Forecasting is a difficult job. As an ocean forecaster, I spend lots of time figuring out ways to predict what nature will throw at us, from toxic algae to jellyfish. Some days, when I’m drowning in data, I wish I could peek into the future so I could tell people what to expect. In a strange way, that wish came true for me with COVID-19, and I’ve seen a glimpse of what the future looks like.

I was living in Denmark this winter when the coronavirus arrived there. People had been reading about the epidemic with abstract concern, but they were generally going about their business, making plans for the coming months – much like in the United States.

Exponential growth is an incredible thing to experience. Almost overnight, Denmark reached some of the highest per capita infection rates in the world. I watched the country go from generally dismissive to full crisis mode as cases skyrocketed. To someone who has worked with exponential growth models, the rapid escalation was both familiar and alarming. I returned home to the United States just as Denmark was shutting down and international borders were closing.

When I arrived back in Maine, it was like being dropped into a “Twilight Zone” episode. I felt as though I had been transported back in time a week. Nobody was acting as though an emergency was coming. People were going about their business, making long-term plans, largely unaware that they were carrying and spreading the virus.

Even now, as we decide how much to socially isolate, many people have a hard time conceptualizing how quickly exponential growth works. By the time there are even a few cases, the process is well under way. And as we watch the numbers climb, I’m living through the Denmark scenario again – with an eerie feeling of déjà vu.

Much like climate change, a virus doesn’t care what we believe or how we vote. It spreads based on physical and biological processes. The way these processes unfold are very similar from one place to the next. While this can be scary, it gives us an advantage. Now that the virus has reached much of the world, we can use other places as windows to view our own future and, perhaps, to change it.

In Maine, we have over 100 cases now. We know from other regions around the world that the time lag between having 100 cases and having 10 deaths averages about seven days. If Maine follows the typical trajectory, we’ll have lost 10 Mainers around the end of March. The time between 100 cases and 100 deaths averages 13 days. For Maine, that would be early to mid-April, with cases in the 10,000s.

We can act to improve our outcomes, and there are models that show us paths. Strong and proactive measures have helped in some countries. Denmark, for example, acted swiftly and decisively. They exceeded 100 cases March 10, but still have had very few deaths.

I share these numbers not to frighten people, but to highlight the consequences of half measures. We are lagging behind the actions taken by the most proactive and successful countries. I have experienced the sudden wave of exponential growth, and seen how it can shake a country. We must get our defenses in place immediately.

When we think about the needs of our families, our communities and our state, we should be thinking past today, to what Maine will be dealing with in two weeks, four weeks and beyond. The decisions we make will be difficult, but we have the opportunity to avoid the worst consequences. In addition to following the current guidelines for reducing infection, we should be working together in ways that prepare us for a longer fight. We must build and strengthen community bonds in our neighborhoods and towns. We must reimagine the roles of ourselves, our businesses and our institutions in terms of how we can best help each other as the tide rises.

One thing that every forecaster knows is that the future isn’t written. When it comes to this virus, now is the time to shape what we want our future to look like.

Comments are not available on this story.