Where Europe’s Second Wave Is Filling Up Hospitals

Poland has turned its largest stadium into an emergency field hospital. The numbers of Covid-19 patients in Belgium and Britain have doubled in two weeks. And doctors and nurses in the Czech Republic are falling ill at an alarming rate.

As new cases of the virus began to increase again across Europe last month, hospitals were initially spared the mass influx of patients they weathered earlier this spring. Some suggested that the virus had become less deadly, or that older, more vulnerable people would be shielded.

But a second wave of serious illness is here, new data released on Thursday shows, making it clear that the pandemic is still dangerous and that adherence to control measures over the next few weeks will be crucial in preventing hospitals from becoming overrun for a second time this year.

The number of Covid-19 patients in hospitals across the continent is still less than half of the peak in March and April, but it is rising steadily each week, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. People across much of Europe — including larger countries like France, Italy, Poland and Spain — are now more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 than those in the United States.

Bruno Ciancio, the head of disease surveillance at the center, said he was concerned that some of the worst-hit countries now — including the Czech Republic, Poland and Bulgaria — were not as affected this spring, and may not have expanded their hospital capacity or intensive care units.

“The signals were all there in September,” said Mr. Ciancio. “At this point it’s very important that all member states prepare their hospitals to deal with the increase in demand that is coming.”

Hospitalization rates are a key measure of the pandemic’s severity. The rates rise and fall days or weeks behind the tallies of new infections. But infection figures depend heavily on each country’s testing capacity, while seriously ill people tend to enter hospitals whether they have been tested for the virus or not.

Europe’s current wave of infection is due in part to the relative normalcy it experienced this summer. Unlike the United States, where the epidemic rose to a second peak in July and a third peak this month, travelers moved around Europe, college students returned to campus and many large gatherings resumed, all while the virus kept spreading.

Now hospitals are scrambling to prepare for an onrush of Covid-19 patients, at a time when bed and intensive care capacity will already be under strain during the winter flu season.

In Poland, the government converted the country’s largest stadium into a temporary field hospital with room for 500 patients. Hospitals in France, especially in the Paris area, have started to postpone non-emergency surgeries, while others have called back staff on leave. More than one-fifth of Spain’s intensive care beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients, and in Madrid, that figure is closer to 40 percent.

And in the Czech Republic — where the current hospitalization rate surpasses the worst period in Britain — physicians are worried about a shortage of staff. “In some regions, about 10 percent of the medical staff is either already infected or in quarantine,” said Petr Smejkal, the chief of infectious diseases and epidemiology at the Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine in Prague.

Mr. Smejkal said the country also lacks specialty workers like respiratory therapists, and that most nurses are not trained to operate ventilators. “I am most worried about personnel, and keeping a safe ratio of doctors to patients and nurses to patients,” he added.

There is hope that no place will experience the level of death that Bergamo, Italy, New York City and Madrid suffered this spring. How the virus spreads is better understood now, and treatments have improved, giving sick people a better chance of survival. Testing has expanded across Europe, allowing countries to identify outbreaks earlier, when they are easier to contain.

But it is unclear how successful those control measures will be, or if political resistance and collective exhaustion over new restrictions will make it harder to get the virus under control for a second time.

Deaths in most of Europe remain at a fraction of the levels seen in the spring. But they have ticked slowly upwards over the last several weeks, and they tend to lag hospitalizations by about a month. Experts say additional increases in deaths are likely over the next couple of weeks.

How the coronavirus pandemic could end


It’s still the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, but history, biology and the knowledge gained from our first nine months with COVID-19 point to how the pandemic might end.

The big picture: Pandemics don’t last forever. But when they end, it usually isn’t because a virus disappears or is eliminated. Instead, they can settle into a population, becoming a constant background presence that occasionally flares up in local outbreaks.

  • Many emerging viruses become part of the viral ecology. The four coronaviruses that cause the common cold are endemic, circulating in the population, and the influenza strains that cause seasonal flu predictably surge each year.
  • The SARS outbreak in 2003 didn’t go the same way due to biology and behavior: It was much less transmissible than the virus that causes COVID-19, countries contained it quickly, and it has pretty much disappeared.
  • One virus, smallpox, was eradicated through widespread vaccination, and polio may be close, after decades of effort and billions in funding.

