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Saskia Popescu’s phone buzzes throughout the night, waking her up. It had already buzzed 99 times before I interviewed her at 9:15 a.m. ET last Monday. It buzzed three times during the first 15 minutes of our call. Whenever a COVID-19 case is confirmed at her hospital system, Popescu gets an email, and her phone buzzes. She cannot silence it. An epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, Popescu works to prepare hospitals for outbreaks of emerging diseases. Her phone is now a miserable metronome, ticking out the rhythm of the pandemic ever more rapidly as Arizona’s cases climb. “It has almost become white noise,” she told me.
For many Americans, the coronavirus pandemic has become white noise—old news that has faded into the background of their lives. But the crisis is far from over. Arizona is one of the pandemic’s new hot spots, with 24,000 confirmed cases over the past week and rising hospitalizations and deaths. Popescu saw the surge coming, “but to actually see it play out is heartbreaking,” she said. “It didn’t have to be this way.”
Popescu is one of many public-health experts who have been preparing for and battling the pandemic since the start of the year. They’re not treating sick people, as doctors or nurses might be, but are instead advising policy makers, monitoring the pandemic’s movements, modeling its likely trajectory, and ensuring that hospitals are ready.