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Day 155: Flu York City on Two Wheels

I’m watching my city mutate from a mobile perch. At times the air I bicycle through is inexplicably smoky. I see grim lines at stores, especially pharmacies—some a block long. People try not to mingle. But New Yorkers still hate waiting: I saw one column erupt like a murder of crows as someone tried to cut ahead.

Today I came across a young woman hacking her lungs up on 14h Street, evidently suffering the early stages of an immune system meltdown. Passersby watched her helpless red face and distended neck as she clung to a rusty fire hydrant, but no one had a solution. Most moved a little faster.

I reached a guy at 911. He was coughing, too. He said they already had the woman on a list to be picked up. “When?” ASAP, which could be hours, he explained candidly: A death sentence he neither intended nor denied.

MY BIKE IN HAPPIER TIMESSomeone found cardboard on which to rest the woman in front of a closed luncheonette. The Samaritans thinned fast when blood began dripping from her mouth and nose. The effusion was dense, mixed with mucous in pink and red chunks and strings I’ve never seen. Were they strips of lung? It looked like a cytokine storm to me—as if her body had turned against itself, inside out. She was fighting infection to the last bloody cell.

A shabbily dressed man with a ragged turban, maybe homeless, looked at us as if we were chicken dung. He bent over to help. I watched, ashamed, as he spoke to her. When she tried to respond, a thick red blob spewed forth to paint his face.

Everyone ran away as if a bomb had gone off, leaving the man dripping horror. He was yelling—his hands bloody, outstretched, like an Aztec high priest.

I handed him a t-shirt I carry in my pack for emergencies, marched away before he could wipe his mouth to thank me. What else could I contribute?

I rode away as the sun emerged, wondering what to think of all the efforts to produce a vaccine. The longer it takes to deliver one, the more antagonistic the antivax activists are becoming. Poll results that once showed Americans eager to take a shot have turned around, even as more people die from avian flu. Conspiracy theories abound. Even Fitch is up to his neck agitating on the social networks, which at least keeps him busy.

Fortunately, I soon discovered that New York has turned into a bikers’ town. (Not motorcycles—we lack fuel.) Cyclists and skaters, even scooters, have taken the streets. I’m not sure it’s such an improvement for pedestrians, who can’t hear us coming.

Proceeding north, I saw bent storefront grilles, plywood windows, scorched façades. Mountains of garbage feeding more rats than the Pied Piper ever bargained for. Sidewalks flooded by waters whose storm drains are jammed with refuse. A city adrift in tawdry anarchy.

On a busy corner, I saw church volunteers handing out food to people who didn’t look poor but sure were hungry. The charity truck was marked with a big RAISE logo advertising that odd new branch of the Department of Homeland Security. When I approached for a look at the sandwiches and pickles, I noticed the deliverers were wearing white shirts emblazoned with the logo, which made them look like airport screeners.

Speaking of Washington, I wonder how the government will respond to the anti-vaccine rally that’s been called by Nation Against Toxins Under-Researched Everywhere. (Yep, N.A.T.U.R.E.) The march to the White House has already been banned on health grounds, but organizers vow that thousands of mostly mothers will drive to Washington with their children to demand that no vaccine be allowed to contain mercury, adjuvants, or anything that hasn’t been thoroughly tested.

The authorities will never agree to any of these conditions. First, mercury (thimerosal) still comes in flu shots for people over six because each shot would otherwise have to come individually packaged; you can imagine how much more trouble, time, and expense it would entail to inoculate the entire planet. Second, while they were lucky with swine flu because only one shot was needed to render immunity, H5N1 will require at least two (possibly three) normal vaccinations because so few people have ever encountered anything like it before; adjuvants that boost the human response can stretch out supplies. Third, none of the emergency vaccines for the new virus strain will be thoroughly tested. That would take until after Round Two ends. Time is short.

So is gasoline. I doubt many protesters will make it to Washington. N.A.T.U.R.E. may call, but few will risk getting the flu to fight a solution most people can’t wait for. This Million Mom March ain’t gonna happen.

Fitch will hate me for saying all of the above. I’ve come to realize that he didn’t invest in my mask business to make money—though I fear he intends to make more from it than I do —but because he hates vaccines. More than I (who might opt for a flu shot), he believes masks and protective gear offer the only way to survive H5N1. There’s always more to Fitch than I had suspected.

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