The Morning Jolt

U.S.

The Virus Is Still There, Whether We Like It or Not

A healthcare worker administers an antibodies test in Los Angeles, Calif., April 24, 2020. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

On the menu today: a look at how dramatically the outlook for the coronavirus changed in little more than a week, how the claim that the protests didn’t spread the virus isn’t quite accurate, and a comparison of wearing masks in public and carrying firearms in public.

What’s Changed in the Past Week?

“Geraghty spends too much time on this subject. COVID is over.” — some guy on the Internet, June 19. I guess I shouldn’t give him too much grief; he later clarified that while he believes the pandemic wasn’t over, the coronavirus was over as a public-policy matter.

The last day I wrote a Morning Jolt, the United States had 2,297,190 cases. As of this writing, Monday morning, the country has 2,637,180 cases, a jump of 339,990 cases in nine days.

Yes, yes, I know that the number of cases by themselves is not the most important metric, that a significant percentage of those who are infected will be asymptomatic, and that most of those who are not elderly or immunocompromised will recover fine. Keep reading, man.

The last day I wrote a Morning Jolt, 121,407 Americans had succumbed to the coronavirus. As of midnight last night, the death toll was up to 128,438, meaning that the country has endured 7,031 deaths in nine days — although this figure includes 1,800 “probable” deaths that New Jersey added, most of which occurred before that nine-day window and that were officially counted during that time period. The good news is that the daily death rate is down from earlier in the spring, but deaths are a lagging indicator, and the current ongoing spike in cases in the Western states is going to hit some number of elderly or immunocompromised who will not pull through. If we’re lucky, few of the newly infected will be in the higher-risk categories. If we’re not . . . this is going to be a long, bad summer.

We don’t have precise numbers for perhaps the second-most consequential measure of the pandemic, hospitalizations, but hospitalization rates are increasing in quite a few states. While I was gone, hospitals neared total capacity or ICU capacity at Texas Medical Center in Houston, Austin, and Travis County, Texas; six major hospitals in Hidalgo County, Texas, two major hospitals in Laredo, Texas; all hospitals in Pima County, Ariz.; St. George, Utah; Fresno County, Calif.; Homestead Hospital in Fla.; Yakima County, Wash.; the Tri-Cities area in Wash.; Orangeburg County, S.C.; and perhaps some others that I missed. It is not hard to find hospital administrators who are worried about hitting capacity in the coming weeks. If doctors and hospital administrators are concerned, you probably ought to be concerned, too.

Early on in the pandemic, a lot of loud people put down their chips on, “not that bad” and “Everyone else is being a Nervous Nellie. I know better than all of those eggheads with medical degrees.” Sorry, guys. The roulette wheel came back with “a really bad pandemic.” Warm weather is not protecting us as much as some hoped; perhaps the spread in the Western states reflects people spending more time indoors with the air conditioning on.

We bent the curve and largely kept our hospitals from being overwhelmed. And then we reopened our society and our economy — and held large gatherings in the form of protests — and the curve bent back up again in a significant number of states.

The coronavirus will end as a public-policy matter when it ends as a health matter.

We need to be realistic about what we’re facing and how our lives will not be back to normal for a while longer.

Most school systems will not start full-time in-person classes in the fall. The decision of whether to shut down a particular business is likely to be driven more by the virus and testing than by government mandates. Down in the Hilton Head Island area, several restaurants closed of their own volition to test all employees after some employees tested positive. The PGA Tour, Major League Baseball, and other sports will be dealing with player and staff absences after positive tests. We are still a long way from out of the woods.

One of the most depressing aspects of the rise in cases over the past two weeks has been the persistent desire to hammer the new wave of cases into some sort of “my party’s governors are good and your party’s governors are bad” narrative, most often of the “blue states rule, red states drool” variety. Yes, Texas, Florida, and Arizona are getting hit hard right now, and those state governments were on the more lenient side of the lockdown policies and a bit quicker to reopen. But California, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada are all getting hit hard with waves, too.

Our Kyle Smith gave New York governor Andrew Cuomo a much-deserved drubbing for his insane proclamation of victory over the coronavirus in his state. No one seems to want to discuss this, but New Yorkers are still dying of the coronavirus in significant numbers. From Friday, June 19 to Sunday, June 28, 380 New Yorkers succumbed to the disease. In the same time period, Florida has had 363 deaths, Arizona has had 307 deaths, and Texas had 270 deaths.

New cases are down in the Northeast, but deaths from the coronavirus are still occurring in those mostly blue states. The six states with the most deaths Friday were California (63), Massachusetts (50), New York (48), New Jersey (45), Arizona (45), and Illinois (41).

The country is in month six of a pandemic, more than a half a million people around the world are dead, and some people still can only perceive the virus as an opportunity to dunk on states and a party they don’t like.

