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Updated: Aug 28, 2020

April 2, 2020

Unforgettable images appear in the news every day now.

The lights of the Empire State Building have started flashing red, a steady hectic rhythm like the siren lights on emergency vehicles.

In Manchester, England, a group of infectious disease workers knelt in a hospital corridor holding up signs reading, “We stay here for you, please stay home for us.” The photo went viral on social media.

Three days ago, a Navy hospital ship, the USS Comfort, sailed majestically into New York Harbor on Monday. Crowds of people ignored Manhattan’s social distancing orders to witness its arrival. Even on TV the sight was as moving as others we’ve seen in recently: tents containing ICU beds in Central Park; the Javits Convention Center transformed into a field hospital. The difference was that the ship was beautiful, and truly comforting, just like its name.

TV and social media exploded on Monday with shots of the long white ship gliding purposefully into the harbor. Its stark whiteness seemed to actually glow against the choppy dark water. The red cross on its face and side signaled a promise fulfilled; hope delivered, 3-D.

President Trump, a master of spectacle if there ever was one, did not board, but the photo of his salute to the crew on the deck was will surely become one of the iconic images of this terrible era.

I have to give it to Trump: the Comfort lifted people’s spirits. It’s gorgeous and grand, it arrived on a day when we needed to rest our eyes on something awe-inspiring, and it’s arrival is most welcome in this ravaged region. But like so many other comfort measures, the ship can only do so much. It has only 1,000 beds, which would have been a towering number until very recently but is now a fraction of what’s needed. And although it’s not intended to serve COVID-19 patients, indirectly it’s going to have to — the city is now swarming with the virus. Inevitably a patient seeking care for a non-corona condition will carry corona into the floating hospital, where it will infect other patients and staff.

We’ve now seen repeatedly that ships are ideal breeding grounds for COVID-19, being closed environments, like petri dishes. As of today there are 18 cruise ships still sailing around the world seeking a country that will allow them to dock. Most chilling is a Holland America Line ship called the Zaandam which was refused entry into Chile two weeks ago and later was even denied permission to to use the Panama Canal to get to Florida. The Zaandam is carrying 53 passengers and 85 crew members who are symptomatic for the virus. It’s also carrying 4 people who have already died.

So maybe the grand arrival of the USS Comfort, glorious as it was, will turn out to be another sadness in the story of a pandemic that keeps finding new ways to catch at our hearts.

But the numbers are rising. Now, no matter what I’m doing, I keep an interactive chart open on my computer. It shows the numbers rising in real time. My preferred TV station, MSNBC, keeps a running total at the side of the screen during most of its programming. I can see why a TV station would do that but I realize that there’s no reason I, an ordinary individual, should have to stay on top of that tally. I do it because I can’t sit and watch the news anymore like I did last week and the week before. I’m getting overwhelmed. I feel almost crushed under the awareness of my own helplessness.

But I want to bear witness. I can’t do a thing for anyone, the patients, the grieving families, the health care workers that have become our new heroes. But at least I can not turn away.

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