The Morning Jolt

U.S.

We Need to Confront Reality

Los Angeles Fire Department staff check in patients at a coronavirus testing location near Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Calif., April 5, 2020. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters)

I will be out next week; you’ve got to spend time with your loved ones in a safe way when you can these days. Wrapping up the week: a look at the frustrating power of denial in the face of great danger, what we can trust about the data and what is likely to be inaccurate, the difficult recognition that an end to the pandemic is still a long way off, and that much-rumored Redskins story arrives with a bang.

Confronting Reality

I hope Chuck Woolery’s son, recently diagnosed with COVID-19, makes a full recovery; thankfully he is reportedly asymptomatic. I think if you see this moment as the right one to mock the former game-show host . . . well, Woolery’s got bigger and more consequential problems on his mind right now.

A few days ago, when Woolery tweeted, “everyone is lying. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust,” — and the President of the United States retweeted him . . . it was reflective of a persistent problem we face in this pandemic.

We’re confronting some really bad news, and we’ve seen our leaders at multiple levels make some bad decisions. We get used to certain problems in life and usually have the choice to tune them out — natural disasters far away, crime in places we don’t live, scandals involving politicians representing somewhere else. The coronavirus is the first story in a long time that affects just about every person on the planet and can’t be tuned out or ignored. Glasgow, Mont., has a case of the coronavirus; that small town is arguably the most isolated in the United States, roughly four and a half hours away from any community with more than 75,000 people.

If you read through my copious coverage of this pandemic since it began — dismissed as “panic porn” by a few commenters and folks on social media — you’ll notice that the conclusions are very rarely absolute or simple. Masks help, but they’re not a guarantee. The George Floyd protests were not super-spreader events, but they did spread the virus in some cases. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine may be useful for coronavirus patients experiencing cytokine storms, but probably not useful in other situations. The threat to children is very small, but not nonexistent.

A couple of years ago, Greg Gutfeld was discussing some policing controversy and contended that the national media “wanted a clean narrative” on what happened — a simple story with a villainous cop, an innocent victim, and an easy-to-understand moral to the tale. This instinct has only seemed to grow broader and deeper in the years since, in both the news media’s producers and consumers. This pandemic is a news story that is unlike anything else that has come down the pike in a century. The virus is new, the challenges it is throwing at us are new, our responses are unprecedented, and almost nothing about any of this is simple. Attempts to reduce it all to a “clean narrative” require leaving out consequential details to the point of inaccuracy.

A lot of people greet every new development with an unspoken, “tell me how this shows that the president is right and the greatest ever,” or “tell me how this shows that Orange Man Bad.”

From the beginning, certain folks believed or wanted to believe this pandemic would be “not that bad” — and after America’s not-so-consequential experiences with SARS, H1N1, MERS, Ebola, and Zika, that wasn’t necessarily an unreasonable bet. But week by week, month by month, it became clear that this pandemic is different from all of those, and the most serious contagious threat to our health that we have seen since the influenza pandemic of 1918. That’s scary! That pandemic was so bad, people didn’t want to talk about it afterwards, and more or less chose to forget. We choose to remember war, famine, genocide, oppression . . . but this? This is a chapter of the past that surviving Americans preferred to keep buried.

Throughout this pandemic, I have used Worldometers to keep track of the most recent numbers. It’s not a perfect tool. Those responsible for collecting and collating the data have made mistakes along the way. This is a human endeavor, and humans make mistakes. Washington State overcounted the number of tests that came back negative. Some Florida labs erroneously reported 100 percent positivity rates, instead of the actual 18 percent. Arizona state government numbers have been incomplete due to delays in sending over data from laboratories.

The CDC offers quite a few caveats to its numbers: “COVID-19 can cause mild illness, symptoms might not appear immediately, there are delays in reporting and testing, not everyone who is infected gets tested or seeks medical care, and there are differences in how completely states and territories report their cases.”

People understandably contend that a person who is diagnosed with the coronavirus, but dies of a separate health issue, should not count as a “coronavirus death.” (For example, George Floyd tested positive for coronavirus.) The oft-cited death number probably involves certain elderly patients who were likely to die from any significant stress to their health.

But just as there’s evidence for an overcount, there’s even more evidence for an undercount. A lack of available tests in the early days meant that certain deaths that were probably connected to the virus were never officially diagnosed.  The overall U.S. death toll from the start of the pandemic jumped — way higher than the official death toll from the virus: “The 781,000 total deaths in the United States in the three months through May 30 were about 122,300, or nearly 19 percent higher, than what would normally be expected.”

Some doctors think some of the heart attacks and strokes that occurred during that period were triggered by the body’s response to a coronavirus infection. Then there’s the separate question of if someone dies of a heart attack or stroke because they were reluctant to go to the hospital until it was too late . . . was that a pandemic-driven death? Are certain patients dying of ailments that they would likely survive if our medical systems weren’t trying to deal with an ongoing pandemic right now?

We can quibble with this or that aspect of the data. I think that if you account for all of the errors and factors that can lead to overcounts and undercounts, it’s more likely we’re undercounting the deaths than overcounting. But even if you assume that one out of every ten official deaths is miscategorized, and shouldn’t be counted as a coronavirus-driven . . . the death count this morning is past 141,000. If the real count is closer to 127,000 . . . how much does that change your perception of the problem? What does the country’s total number of deaths need to reach before everyone will concur, “Wow, this is really bad”? What do you have to see to conclude that it’s not a hoax, that the CDC and doctors are not lying, and that the threat this virus presents is not overhyped?

Because if the answer is, “Nothing will ever convince me of that,” . . . well, then we are no longer discussing what is actually happening; we’re discussing something akin to an article of faith.

When I note that the daily death count is rising from a stretch of lower numbers in late June and early July, people argue — fairly — that the day a death is reported is not necessarily the day the death occurred. The 1,002 deaths in the United States reported Wednesday does not mean 1,002 people died that day or the day before. But the earlier stretch of lower numbers was reported the same way, with the same delays in collection and collation.

I get that a lot of people are sick — no pun intended — of hearing about the coronavirus, sick of reading about it, and sick of living with it and its consequences. But sometimes life doesn’t give you much of a choice about what you face. After about two months of reports from China that were more ominous than John Williams’s theme to Jaws, this pandemic hit us full-force in mid March. We’re four months into what I suspect will be at least a year-long ordeal.

Complaining that we’re tired of dealing with this pandemic in mid July is like complaining that we’re tired of a war in Europe in October, 1914, or exhausted from a war in the Pacific in March, 1942. We’re four months after a history-changing event, and the consequences and reverberations from that event are still ongoing.

ADDENDUM: The big Washington Post story on the football team formerly known as the Redskins arrived late yesterday afternoon. It’s bad, although ubiquitous and accepted sexual harassment might seem mild after the two days of wild rumors about bribing refs and other elaborate scandals. As I wrote during the days of the spotlight on #MeToo, the “[offenders’] ability to escape consequence was driven in large part by their wealth, power, and fame. They had no fear of a corporate human-resources department because in many cases the corporate human-resources department answered to them.”

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