What’s happening: The pandemic is deepening in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere in the world.

  • Experts — from the U.K.’s chief scientific adviser to pharmaceutical CEOs to the WHO — increasingly say SARS-CoV-2 is likely to circulate in the population on a permanent basis, mainly due to the foothold the virus has already established.
  • But what damage endemic COVID-19 causes will depend on different factors, including how often people are reinfected, vaccine effectiveness and adoption, and if the virus mutates in any significant way.

“If the vaccine is really effective, like the measles vaccine or the yellow fever vaccine, it’s just going to land like a ton of bricks and suffocate this. Maybe not quite eradicate it — yellow fever and measles are not eradicated — but it’ll be an utter game changer,” UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer says.

  • But if the vaccines are less effective — as many experts expect for at least the first generation — COVID-19 may eventually behave more like the seasonal flu, Noymer says. (Still, the death rate of COVID-19 currently well eclipses that of the seasonal flu.)

Reinfection is “the big issue,” says Columbia University’s Jeffrey Shaman, who recently described how reinfection and other factors would affect the spread of SARS-CoV-2 if it became endemic.

  • So far, there are just a handful of documented reinfection cases, but evidence about whether people retain their antibodies after infection is mixed, and a lot of unknowns remain about the likelihood of reinfection.
  • The worst-case scenario would be that there isn’t a vaccine or long-lasting immunity and people get COVID-19 repeatedly and are just as likely to end up in the hospital as with initial infections, Shaman says.

“I would say COVID-19 is already endemic,” says Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who worked to eradicate smallpox and now chairs the nonprofit Ending Pandemics.

  • With about 59,000 new cases per day in the U.S. alone, Brilliant says “it is already everywhere.”
  • “It doesn’t really mean very much if it is endemic,” he adds. “The real question is: How does it all end?”

Eventually, COVID-19 could end up in “the retirement village of coronaviruses,” like HIV, which today can be treated to the point of elimination, or circulate at low levels and be kept in check with a vaccine, like measles, Brilliant says, laying out a handful of possible scenarios.

  • Noymer says he suspects that after its “cataclysmic emergence,” COVID-19 may eventually fade into a common cold after a decade or so.

What’s next: We have to work with it as a virus that we will be contending with for years possibly,” Shaman says. “It doesn’t mean an effective vaccine or treatment won’t be developed. What it means is that holding out hope that we’re going to just get a vaccine and not doing anything else is not the level of preparation we need.”

  • Until we have an effective vaccine and better contact tracing and testing, Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Justin Lessler says public health measures should continue encouraging the use of face masks and social distancing.
  • If the disease does become endemic, Lessler says it’s likely to eventually become more like a childhood infection because adults will gradually build an immunity. And since children tend to have fewer complications, “it will no longer be the same sort of burden to health that it is now.”

The good news: Viruses can sometimes become milder with time, treatments are already becoming more effective and vaccines can be improved.

  • “Right now we are frightened, depressed and on our back heels. We will be able to conquer this disease,” Brilliant says. “It will be a matter of time and science.”

Trump claims COVID “will go away,” Biden calls his response disqualifying


The Final Presidential Debate: The Moments That Mattered - WSJ

President Trump repeated baseless claims at the final presidential debate that the coronavirus “will go away” and that the U.S. is “rounding the turn,” while Joe Biden argued that any president that has allowed 220,000 Americans to die on his watch should not be re-elected.

Why it matters: The U.S. is now averaging about 59,000 new coronavirus infections a day, and added another 73,000 cases on Thursday, according to the Covid Tracking Project. The country recorded 1,038 deaths due to the virus Thursday, the highest since late September.

What they’re saying: “More and more people are getting better,” Trump said. We have a problem that’s a worldwide problem. This is a worldwide problem. But I’ve been congratulated by the heads of many countries on what we’ve been able to do … It will go away and as I say, we’re rounding the turn. We’re rounding the corner. It’s going away.”

  • Trump later disputed warnings by public health officials in his administration that the virus would see a resurgence in the winter, claiming: “We’re not going to have a dark winter at all. We’re opening up our country.”

