You’d probably rather not, but remember April 13?
A Newark hospital had started storing bodies in refrigerated trucks because its morgue was overloaded. Police found 17 bodies piled up at a nursing home in Andover.
The next day, 8,065 COVID-19 patients filled the beds of New Jersey’s hospitals; one in four needed a ventilator to keep breathing. Hospitals discussed not resuscitating patients because the risk of transmission was so high.
The rest of the country watched in horror as the first U.S. wave of the pandemic transformed much of New York and New Jersey into a hellscape, where thousands succumbed to the novel coronavirus surrounded by nothing but an empty hospital room.
But we fought it back. We canceled graduations. We postponed weddings. We stayed away from the very funerals that would help us mourn our losses.
So how in the hell did we let this happen again?
We knew this was coming. Long before the first wave of the coronavirus ended (if it ever actually did), all of the experts warned that a second one was likely as fall turned to winter — and, if the projections were correct, that outbreak could be deadlier than the first.
So what did we do? We sacrificed, but not nearly enough. Our lockdowns in the spring didn’t drive the coronavirus to a level where it was safe again to get back to our normal routines. That didn’t stop us from doing it anyway.
We demanded that our gyms reopen. We complained about restaurant restrictions. We figured we could have our Sweet 16 celebrations and our holiday parties. What was the harm in having a few neighbors for dinner?
We’re about to find out. And the forecast doesn’t look good.
“We are back to where we were in late February and early March again,” said George DiFerdinando, the chairman of the Princeton Board of Health. “Now is the time that hard decisions have to be made. To me, it’s going to be a question of when the shutdowns happen, not if they happen.”
But wait! It gets worse. DiFerdinando, who was among the first in New Jersey to sound the alarm last winter, said there is a major difference between this outbreak and the one the state endured in the spring.
Now, it isn’t just New York and New Jersey that are hit the hardest. Now, the doctors and health care heroes who flocked to the area to pitch in will be too busy taking care of the sick people in their own backyards.
“This time, all the states are sick at the same time,” he said. “We’ve never been here before, and this is clearly the worst one because of that. If you have an emergency in every state at the same time, the calvary is too busy to arrive.”
Maybe it won’t be as bad as we fear. Maybe, with the same precaution and vigilance we showed in the spring, we can avoid the worst-case scenario. If we have the self-restraint and wits to do it.
But do we?
We are, after all, the same people who watched the death and devastation of the spring and then hightailed it to barbecues this summer like it never happened. Sure, some blame can be leveled at the politicians who sent mixed messages about what was OK or not. But our own human nature and flawed decision making is obviously a big part of the problem. And it’s hard to say whether we have the ability to change it.
It’s time to look in the mirror, New Jersey.
We should know better. But there’s something hardwired into our DNA — and, no, this is not a Jersey attitude thing.
This is part of the human condition. We don’t always make the best decisions for our own health and safety, much less decisions that benefit the people around us. This isn’t just a pandemic thing, after all.
We drink. We smoke. We eat fast food.
“That’s the whole thing about irrational decision making,” said Bethany Raiff, an associate professor of psychology who studies behavioral economics at Rowan University. “Everybody does it. You know, we’re not rational beings as humans. We just do things that are not in our best interest all the time.”
Even when we understand that something is risky, we don’t do a good job of processing the odds that we’ll be impacted.
If we are told that we have a 10% chance at getting sick from attending a party, we might like our chances. And if we didn’t get sick the one time we hung with pals? Then we start to think it’s fine to do it again, and again, and …
We think this proves it’s safe, but in reality, our risk is just compounding.
“People are not able to handle probability well,” said Sudeep Bhatia, who runs the University of Pennsylvania’s Computational Behavioral Science Lab. “You’re not going to get it maybe the first time, but you will eventually as the probability adds up. And people just don’t have the ability to appreciate that.”
Then, of course, there’s a more basic thing at work here. We just got sick of sitting around in the house.
It isn’t a few big events, experts believe, that have driven up the numbers. It is thousands of smaller gatherings, in houses or bars, where pandemic-fatigued people expanded their social circles without stopping to consider that everyone around them had done the same thing.
“Some people have a self-serving assessment of things like societal risk, there’s no doubt about it,” Bhatia said. “The judgments of ethics and morality are colored by their own preferences.”
Which is why the next date circled on the calendar is such a major concern for everyone tracking this coronavirus spike. We couldn’t stop ourselves from hosting a game night or a sleepover on a routine Friday night this fall.
What are we going to do on Thanksgiving, the holiday most associated with big indoor gatherings? If we’ve all tuned out the warnings already, will anything stop us from crowding around the dining room table to stuff our faces with turkey and cranberry sauce?
We could also do what we often do when our decisions are criticized: point the finger at somebody else.
