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Duckworth: Social distancing critical to community

Hospitals are running low on everything from diagnostic tests to beds, doctors to medical equipment. Nurses are being told to use bandanas as makeshift face masks. And 12 Illinoisans have already died from COVID-19, with 1,285 cases confirmed.

Right now, our state is at a breaking point. Because while those 12 deaths were tragedies, they willnot be anomalies unless we wake up to the crisis unfolding around us.

According to public health experts, the United States is roughly 11 days behind Italy when it comes to the arc of the outbreak. Italy had only three reported cases on Feb. 20 and had its first related death the next day. Just over a week later, it had more than 2,000 cases. Now, that number has ballooned to 69,000, while 6,820 people have died—and both of those figures are still rising.

Italian children aren’t even able to hold funerals for their mothers and fathers because of the risk of spreading the virus further. Some parents are forbidden from seeing their dying daughters or sons, not only because of how contagious the disease is, but because hospitals are running out of basic protective gear.

I can’t imagine the kind of fear, horror and devastation those families are feeling right now –and more than anything in the world, I don’t want us to be forced to feel the same in just 11 short days.

As one Italian put it recently, “We underestimated this. You don’t have to.”

When I served in the military, one of my jobs was to brief my colleagues and assist civilian authorities on global pandemics. This is what I know:

This kind of virus strikes indiscriminately and inexplicably. It doesn’t target people based on the color of their skin or the language they speak. Calling it racist names won’t act as a vaccine and embracing xenophobia won’t provide the cure.  

The awful reality is that here in the U.S., coronavirus isn’t tomorrow’s nightmare. It’s today’s reality. And given how this virus spreads, it is – quite literally – up to each of us to make sure our country doesn’t have to experience the same hell that our friends across the globe are already suffering through.

Experts believe COVID-19 will infect millions more people in the months ahead. But whether or not those who fall ill get treated – whether or not they get the care that could save their lives –hinges to a large extent on how quickly the infection spreads, along with how effectively our federal government coordinates with state and local governments to get enough medical equipment to hospitals nationwide. 

The problem is, the more people who get sick at once, the less likely there is to be a staffed hospital bed or ventilator to treat them, forcing health workers to make the kind of choices no one should ever have to make: who to treat and who to let die.

But our actions today can save lives tomorrow. We can “flatten the curve,” slowing the spread so new cases don’t overwhelm our hospitals by simply following the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as elected officials. When the governor orders us to shelter in place, it’s critical to do so.

Because even if you’re young, in the best shape of your life and haven’t had a single symptom since the pandemic began, you could still spread the virus to those more vulnerable around you.

We learned last week that asymptomatic people who have COVID-19 may be fueling the spread of the outbreak far more than was previously understood. More than 350,000 cases have already been confirmed worldwide. But while it took a little over 12 weeks to confirm the first 100,000 cases, it took only 12 days to more than double that number. This pandemic will get worse—and despite the rumors, the young are vulnerable as well, as almost 40% of those hospitalized so far in the U.S. have been between 20 and 54. 

So here’s what I’m begging of you – as a Senator, yes, but really, as a mother, as an Illinoisan and as a neighbor:

Now is the time for empathy and action, selflessness and, yes, social distancing. Don’t gather in groups; stay at home whenever you can; stay six feet away from other folks; and wash your hands thoroughly and often. 

We know these kinds of measures work. After all, the first cases in the U.S. and South Korea were reported on the same day – yet due in large part to South Korea’s rapid, widespread testing and commitment to social distancing, the outbreak there is already waning while ours is four times theirs and continues to spike. 

So please, even if you’re not worried about yourself, think of your mother or father or grandparent who may be in an age group more likely to be killed by the virus. Think of your best friend’s sister who has a chronic lung disease. Think of the strangers you will never know you infected who may die if you don’t follow the recommended guidelines for social distancing.

This nation was built on the phrase “We the People.” It grew out of the belief that there’s nothing more powerful than the will of the citizenry when the citizenry works with each other and for each other. As our motto goes, e pluribus unum: out of many, one.

This pandemic is a test of our faith in that founding doctrine. If we focus on the we – if we think about the many not just the one – then we can save lives and beat this virus. But it’s up to each one of us to act in a way that protects all of us.

• Tammy Duckworth (D-Chicago) is a United States Senator from Illinois.

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