This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
State hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus.
Last week the Boston Globe published an impressive, 12,000-word account of COVID-19’s rampage through Massachusetts. Titled The Virus’s Tale, it asks how a state “famous for health care excellence” could have experienced “such a vast loss of human life?”
That isn’t media exaggeration. 7 million people reside there. So far, 7,408 have died of the virus.
So what went wrong in Massachusetts? The full answer won’t be known for some time. But the news article describes how a doctor in a town near the New York state border had to make three telephone calls, three days in a row, to a hotline operated by the Department of Public Health before she was allowed to test a highly symptomatic patient for the virus.
By January, everyone knew an infectious disease characterized by particular symptoms was wreaking havoc in China. Yet during the first week of March, this doctor was told she must be mistaken. It wasn’t possible for her patient, who hadn’t traveled outside the country, to have caught it. She was told this by a government hotline whose purpose is to monitor precisely these kinds of health threats. Twice.
In fact, the patient did test positive. Which meant the coronavirus was on the loose – spreading from person to person, even in small communities of 1,700 people. It also meant that hospital staff had been caring for this patient without proper safety equipment. In the words of the Boston Globe:
the hospital rushed to determine how many of its staff had been exposed as they had waited for permission to test patients. Within a few days, as more patients tested positive, almost 70 workers would be quarantined.
This failure to take the virus seriously, on the part of those who should have known better, is echoed by the events connected to a corporate leadership conference held in a Boston hotel on February 26 and 27.
Biogen, whose headquarters are in nearby Cambridge, describes itself as “one of the world’s first global biotechnology companies.” Its personnel, it says, are “pioneers in neuroscience.”
Yet the Boston Globe reports that these medically sophisticated individuals, who had flown in from other countries (including from Italy) as well as from elsewhere in the US, apparently behaved as if the virus was nothing more than a fairy tale:
The conference spanned two days. Attendees packed into the hotel elevators and onto its escalators, handed tongs and serving spoons back and forth at every buffet meal, gripped the levers of the self-serve coffee dispensers that got a workout during every break.
On Wednesday night, the action moved to a [restaurant] dinner…Afterward, a group of eight Biogen colleagues took the long way back to [their hotel], stopping at a bar that boasted an extensive collection of fine whiskeys.
“You have to try this one,” one executive told another, holding his glass aloft to offer a sip.
Attendees began running fevers soon afterward. One went to an emergency department on March 1st, but was told they didn’t meet testing criteria. On March 3rd, Biogen reportedly advised government public health officials that approximately 50 attendees were now suffering symptoms. But no testing occurred then, either.
The newspaper says that, after learning that two European conference attendees had received positive test results in their own countries, many Boston-area Biogen employees became alarmed. It was at that point a company official instructed them to stay away from Massachusetts General Hospital:
“You will not be tested,” the e-mail read, adding that such demands by Biogen employees “are overwhelming the emergency room.” Ominously, the company’s warning concluded with this sentence: “Hospital leaders have warned Biogen that they may need to have the Hospital Police Department intervene to prevent Biogen employees from entering the emergency room.”
This solid piece of journalism makes it clear numerous officials, from the governor on down, repeatedly assured everyone there was no cause for alarm.
They said the public health system was reliable. They said it was prepared for this virus.
They were wrong.
Read The Virus’s Tale here.
It’s interesting to observe that Biogen, whose corporate decisions led to the infection of scores of its own employees, is now prominently declaring on its website that it stands “united with the African American and black community.”
In the words of its CEO: “Biogen’s credo is Caring Deeply. Working Fearlessly. Changing Lives. This extends to being a positive force for change and not just when the headlines make injustice impossible to ignore.”