does anyone have an answer?

The supply chain is an invisible river of goods and services that enables local businesses to service their customers. Is that supply chain broken? We will find out. The pandemic has caused a surge in orders for computers, but China has shuttered computer factories (Brandom, 2020).

Let’s turn to the faces of those we elected. Congress hurriedly passed an 800-page bill to provide $350 billion in loans and grants to small businesses – the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). 28% of the funds were grabbed up by publicly held companies (Beltran, 2020).  The original provision in the bill was that any business with more than 500 employees was not eligible for the funds. Faceless lobbyists pressured the faceless staffs of lawmakers to make a small change. Just a few words. Change the wording to exclude companies with 500 employees at any one location. Done. No problem. The senator appreciates your support.

Senator Marco Rubio is the chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. When the Wall St. Journal contacted his staff about large businesses scooping up the funds intended for small business, reporters were told they were mistaken. Mr. Rubio would not allow such language. The staff later admitted their error (The Journal, 2020). Lawmakers routinely vote for legislation without knowing what is in it. Prior to passage of the ACA (Obamacare) bill in 2010, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi replied that legislators wouldn’t know what was in the bill until it passed. Legislative sausage making by faceless staff and anonymous lobby groups. No, we’re not for sale, lawmakers insist. Yes, thank you for your support, they reply to the campaign contributions of the lobbyists.

The pandemic response of government has exposed our vulnerability. With great power and an incomprehension of the effect of their edicts, faceless legislative staff act as the executioners of the French Revolution.  Some small business owners must kneel down at the guillotine and await the fall of the blade.

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Notes:

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Beltran, L. (2020, April 23). Restaurant Chains Received Many of the Biggest PPP Loans. Retrieved from https://www.barrons.com/articles/restaurant-chains-received-many-of-the-biggest-ppp-loans-51587573556

Brandom, R. (2020, March 27). Electronics companies are getting gridlocked by coronavirus lockdowns. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/27/21195953/tech-manufacturing-companies-coronavirus-lockdown-apple-electronics-china

Butzer, S. (2020, April 24). Health department closes Aurora Walmart amid COVID-19 deaths, positive cases connected to store. KMGH. Retrieved from https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/coronavirus/health-department-closes-aurora-walmart-amid-covid-19-deaths-positive-cases-connected-to-store

The Journal. (2020, April 22). How Big Businesses Got Small Business Relief Money. [Audio, 21 mins]. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/podcasts/the-journal/how-big-businesses-got-small-business-relief-money/7C5DAB5C-71C0-4D50-9D13-9D9633E633AC

All Together Now

April 5, 2020

by Steve Stofka

We’re all in this together. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York State, tells us that in his daily conference. N.Y. State reported its first case of Coronavirus on March 1. In a month, the emergency rooms of some hospitals in New York City look like a war zone. President Trump says those photos are fake news. Deaths in red states are real. Deaths in blue states are not?

We’re all in this together proclaims Phil Murphy, the governor of the neighboring state of New Jersey. The zombies are already in his state but, as he looks across the Hudson River at NYC, he knows that vast hordes of zombies are coming. They are microscopic and invisible. They are not the Kaiju of Pacific Rim or the burrowing monsters of Tremors. They are the invisible demons of Poltergeist. Patients come into New York hospitals frantically gasping for air (NBC New York, 2020).

During this pandemic, we are discovering who is in this together. The maintenance man at the local school has just discovered that he is not essential now that the school has closed for the semester. This is the week when lawn maintenance companies begin mowing grass in much of the U.S. That maintenance man could be weeding and mowing grass, but the school district gave that job away to an outside lawn maintenance contractor to save money on employee pension and health benefits. Public private partnerships reduce the burden of local government on taxpayers.

He could be doing a hundred different fixups around the school now that it is empty. Patching and touch up painting, plumbing, the loose stalls in the bathroom, reglue those cove base tile that he hasn’t had time to get to during the school year. Upgrade those light bulbs. Something he’s been meaning to get to. Empty hallways is a good time for that. The school district says that he is not essential. Preventive maintenance is not essential. Someone at headquarters decided to wait until it’s broke. Then it’s essential.

The people who are essential are the policymakers and their minions who spend hours crafting memos that explain to employees why they are not essential.  Explaining the loss of health and pension benefits to employees is a delicate topic and requires a lot of training. We’re in this together but we’re not in this together. You do understand, don’t you?

Many teachers have discovered that they are not essential. Knowing their students well would be an asset in redesigning classes for an online format. But that job is done by instructional designers who have little experience in a classroom. They are experts in the design of education content. They are essential. Teachers are not.

Nurses are essential. Well, now they are. There is a shortage of nurses across the country because nursing schools have not been expanded to meet the needs of the population (Moore, 2019). Nurses have demonstrated for better patient care, for more investment in nursing, and in a safer patient nurse ratio (Lardieri, 2019). Sorry, nurses. Put down your signs. You’re not essential. Well, that was last year and the year before that and the year before that. This year is different.

Here, we have protective clothing for you, our essential workers. Here’s a 39-gallon lawn and leaf garbage bag. Yep, they’re the big ones with lots of room. One size fits all! Take these scissors and cut out a hole for your head in the bottom of the bag, then cut out armholes in each side. See, isn’t that good? It comes almost to your knees. Yes, it is a little bit hot because garbage bags don’t breathe very well. But it will keep you protected from nasty Covid-19 air thingees.