The public health messaging about the pandemic was a dumpster fire from the very start last winter, as experts struggled to understand the new virus. The coronavirus was going to disappear, until it didn’t. Masks weren’t that effective, until they were.
The experts, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, were saying one thing. The politicians, especially Donald Trump, were saying something else. We believed what we wanted to believe — and, remarkably, still do even after 250,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.
“We hit this pandemic at this very fractured moment in our society, where there is so much lack of belief and so much ability to spread misinformation,” said Leslie Kantor, professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health. “So that is a very hard milieu in which to communicate to people.”
Kantor believes that, here in New Jersey, the messaging from Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration has been much stronger and better focused. But even the statewide restrictions that controlled our lives from the spring through the summer — restaurants were closed but casinos were open? — left many people struggling to understand what was really safe or unsafe.
Individuals, as a result, made their own judgments, often based on incomplete or inaccurate information. Some of us didn’t even want to step outside to bring in the mail. Others were breaking the rules for secret hair-styling appointments and kiddie playdates.
“If you don’t have public leaders giving that information in an accessible way to people, then it’s up to everybody to decide,” Raiff said. “And there was a lot of confusion out there.”
So we looked around and did what others were doing. Mask wearing and social distancing became a priority in some communities, while in others, people saw what their neighbors were and weren’t doing and, wrongly, followed their leads.
Some of us knew what we were doing was against the public health guidance, but we did it anyway.
“Social norms absolutely play a role in people’s decision making,” Raiff said. “What you’re seeing other people doing or what you’re hearing about other people doing makes an impact.”
Then, masks became something other than a public health necessity. They became a symbol of your “tribe,” a statement that, for some, was akin to wearing a red MAGA hat. The most basic way to protect ourselves became as politicized as the debate over health care or raising taxes.
And even if New Jersey got it completely right, it would have been impossible to lock down our borders. We don’t live in a bubble. We live in a country that, instead of one national plan, had 50 different states using 50 different approaches.
“I don’t think it’s going up in New Jersey because we did something particularly wrong in New Jersey,” DiFerdinando said. “I think we’re getting inundated.”
The result, no matter who you blame, is the sickening feeling of being dropped into the sequel of a bad horror movie.
We know what’s going to happen. We know it’s going to scare the crap out of us. And yet, for reasons we can’t understand, we’re headed down the basement steps with a faulty flashlight and a baseball bat.
The passage of time hasn’t changed a thing. Consider, for example, the plight of the Rutgers men’s basketball team. On March 11, as the players warmed up in Indianapolis before the first game in the Big Ten Tournament, they were abruptly pulled off the court just minutes before tip-off.
March Madness was wiped from the calendar, ending the team’s hopes of a dream season. That was frustrating enough. But now, eight months later, the team is beginning another season under the specter that — at any moment — the players could be yanked off the court again.
“Everyone is disappointed,” said Steve Pikiell, the Scarlet Knights’ head coach. “I thought we’d start this season with fans at the (Rutgers Athletic Center) and we could get back to life being normal again. I wish we were in a better place, but this is the world we’re living in now.”
The angst of opportunities lost, of businesses shuttered, of dining room tables becoming classrooms for our children — all of that is bubbling to the surface again. And those concerns are trivial compared to the risks that await the frontline workers who are bracing for a second Armageddon.
The hospitals in New Jersey are better prepared for what’s coming. But that doesn’t mean the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and everyone else won’t feel the emotional and physical toll of a second wave.
“I have a feeling this is going to be every bit as bad, and for me, the concern is we’re not going to have help from around the country,” said Rick Pitera, a doctor at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston.
Perhaps no scene in recent weeks has summed the simmering frustration than one that involved the governor. This is an exchange that took place at one of Murphy’s briefings, and the exasperation was palpable even in the 20-second clip that spread virally on social media.
Reporter: What is your message to the people who are apparently tired of wearing masks over their nose as well as their mouth, they think it’s uncomfortable and annoying, and it’s just too much for them to handle so they’re just not doing it?
Murphy: You know what’s really uncomfortable and annoying? When you DIE.
But that’s where we are.
In recent months, even as public health officials sounded the alarm about rising cases, we ignored warnings and relied instead on our flawed, human logic: I didn’t get sick from that Labor Day picnic this summer, so it must be safe to have the whole family over for Thanksgiving, even though the prevalence of the virus is now skyrocketing.
For many, the hellscape of the spring (did you forget already? Refrigerator trucks, bodies, dying alone, remember?) feels like a distant past. A past we will be doomed to repeat unless we change our thinking and our behavior.
We’ve lived it all before, New Jersey. And that’s what makes it so hard to comprehend how we let it happen again.
But please, don’t let us — or knowledgeable public health experts — talk you out of that big Thanksgiving dinner.
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