Biden responded: “Anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”

  • “What I would do is make sure we have everyone encouraged to wear a mask all the time. I would make sure we move in the direction of rapid testing, investing in rapid testing.”
  • “I would make sure that we set up national standards as to how to open up schools and open up businesses so they can be safe and give them the wherewithal, the financial resources, to be able to do that.”

The bottom line: Biden and Trump are living in two different pandemic realities, but Biden’s is the only one supported by health experts.

Go deeper: The pandemic is getting worse again

The Uncertain Future of the Medicare Trust Fund


Medicare trust fund

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased pressures on an already-stressed public health care financing system. This is especially evident when it comes to the financial health of Medicare’s Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund, which finances health care services related to hospital, skilled nursing facility, and hospice stays for Medicare beneficiaries.

In April, using pre-COVID-19 data, the Trustees of Social Security and Medicare projected that the HI Trust Fund would become insolvent in 2026 — meaning that Medicare Part A claims submitted by providers would not be fully reimbursed. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) made a similar projection when it issued its March 2020 baseline projections. In a September 2020 report, the CBO projected that the date of insolvency had moved up to 2024.

The pandemic has disrupted economic activity in the United States in several ways: a large and rapid rise in unemployment substantially reduced payments to the Trust Fund from payroll taxes, and hospitals experienced unprecedented financial stress from lost revenues because of a dramatic drop in admissions and procedures, along with new costs arising from the pandemic. One way that Congress provided relief to address these economic shocks was to make advance payments. Between $65 billion and $92 billion in advance payments were made to Medicare Part A providers that draw upon the HI Trust Fund. This increased claims on the Trust Fund in 2020 and lowers them for 2021 — assuming they are paid back in 2021. Together these economic dynamics create a situation that requires quick action to prevent insolvency; the margin for error is small.

The duration of the pandemic and the timing and size of an economic recovery remain highly uncertain. While unemployment has declined notably, from 14.7 percent in April to 8.4 percent in August, new spikes in COVID-19 cases across the country continue to dampen economic activity. The recent jobs report also suggested a slowing of employment recovery. Further, there is great uncertainty about the timing, availability, and effectiveness of a potential vaccine. As a result, we are quite unsure when payroll tax revenues will recover or to what degree hospital finances will recover.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently underscored the uncertainty when it issued the following assessment:

“The COVID-19 pandemic — like all pandemics — will come to an end. Of course, nobody knows when that will be. No one also knows whether there will be subsequent waves of the virus that trigger a nationwide resumption of strict social distancing protocols or whether a proven vaccine allows a swift return to pre-COVID norms. Thus, the trajectory of the recovery is the key unknown at this point.”

Together these forces create policy tensions. It is important to continue to support hospitals and nursing homes whose revenues have not yet recovered, and those that continue to incur unusual costs because they are still carrying heavy financial burdens stemming from COVID-19. At the same time state and federal health care financing programs are under extreme financial stress.

Recent legislation negotiated between Congress and the Trump administration would permit hospitals to request an extension for repaying advance payment loans and also reduce the interest rate. Together, these provisions recognize the continued financial stress and provide relief but also introduce new uncertainty. That is, by lengthening the repayment period and reducing the costs of carrying the loans it becomes less certain when they will be paid back in full and returned to the Trust Fund, making the solvency date of the Trust Fund less certain (as specified further in Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidance). In addition, this assumes that the full amounts of the loan will be paid back.

The timing of the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially unfortunate in terms of maintaining the Medicare HI Trust Fund’s solvency. The Trustees issued a warning that action was needed when insolvency was estimated to occur in 2026; it has now been pushed up to 2024. One way to address the uncertainty would be to make a fund transfer from general revenues to the Trust Fund in the amount of the outstanding loans, thereby removing any additional uncertainty around timing of repayment. This could help mitigate risks in a world with highly uncertain economic and epidemiological forecasts but would risk further increasing federal spending during an economic downturn.

Health Care in the 2020 Presidential Election: What’s at Stake


Health Care in the 2020 Presidential Election: Summary

As the presidential election draws near, we reflect on the meaningful differences in health policy priorities and platforms between the two candidates, which we’ve described more fully in our recent blog series.