The Protests Weren’t Super-Spreaders, but They Weren’t Non-Spreaders, Either

The protests spurred by the death of George Floyd may not be the primary factor spreading the virus around the U.S. in recent weeks, but that doesn’t mean they were not a factor at all. Massachusetts health officials conducted 17,617 tests on protesters statewide and found that 2.5 percent of them came back positive for COVID-19. That is a low percentage, but it still adds up to 440 people. We don’t know if those people caught the virus elsewhere or at the protests, and yes, most of the protesters were young and appeared healthy. But if I invited you to an event where 17,600 people would be in attendance, and 440 of them were carrying a contagious disease that could put you in the hospital for a long stretch or even kill you, how comfortable would you be attending that event?

Meanwhile, in other parts of the country . . .

South Carolina: “South Carolina racial justice activists said they would postpone future demonstrations or move them online after at least 13 people who took part in previous protests tested positive for the novel coronavirus.”

Los Angeles: “In the last week, positive cases within the LAPD workforce jumped from 170 to 206, Chief Michel Moore told the civilian Police Commission on Tuesday. ‘This was a 21% increase and is about twice the rate of our historic rate of change over the history of the pandemic,’ he said.”

Louisiana: “The Police Association of New Orleans called on the City to test all New Orleans Police Department officers after a high-ranking officer contracted COVID-19. The letter, written by PANO attorney Eric Hessler, says the unidentified NOPD official ‘was present at . . . numerous protests’ and interacted with several protesters before testing positive for the coronavirus.”

The protests don’t appear to be super-spreader events, and we can breathe a little easier (through our masks, six feet apart) that they weren’t. But there’s that nagging sense that certain public officials didn’t want to recognize the possibility that the protests could be spreading events. Like New York, “‘San Francisco does not have data related to protesters who have tested positive because the testing sites are not asking people if they have recently participated in demonstrations,’ city spokesperson Cristina Padilla said.”

“You Can Get More with a Kind Word and a Mask than with Just a Kind Word”

One aspect of the ongoing inane public argument about wearing masks is nagging at me. Yes, in March, the CDC and Dr. Fauci and the surgeon general discouraged wearing masks. They said things that were either misleading or not true that generated an initial public skepticism about the effectiveness of masks; this was apparently driven by a fear that the public going out and buying masks would mean that doctors, hospitals, and first responders wouldn’t have enough. They attempted a “noble lie,” and it backfired on them.

But that was in March. By April, the CDC started encouraging cloth masks. It’s now the end of June. The messaging from public-health officials has been pretty consistent for the past three months: Masks provide at least some protection — more for the people around you than for yourself. If nothing else, you keep people’s sneezes and coughs from having the full projection. Doctors have been telling people “over your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze” since the discovery of germs, and nobody whines that that recommendation is an infringement upon their rights or freedoms.

People don’t object to covering mouths and noses because they can see the droplets. Talking and exhaling do the same thing, except you can’t see the droplets. Lots of Americans carry firearms, both for their own protection and for the protection of others. They do so because they see the firearm as a useful tool to prevent harm. Think of the mask as a firearm against viruses.

We can argue about whether people are wearing them effectively or whether this makes them touch their face more or whether this makes them believe that they’re bulletproof. But there’s a reason that medical personnel who work with infectious (and immunocompromised!) patients wear masks. Cops know bulletproof vests won’t protect their head or limbs, but they wear them anyway. If wearing a mask reduces the viral load going out, and if wearing a mask can reduce the viral load you’re taking in even partially, hey, why not, right? In most of these circumstances, you’re shopping for groceries, not running an ultra-marathon. You can stand a little discomfort in exchange for those improved odds of preventing transmission to yourself or to others.

But it’s turned into a culture-war issue now, and the world of the Right is increasingly driven by a reflexive contrarianism: “If you say I must do X, then I will refuse to submit to your will that I do X; if you say I must not do X, then I will do X.”

ADDENDA: Thanks to Alexandra DeSanctis for filling in for me for the past week. When people start sending me effusive fan mail to forward to her, it’s usually a sign I should get back to work . . .

. . . Coronavirus made this recent trip to the Hilton Head area an odd one. South Carolina is one of those states experiencing a spike in cases, but as far as I could tell, the people who most needed to wear masks were doing so in the situations where it made the most sense. The one grocery store we visited required them. In the restaurants, wait staff was wearing masks, and patrons were seated fairly far apart. Patio seating was much more popular, anyway. People didn’t wear masks much outdoors, but beachgoers naturally keep about six feet away from each other — and if you’re going to broach that invisible barrier, it’s usually only for a moment.

But my assessment is shaped by where I was — and this trip didn’t include a visit to Sea Pines, Savannah, or Beaufort. We stuck with take-out from our favorite restaurants, explored the Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge, didn’t watch a movie or shop or browse Barnes and Noble like we usually do. Bits and pieces of “normal life” are out there, if you look in the right places.

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