The Morning Jolt

White House

Eat More Potatoes, America

President Trump in Washington, D.C., February 6, 2020 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

On the menu today: dissecting some recent comments from President Trump about coronavirus treatments, and why the latest “I can’t believe he said that!” comments in Washington are pretty small potatoes compared to much larger problems — such as the ability of American consumers to continue to have access to potatoes of any size.

Is It Really Too Much to Ask That We Focus, People?

In just about every major publication in the country today, the lead story is that President Trump has once again said something outrageous in yesterday’s briefing about the virus response. “So supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just a very powerful light — and I think you said that hasn’t been checked because of the testing” — referring to Bill Bryan, the acting undersecretary of science and technology for the Department of Homeland Security. “And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that, too. I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? As you see, it gets in the lungs, it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.”

As usual, the president is vaguely, sort of in the ballpark of a valid idea, and half-remembering it and describing it in way that sounds ridiculous. Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research has developed lighting that uses “far-UVC, which can kill viruses and bacteria without harming human skin, eyes and other tissues, as is the problem with conventional UV light.” We could put that lighting in public places and mitigate airborne viruses that way. But that far-UVC light isn’t going to get into your lungs or the rest of your body.

CNN writes, “Fact check: Trump wrongly suggests sunlight could help cure coronavirus.” During the briefing, Trump said to coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, “I would like you to speak to the medical doctors to see if there’s any way that you can apply light and heat to cure, you know, if you could. And maybe you can, maybe you can’t.”

Once again, the president appears to be half-remembering accurate information and repeating it in a way that is inaccurate to the point of near-incoherency. When you go out in the sun, your body generates Vitamin D from cholesterol, and there is some evidence that Vitamin D helps the body fight off viruses. It’s not a cure, or a treatment, or a viral bulletproof vest, but it probably modestly improves the odds of your body fight off viral infections:

Through several mechanisms, vitamin D can reduce risk of infections. Those mechanisms include inducing cathelicidins and defensins that can lower viral replication rates and reducing concentrations of pro-inflammatory cytokines that produce the inflammation that injures the lining of the lungs, leading to pneumonia, as well as increasing concentrations of anti-inflammatory cytokines. Several observational studies and clinical trials reported that vitamin D supplementation reduced the risk of influenza, whereas others did not. Evidence supporting the role of vitamin D in reducing risk of COVID-19 includes that the outbreak occurred in winter, a time when 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) concentrations are lowest; that the number of cases in the Southern Hemisphere near the end of summer are low; that vitamin D deficiency has been found to contribute to acute respiratory distress syndrome; and that case-fatality rates increase with age and with chronic disease comorbidity, both of which are associated with lower 25(OH)D concentration.

I wish the president wouldn’t spitball half-baked ideas during these briefings, but “maybe you can, maybe you can’t” is not the same as declaring sunlight is a cure. But the media has a narrative, and it’s going to stick to it. Despite all the mockery last month, NBC News reports again, “An Arizona man died in late March after having ingested chloroquine phosphate — believing it would protect him from becoming infected with the coronavirus. The man’s wife told NBC News that she had watched televised briefings during which Trump talked about the potential benefits of chloroquine.” Major media continue to act as if the president’s comments amounted to, “Okay everyone, time to start eating fish tank cleaner!”

Elsewhere, the dominant message from the national media is variations of “President Trump is just the worst,” with Vanity Fair informing us the president’s team wanted to “flood” New York and New Jersey with hydroxychloroquine and The New Yorker contending that President Trump “refuses to mourn” the more than 50,000 victims of the coronavirus. The Dallas Morning News is motivated to inform readers that “the Trump administration did not put a professional dog breeder from Dallas in charge of COVID-19 response,” despite what they may have read on social media.

Look, in a matter of days, we have seen this president insist that the decision to reopen states is his because his authority is “total,” then tell the nation’s governors “you are going to call your own shots,” and then tweet out a message to “LIBERATE” Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia, states with Democratic governors. We have seen him both praise and rebuke Georgia governor Brian Kemp for his decisions to reopen his state. The president is winging it. He’s often responding to the last idea he heard, or the last person he talked to or saw on television, or whoever’s in front of him at the moment. I wish he wasn’t this person, but he is, and he’s going to be our president until at least January 20, 2021. (Knocking on wood for his health.) We’re not going to hold another impeachment process during a viral outbreak.