While similarities exist in some areas — most notably prescription drug pricing and proposals to control health care costs — the most striking differences between the positions taken by President Donald Trump and those of former Vice President Joe Biden are on safeguarding access to affordable health care coverage, advancing health equity for those who have been historically disadvantaged by the current system, and managing the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The importance of maintaining or expanding access to affordable health care in the midst of a pandemic cannot be understated. Going into the crisis, 30 million Americans lacked health coverage, with many more potentially at risk as a result of the current economic downturn. And even for many with coverage, costs are a barrier to receiving care. Moreover, despite efforts by Congress and the Trump administration to ease the financial burden of COVID-19 testing and treatment, many people remain concerned about costs; examples of charges for COVID-related medical expenses are not uncommon.

In this context, President Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the most important signal of his position on health care. The administration’s legal challenge of the law will be considered by the Supreme Court this fall. With no Trump proposal for a replacement to the ACA, if the Court strikes the law in its entirety or in part, many voters cannot be certain that their health coverage will be secure. By undermining the ACA — the vast law that protects Americans with preexisting health conditions and makes health coverage more affordable through a system of premium subsidies and cost-sharing assistance — the president has put coverage for millions at risk.

Trump issued an executive order to preserve preexisting condition protections. If the ACA remains intact, the order is redundant. But if the ACA is repealed by the Court, the order is meaningless because it lacks the legal underpinning and legislative framework to take effect.

In contrast, Vice President Biden has proposed expanding coverage through the ACA by adding a public option, enhancing subsidies to make health care more affordable, filling the gap for low-income families living in states that did not expand Medicaid, and giving people with employer health plans the option to enroll in marketplace coverage and take advantage of premium subsidies. For sure, if Biden is elected, many policy details must be ironed out; passing legislation in a deeply divided Congress is never easy. Despite these challenges, Biden proposes expanding health coverage rather than revoking it.

Just as COVID-19 has exposed gaps in health coverage and affordability, it also has highlighted the poor health outcomes stemming from racial and ethnic inequities in the U.S. health system. Communities of color — Black, Hispanic, and American Indian and Alaska Native people — have higher rates of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths compared to white people. These disparities are a result of myriad factors, many of which are deeply rooted in structural racism. The candidates’ plans to address health disparities and advance health equity set them apart.

The ACA has played a critical role in reducing disparities in access to health care and narrowed the uninsured rate among Black and Hispanic people compared to white people. Medicaid expansion has been key to improving racial equity. Repealing the ACA, as President Trump has sought to do, would reverse these gains. Even beyond repealing the ACA, this administration has pursued policies intended to limit Medicaid eligibility — for example, by permitting states to impose work requirements and other restrictions that would lead to fewer people covered. These measures and others are already having an impact; coverage gains achieved through the ACA have eroded since 2016. Health care for legal immigrants also has declined as a result of policies like the recently finalized “public charge” rule, which seems also to have caused an increase in uninsurance among children. The administration has further revoked ACA antidiscrimination and civil rights protections for LGBTQ people.

In addition to restoring and expanding coverage under the ACA, Vice President Biden has pledged to address health disparities and reinstate antidiscrimination protections. He has a proposal to advance racial equity not just in health care but across the economy. If successful, his plan could address underlying factors contributing to higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths among people of color, as well as their higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and other health conditions tied to social determinants of health.

Finally, the candidates differ deeply in their approaches to the coronavirus pandemic. President Trump has failed to orchestrate a national strategy for combating coronavirus and has routinely undermined accepted public health advice with respect to mask-wearing and social distancing. He has delegated to the states responsibility for controlling the pandemic when it is clear that the virus travels freely across the country, regardless of state borders. Lax states can negate the efforts of those states sacrificing to bring the pandemic under control. Vice President Biden has strongly signaled, though his personal conduct and rhetoric, that he intends more aggressive federal leadership in fighting the virus.

In a recent Commonwealth Fund survey of likely voters, control of the pandemic and covering preexisting conditions were very important factors in choosing a president. In seven battleground states, protections for preexisting conditions outweighed COVID-19 and health costs as the leading health care issue voters are considering. In all 10 battleground states included in the survey, Vice President Biden was viewed as the more likely candidate to address these critical health care issues.

