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Public officials responding smartly to danger of COVID-19

On behalf of friends, family, neighbors, the strangers everyone meets and the hundreds of people they encounter every day, Western New Yorkers should all should heed the thoughtful advice an American business leader once gave to a vendor whose health he was trying to protect. It went like this: “Don’t be stupid, even in the short term.”

OK, it was a fictional business leader – a wise family man by the name of Tony Soprano – and he was trying to prevent his therapist from getting killed. But you get the point.

As Western New York confronts the likely but unconfirmed presence of COVID-19 in its midst, it is important to understand – and take to heart – the reasons that government officials have implemented what may appear to be drastic steps. It’s all in the curve.

Check the accompanying chart, a version of which appeared this week in The New York Times. It graphically demonstrates the dramatic difference between taking few, if any, steps to prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus and doing the things that experts are recommending: frequently washing your hands for 15 to 20 seconds; sneezing into a tissue or the crook of your arm; limiting travel; and practicing “social distancing” – that is, staying away from groups of people, especially large crowds.

If we collectively do that, it will flatten the curve, making the disease much more manageable. If we don't, we risk replicating the crisis that has befallen Italy, which has tragically proved that this is not the flu: Death rates there have soared as hospitals and other health care providers are overwhelmed.

To prevent that from happening, New York has banned public gatherings of more than 500 people and visitors to nursing homes (people who are sick or over 60 are more susceptible to the virus). It’s why the NHL and NBA have suspended play and Major League Baseball has called off spring training and postponed the start of its season.

It’s why St. Patrick’s Day parades have been canceled, why Shea’s Buffalo Theatre has gone dark, why businesses, including The Buffalo News, are having as many employees as possible work from home. It’s the reason Buffalo’s Catholic Diocese has even suspended the obligation to attend Mass.

As always, there are those who insist that it’s all too much – that tough Americans can simply bully their way through the virus. Check the curve again. Failure to act may shorten the duration of the pandemic, but with medical facilities deluged, many more people will die. By taking the advice of experts seriously – and acting on it – a full-blown crisis can be avoided, even if the pandemic hangs on a little longer.

It’s a powerful message, as a professor of biology at the University of Washington noted. “This graph is changing minds, and by changing minds, it is saving lives,” Carl Bergstrom tweeted.

That’s what should be happening here and around New York where, earlier this week, the number of people who have tested positive for the virus ballooned by 33% in just 24 hours. Those cases are still concentrated downstate, but it would be foolish – OK, stupid – to think that it won’t show up here, if it hasn’t already.

New York and Erie County are acting proactively in an aggressive effort to flatten the curve. The smart thing – the don’t-be-stupid thing – is to work with the officials who are acting to protect the 19 million people who live in all of New York’s 62 counties.

If you’re inconvenienced by the restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic, take a moment and think of Italy. Not only can any of us become sick, but also be responsible for transmitting the virus to uncounted others. Follow, instead, the example of the NCAA, which this week canceled its annual tournament in favor of a policy that should henceforth be known as March Sanity.

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