Whether you love this president or hate him or fall somewhere in between, this is the guy we have in the Oval Office for, at minimum, the next nine months. (The meandering comments of President Trump’s Democratic alternative are not really an overflowing fountain of reassurance, either.)

Because the media and President Trump are in this well-established symbiotic relationship driven heavily by “YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT THE PRESIDENT JUST SAID” coverage, a lot of days the media act like the most important development in the coronavirus story is what the president said that day. But most days, that’s among the least important and consequential developments.

What’s more important and consequential right now? How about the U.S. food supply chain?

This Is What We Ignore When We Obsess Over What’s Happening in Washington

Americans aren’t necessarily going to starve, but we are probably going to see a lot less food on our store shelves in the next couple months as these problems in the supply chain get worked out. Tyson Foods just closed its huge meat processing plant near Pasco, Washington for coronavirus testing. That plant produces enough beef in one day to feed 4 million people and employs 1,400 workers. That company also closed its processing plants in Logansport, Ind., and Waterloo, Iowa. More than a dozen meatpacking plants are now closed across the country.

Minnesota farmers are talking about culling 200,000 pigs. It’s easy to say the farmers should just give their product away to the hungry — but who’s going to take the live pig and turn it into bacon? And who reimburses the hog farmer for his labor?

It’s a similar story in the seafood industry, which is highly dependent upon demand from restaurants. Very few people want take-out fish.

In produce, farmers have seen 95 percent of their restaurant customers disappear, almost instantly, as well as what they produced for school lunches:

Americans may see less selection or more expensive food than they’re used to as well as a smaller variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. If independent farmers go out of business, some consumers may lose access to locally-produced food.

“We may find that the food selection is reduced,” said Andrew Novakovic, a professor of agricultural economics at Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. “It’s fairly likely we’re going to be eating more canned foods and have less fresh fruits and vegetables available.”

America’s food producers set up their supply chains to cater a certain percentage to restaurants and a certain percentage to supermarkets, and while you might think, “food is food,” supermarkets and their shoppers have different needs from restaurants:

“Seldom does a consumer go to a grocery store and want to buy a 5-pound bag of shredded cheese,” said Mark Stephenson, director of Dairy Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “They wanted maybe 1-pound bags at a time. You can’t just put 1-pound bags through a 5-pound line. Not possible. You have to have a different piece of equipment set up differently. We’ve had an industry that’s had to shuffle a great deal to move product from where it was produced before to where it needs to be today.”

Lots of industries are going to find themselves in situations similar to the oil industry’s current troubles. Those who produce the initial form of the product keep generating it, while the processers and middlemen can’t find enough customers, either retail or wholesale. A backlog of supply builds up — and remember, meat, fish and produce can spoil, oil doesn’t — and then no one knows what to do with all the excess supply.

We are really not prepared for the oversupply problems:

Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, said about 60 percent of potatoes produced in the United States are processed for the food service industry. Without restaurants and schools to use up last year’s potatoes, Houlihan said there will be storage problems when the 2020 crop is harvested.

“It’s going to be a really bad situation in the fall. We just know there’s going to be a huge oversupply of potatoes. And when that happens, the price plummets and our growers can’t even recoup their cost of production,” Houlihan said.

Eat more potatoes, America.

Do you see how this makes the usual “Can you believe President Trump said this?” coverage — or its reverse, “You won’t believe that this cable news figure said about Trump!” — seem irrelevant and unimportant? I’d say we have bigger fish to fry, but as you saw above, we can’t even get that fish to the market. We are in the middle of the biggest news story of the century, a problem that touches every single life on the planet and is a threat to just about everyone in one form or another — physically, mentally, economically, socially. And some people can’t break out of their politics-as-usual thinking patterns.

Since the outbreak hit, I’m just less interested in what the political ramifications are, at least for now. I’m not interested in some “academic researchers” concluding that more Trump voters are dying than Hillary Clinton voters.

ADDENDUM: You know, I’m happy with the New York Jets selecting offensive tackle Mekhi Becton last night. When’s the last time you saw a six-foot seven-inch, 364-pound man run a 40-yard dash in 5.1 seconds?

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