Perhaps since the Civil War, the United States has never faced starker choices in a presidential election. In health and other areas, there are profound differences in the positions of President Trump and former Vice President Biden. Voting this November is literally a matter of life and death for the American people.

Coronavirus hospitalizations are on the rise


Share of hospital beds occupied
by COVID-19 hospitalizations

States shown from first date of reported data, from March 17 to Oct. 17, 2020

  • In the last two weeks hospitalizations are:
Coronavirus hospitalizations are on the rise - Axios

Coronavirus hospitalizations are increasing in 39 states, and are at or near their all-time peak in 16.

The big picture: No state is anywhere near the worst-case situation of not having enough capacity to handle its COVID-19 outbreak. But rising hospitalization rates are a sign that things are getting worse, at a dangerous time, and a reminder that this virus can do serious harm.

By the numbers: 39 states saw an increase over the past two weeks in the percentage of available hospital beds occupied by coronavirus patients.

  • Wisconsin is faring the worst, with 9.4% of the state’s beds occupied by COVID patients.
  • Sixteen states are at or near the highest hospitalization rates they’ve seen at any point in the pandemic.

Yes, but: The all-time peak of coronavirus hospitalizations happened in the spring, when 40% of New Jersey’s beds were occupied by COVID patients. Thankfully, even the the worst-performing states today are still a far cry from that.

Between the lines: These numbers, combined with the nationwide surge in new infections, confirm that the pandemic in the U.S. is getting worse — just as cold weather begins to set in in some parts of the country, which experts have long seen as a potentially dangerous inflection point.

  • They also suggest that most parts of the country won’t need to pause or scale back non-coronavirus treatments, as hospitals did in the spring when no one was quite sure how bad things could get.
  • In rural areas, however, even a modestly sized outbreak can strain local hospital capacity.

Targeted lockdowns are the new way to control the coronavirus


As a new wave of coronavirus cases hits the U.S. and Europe, governments are shifting away from total shutdowns toward more geographically targeted lockdowns to stifle the virus’ spread.

Why it matters: Precision shutdowns can slow emerging outbreaks while lessening the overall economic impact of the response. But they risk a backlash from those who are targeted, and may not be strong enough to keep a highly contagious virus under control.

Driving the news: New York City tried to control a flare-up of new coronavirus cases this month by instituting partial shutdowns on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, curtailing economic and social activity in areas harder hit by the virus while continuing reopening elsewhere.

  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday instituted a similar response for the U.K., putting in place a three-tier escalating system of lockdowns on a city or regional basis.
  • “We don’t want to go back to another national lockdown,” Johnson told the British Parliament. But “we can’t let the virus rip.”

What’s new: Some early research indicates more-targeted lockdowns can effectively smother outbreaks while leaving broader city and regional economies mostly intact.

  • paper published by a team of economists in July found a more precise shutdown focused on places where viral spread was most common could have reduced economic losses in New York by as much as 50% compared to a uniform lockdown.
  • As long as new outbreaks are still in the relatively low flare-up stage, targeted lockdowns can efficiently cut off the oxygen to new spread. That seems to be the case in New York, where data released on Thursday indicates transmission has slowed in six of the ZIP codes that had been the focus of targeted lockdowns.

Yes, but: Individuals move around a city, and some epidemiologists worry that over time cases will break out of targeted lockdown areas and spark a wider outbreak.

  • preprint paper published in August found people were willing to travel outside of lockdown areas to get services they needed, potentially spreading the virus along the way.
  • That was especially true for religious services. The paper found that during March, even as the total number of visits to churches declined, between 10% and 30% of churches nationwide saw increases in attendance. Those who were motivated to go simply went to churches outside of restricted areas.
  • The small, seemingly geographically isolated outbreaks officials are focusing on may actually be the first signs that a city or region’s control measures simply aren’t working. As a result, “targeted measures can end up chasing the outbreak wider and wider, to the point where restrictions are equivalent to a broader blanket policy,” epidemiologist Adam Kucharski told Wired.

What to watch: A targeted lockdown is inevitably going to appear to single out specific groups of people, which risks creating a backlash that can undermine public support for long-term control measures.

