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Past experience informs levels of concern over the COVID-19 outbreak

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March 18, 2020, 8:46 am

I am scared shitless of the COVID-19 virus … and you should be too.

My wife and best friend, Kristin, with whom I am happy to now hunker down in EagleVail, got a bacterial infection in her lungs in late 2013 that morphed into pneumonia that nearly killed her. Therefore, I believe she is now at higher risk of developing an infection if she gets COVID-19.

We went to what was then still called the Vail Valley Medical Center the weekend before Christmas after Kristin complained of chest pains during a ski day at Vail. A physician’s assistant checked for other injuries and ran an EKG to make sure Kristin’s heart was OK.

The O Zone by David O. Williams
The O. Zone

It was a busy Saturday at the hospital, full of snow riders with various injuries and we did not diagnostically connect Kristin’s condition to flu-like symptoms earlier in the month, so they didn’t check her lung function and instead sent her home with some mild painkillers.

On Christmas night, as I heard her labored and gurgling breathing in bed, I got up and told her not to argue, we were packing up the kids and heading to the emergency room at VVMC.

Doctors there, led by our then-neighbor Jim Downey, ran a scan on Kristin’s lungs, looked us in the eyes and told us we would be going nowhere that night. She spent the next six nights in the ICU, failing to respond to antibiotics that should have taken out the bacterial infection, then requiring two stents to drain her chest, and finally surgery to scrape out infection from between her lungs and her chest wall. To say that she nearly died is actually a massive understatement.

Now, if she gets COVID-19 and develops an infection, Kristin will have to be transported to Denver, because we have exactly four beds at the now renamed Vail Health hospital that can handle COVID-19 cases – and they are all full. The state as a whole has a shortage of ventilators, and I’m not even sure she’d be able to get a test for the virus here or in Denver.

That same wave of bacterial pneumonia that holiday season in 2013 cost a local waiter his life, so I was not surprised to see Sweet Basil quickly shut down when a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 last week. Vail’s iconic restaurant beat Vail Mountain to the punch.

One of our sons’ teachers at Edwards Elementary School had the same infection that year, and it moved into her arm, requiring surgery. I will never take a respiratory infection lightly again, the way our Eagle County sheriff so flippantly did just a week ago. On Monday, the sheriff’s office closed its administrative services indefinitely due to possible COVID-19 exposure.

We have a member of our community currently in an ICU in Denver battling for his life – his lungs ravaged by COVID-19, and according to the very county our sheriff works for, there may be at least 400 cases locally – if we only had a way to test. The numbers are probably higher.

Similarly, President Donald Trump calling the concern over COVID-19 a Democratic hoax to derail his presidency at a campaign rally just 20 shorts days ago, then wearing a campaign hat to a Centers for Disease Control press conference while spewing falsehoods will go down in history as two of the most clueless and cruel moments in the history of the presidency.

A robust and aggressive response by a White House with a pandemic response team that had not been disbanded in 2018 would have had hundreds of thousands of tests ready to roll out in mid-February. A month later we still don’t have nearly enough tests.

Let’s be clear about why we are where we are at this moment in history – our economy about to sail off a cliff much higher the Great Recession of 2008 and many thousands of Americans about to die unnecessarily from a disease I first read about in the New York Times in early January and Trump’s own CDC warned us about just a couple of weeks later.

The president never took the growing pandemic seriously, and even his one proactive step – travel restrictions from China in late January – was too little, too late, and not backed up by adequate screening, testing and investigation of possible cases. COVID-19 was already here.

Trump’s claim Tuesday he knew the outbreak was a pandemic would actually be laughable if it wasn’t so damned frightening. An even slightly more robust response and greater sense of urgency from the White House could have vastly improved our testing capability.

Instead, Trump discounted the disease for weeks, comparing it to the flu, which has a much lower mortality rate, vaccines to fight it up front and proven treatments once it’s contracted. True, flu does kill more people each season than COVID-19 has so far, because more people contract it, but the COVID-19 outbreak is far from done.

I agree that the politicization of the outbreak should end, but Trump has been the leader on that front – blaming Democrats, the press and anyone else but himself – and his real-time decisions are having life-and-death ramifications. I would just as sharply criticize a Democratic president responding with such utter incompetence.

This highly contagious disease affects us all very differently, with some people having no more than a bad cold, others a couple days of flu-like symptoms and then gradual recovery, and still others a devastating infection that can be quite fatal. Colorado saw its second death on Tuesday.

To understand how it impacts people differently, read about these two health care workers in China, where one woman was described as having “ground-glass opacities” in her lung. Spoiler, one died and the other did not. This disease is a crapshoot that depends on a lot of factors.

For me, I can’t take the risk for my family, and I’m begging other members of our hard-hit community to strictly adhere to social distancing. I never again want to stand next to Dr. Jack Eck looking at an x-ray of my wife’s lungs with those very same cloudy opacities and wondering if I might lose my life’s partner to a microscopic killer.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

One Response to Past experience informs levels of concern over the COVID-19 outbreak

  1. Lisa Neumann Reply

    March 18, 2020 at 1:30 pm

    I had no idea about Kristin’s illness. I’m so sorry but very happy to know she survived this mysterious disease.
    Karl and I are keeping distanced from the world.
    I’m home during spring break, doing lots of cleaning, home improvement things, reading….
    Karl goes into work for a few hours.
    Here’s to leveling the curve and staying healthy.
    My best to you, Kristin and family❤️
    Lisa

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