Fire!

Even before I lived in California, I had a healthy respect for fire. I developed this respect after I noticed a fire hose entering through the bedroom window of my apartment. The justification for this addition to my home furnishings was a fire that started in a toaster on the floor below my apartment.  Fortunately, the affected appliance was not directly below my apartment, and the New York City firemen were surprisingly considerate in the placement of their hoses.  No one was killed or injured in that fire, but four apartments were totally destroyed. The entire episode lasted only a few minutes.  One frayed wire in one defective appliance was responsible for all the damage done.

Not long thereafter, I was living in an apartment that I had spent much time and energy painting, carpeting and upgrading with the finest kitchen and bathroom fixtures IKEA had to offer. An intellectually challenged neighbor two flights down and two apartments over decided that the ban on barbecues on the wooden deck attached to his apartment was an unacceptable infringement on his right to be stupid.  He left a hibachi with lit coals on the wooden deck with lighter fluid sitting next to the hibachi.  In accordance with the laws of physics, the deck caught fire, the lighter fluid exploded, and four apartments were destroyed.  Once again I had the pleasure of a visit from NYFD, at which time they advised me that they needed to cut an 8’ x 6’ hole in the roof of my apartment to look for residual fire.

These experiences helped prepare me for life in California.  The relocation specialists told me that the weather in the Golden State was wonderful, but they made no mention of the two longest seasons: Mud and Fire. Where I lived there were probably four seasons, but every year seemed to bring only two.  When the rains were generous, the hillsides turned to mud.  Occasionally the mudslides would bury a community, but usually they did little more than block some roads and level some hills. With abundant rains came abundant vegetation.  This vegetation was also referred to as fuel for the fires that inevitably developed as the hills dried out. The more it rained, the more there was to burn.

How the fires started was irrelevant. A cigarette tossed out a car window could end up burning thousands of acres and whatever was on those acres.  Houses burned just as quickly as tall grass. People who gambled that they could get through the fire long after the evacuation order came usually lost that gamble.

No matter how severe the fires were each year, Californians knew they would stop when the rains came back. There was always an end in sight. If the fire fighters could not contain the fires, Mother Nature would take over.  It was just a matter of time. The tall grass would grow back.  The houses would be rebuilt, and people relocating from out of state would be none the wiser.

In this one respect, the California fires differed from the Covid-19 pandemic: there is no ‘rain’ in the forecast to stop the pandemic.  We have vaccines against the original Covid-19 strain, but the strain has mutated at least three times already, and whether or not the available vaccines will provide substantial protection against the strains we shall face over the next six months is unknown.

Some nations, including Australia and New Zealand, took aggressive steps to isolate affected individuals as soon as the virus was recognized, and they have returned to business as usual, except at ports of entry.  The fuel keeping this infectious conflagration going in our country is an incautious or frankly obstinate population. As long as other nations, including our own, provide fuel for the spread of the virus, countries that took effective measures early on must remain vigilant.

And what of our country? We had national pandemic response protocols in place prior to 2016, and they were scrapped in 2017.  Plans and personnel to rapidly respond to a pandemic were eliminated by the Trump administration. The first case of Covid-19 was identified in the U.S. on January 20, 2020, and a year later we still had no national plan, organization, or entity to protect the citizenry from this plague.  We pinned our hopes on vaccine development and still resisted or openly opposed the commonsense measures of mask wearing, social distancing, testing, contact tracing, quarantines, and limiting mobility that proved successful in countries that never labelled this disease “a hoax.” From the beginning, our leaders assured us this disease would simply “go away.” I suspect it will eventually mutate into a less debilitating strain, but how many of us will it cripple or kill before nature takes its course? The 1918 flu epidemic lasted a full three years in the U.S. and spent eight years visiting other countries. An effective polio vaccine was developed more than 65 years ago, but that crippling infectious disease is still a major health challenge in many countries outside the U.S.

There is no rain coming to put this fire out. The vaccines may work this time and temporarily cut our losses, but nature is forever cooking up new diseases. Our experience with Covid-19 has demonstrated innumerable gaps in our defenses.  Our national leaders chose to follow the advice of talk show hosts, rather than scientists. Our health care system was quickly overwhelmed. Our educational systems collapsed. Our economy crashed.

With nearly 450,000 Americans dead from Covid-19 and millions more crippled, I heard on the evening news that ten people had contracted Covid-19 after attending the birthday party for a cat. Do not be alarmed: the cat tested negative for Covid-19 and is healthy. Remaining unanswered is the question, “What will it take to stop this stupidity?”

I asked a 7 year old girl who had just had a fire safety course at school what she was told to do if her house was on fire. She shouted, “Stop, drop and roll.”  Her answer was just off by enough to assure her demise in case of a real fire. Based on the example set by today’s adults, she would probably answer the question, “What should you do in case of a pandemic?” by suggesting you throw a party for your cat. America may survive the Covid-19 fire even without the inevitable ‘rain’ of benign mutation, but I fear that with the next plague we shall merely stop, drop and roll as our national home and institutions burn down around us.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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