What about face masks? Oh sure, they are coming. President Trump told us so a few weeks ago. Here, just spray some bleach on the face mask you are wearing, then take a hair dryer and dry it out. See, good as new! I told you. We are all in this together.

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Notes:

Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

Lardieri, A. (2019, September 20). Thousands of Nurses Strike for More Staffing, Better Patient Ratios. U.S. News & World Report. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2019-09-20/thousands-of-nurses-strike-for-more-staffing-better-patient-ratios

Moore, D. (2019, March 29). A rush for nurses strains colleges and hospitals as health care booms in Pittsburgh. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.post-gazette.com/business/career-workplace/2019/04/22/Nurses-hospitals-Allegheny-Health-Network-UPMC-Pittsburgh-jobs/stories/201903110158

NBC New York. (2020, March 30). ‘Yes It’s Real’: Doctors Describe ‘Eerie’ Way COVID-19 Sickens Random People. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/yes-its-real-doctors-describe-eerie-way-covid-19-sickens-random-people/2350645/

The Best in History

March 29, 2020

by Steve Stofka

The financial crisis a decade ago prepared us to better handle this historic pandemic. Gambling by financial companies, fraud and foolishness sparked that crisis. It had a large impact on the economy and the lives of millions of Americans who lost their homes, savings and jobs. It did not shut down the entire economy.

The Federal Reserve has enacted many emergency measures to support the money market and bond market during the current crisis. Many were set up under the leadership of former Chairman Ben Bernanke in response to the last crisis. In the last crisis, heavy Republican opposition delayed or blocked bailout measures. Republicans whipped up that political sentiment and won back the House in 2010. At a Tea Party rally against Obamacare, one old geezer complained that people used to just go home and die. What does he think now about the pandemic? Should the hospitals turn away all those people? The Tea Party is largely inactive now. Former Congressman Dick Armey helped spark the movement, the Koch Brothers funded it, and the Republican Party rode the wave. In the House, a coalition of about thirty members call themselves the Freedom Caucus (DeSilver, 2015). They are the remnant of the Tea Party movement.

During his campaign, candidate Donald Trump was criticized for his support of the relief policies during the financial crisis (Sherman, 2015). In a recent NBC / Wall Street Journal poll, Republican voters gave President Trump a 92% job approval rating. Overall, the public gives him about 50% on his handling of the coronavirus crisis (POS, 2020).  As a presidential candidate in 2016, Mr. Trump famously joked / bragged that he could shoot somebody on fifth Avenue in Manhattan and get away with it (Diamond, 2016). Have his policies contributed to the deaths of New Yorkers during this crisis? Depends on which political glasses you wear.

55 years ago, many Democrats defended President Johnson who sent hundreds of thousands of Democratic and Republican sons to be slaughtered in the swamps of Vietnam. Communism was the virus then. It infected the young and turned them into anti-American socialists. The only remedy was to send the young to another country or beat them with batons at anti-war rallies in Chicago, Washington, and New York City. In the first years of the war, fathers and mothers blamed Communism not President Johnson for the death of their sons. My Lai was the most famous of many atrocities committed during that war (Levesque, 2018). Shortly after that tragedy in March 1968, Mr. Johnson abandoned his re-election bid. Was Mr. Johnson a monster or a hero? Depends on which political glasses you wear.

President Trump is a singular brand but was undoubtedly influenced by the culture of fear and hate that marked his formative years. He wears his hate like a favorite shirt. Like so many, he’s a “used to be”, a former Democrat turned Republican. On C-SPAN’s Washington Journal daily call in program, there’s at least one person who says, “I used to be.” Fill in the blank – either a Democrat or a Republican. They have donned a different shade of glass.

“I’m a this-ism” is another pandemic sweeping the nation. People no longer act in support of their beliefs. Christians declare that they are Christian. They don’t need to act with generosity to others. Progressives declare that they are progressives but don’t have time to vote. That lack of support in the voting booth has hurt the Sanders campaign. He often reminds his supporters that they need to show their enthusiasm at the ballot box. I don’t often hear liberals declare themselves as such. They might be socially liberal but fiscally conservative. Neo-liberals never declare themselves but there are a lot of them, from what I hear. Politicians who have the least restraint in their behavior declare that they are Conservative. Really?

Mr. Trump is the King of Declarations. He’s the greatest President with the greatest policies and his administration is handling this crisis better than any other country. As some people take their last breaths in an emergency room, they are thinking exactly that. This administration is handling this crisis better than anyone in history. How will President Trump’s leadership during this crisis be judged? That will depend on which glasses you wear. Remember, you can trade in for another color of glasses.

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Notes:

DeSilver, D. (2015, October 20). House Freedom Caucus: What is it, and who’s in it? Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/10/20/house-freedom-caucus-what-is-it-and-whos-in-it/

Diamond, J. (2016, January 24). Donald Trump could ‘shoot somebody and not lose voters’ – CNNPolitics. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2016/01/23/politics/donald-trump-shoot-somebody-support/index.html

Levesque, C. J. (2018, March 16). The Truth Behind My Lai. NY Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/16/opinion/the-truth-behind-my-lai.html

Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

Public Opinion Strategies (POS). (2020, March 26). Coronavirus National Polling (March 26th). Retrieved from https://pos.org/coronavirus-national-polling-march-26th/

Sherman, A. (2015, September 15). PolitiFact – Did Donald Trump support the Wall Street bailout as anti-tax Club for Growth says? Retrieved from https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2015/sep/15/club-growth/did-donald-trump-support-wall-street-bailout-club-/