  • That’s already been the case in New York, where Orthodox Jewish communities have taken to the street to protest targeted lockdowns in their neighborhoods.
  • In New York’s Queens borough, stores and restaurants in one mall have been ordered closed, while those in an adjacent mall are still open, simply because of which side of the line they fall on.
  • The experience of COVID-19 has already been a deeply unfair one, with both the direct health effects and indirect economic costs falling on those who can least afford it, and focused lockdowns will exacerbate that unfairness.

The bottom line: Targeted lockdowns can throttle the virus while minimizing economic damage, at least in the short term. But one thing we’ve learned is that if COVID-19 gets out of control in one place, it may be only a matter of time before it ends up everywhere else.

Op-Ed: Great Barrington vs John Snow Is a False Choice

Dueling petitions about what to do about COVID19 — the Great Barrington Declaration and the John Snow Memorandum — are circulating online amongst physicians, public policy makers, and academics. I am not against policy statements, consensus building, or even petitions, but both of these documents trouble me. They are the dropping anchors when we should be open to sailing where the wind blows.

Let’s start with the obvious. SARS-CoV-2 kills people. When infected, older people and those with serious comorbidities are more likely to die than younger people. This age-gradient (extra risk of death among older people) is steep. At the same time, dramatic interventions to halt SARS-CoV-2 — such as closing schools, business, travel, economic activity, normal hospital functions — also kills people. Some of these deaths occur immediately — a person with a heart attack is dissuaded from seeking care, an uncontrolled tuberculosis epidemic in a low income nation, or even depression and suicide — and some of the downsides take a long time to kill: loss of upward mobility and economic potential for the next generation will shorten lives.

Downsides to lockdowns can also be hard to predict. Harms may include destabilizing democratic governments, civil unrest, and political turmoil. The goal of policy in each and every place on earth is to minimize the total harm to the people who live there. It may vary by place and even moment based on viral spread, age of population, safety nets (or lack there-of), and a number of other factors, including values and preferences.

First, consider the Great Barrington Declaration. It’s just 540 words long, and outlines a strategy of focused protection. Based on the idea that the risk of death varies dramatically with age, it proposes we shield and protect the vulnerable while allowing the young, and others at lower risk, to get on with life as normally as possible. It offers some ideas about how to guard nursing homes, which have experienced massive causalities, and endorses simple measures like handwashing. It nods to the idea that the herd immunity threshold (fraction of people in a population who have become immune before viral spread abates) is not a fixed value: it depends on the way in which populations mix and interact and on simple measures we choose to take, such as improved hygiene. It recommends that schools, universities, bars, and restaurants be allowed to open fully.

Limitations to the statement are its lack of guidance as to who exactly the vulnerable are, how they should shield themselves, and the fact that it lumps together very different things — such as bars and schools. Open bars can be replaced with drinking beers in the backyard with a friend seated at a distance with little loss of pleasure, but education, particularly for the poor, is one of the few ladders left in American society for a better life, a place to feed children, and a vehicle for detecting abuse. Another limitation is its lack of acknowledgement that in moments of explosive spread, temporary measures likely need to be taken to prevent, for example, hospitals from overflowing. Surely, policy responses must depend on the specifics of the time and place.

The John Snow Memorandum was filed in response. It’s longer, at 930 words. It calls Great Barrington’s suggestions to achieve immunity through naturally occurring infections a “dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence.” Instead it advocates for continued restrictions, along with social programs to minimize the harms of these restrictions. Signers believe this would lower viral spread to very low levels where contact tracing can be utilized to eliminate outbreaks. Finally, the strategy ends when we have an effective vaccine, which it predicts will occur in the coming months.

Limitations to the Snow memorandum include: How exactly will one create social programs to minimize the harms, and what exactly will those programs look like? What will you do in places like the U.S. where even basic economic stimulus talks have stalled? Millions of people are entering poverty in this country, and many more may face starvation globally. How precisely and quickly will you help them? Those who criticize the Barrington authors for not providing a plan to protect the vulnerable from the virus, must criticize the Snow authors for not explaining how they will shield the vulnerable from the harms of restrictions. Additionally, calling for contact tracing is easy, but practically, this faces severe limitations in a nation like the U.S. when many individuals contacted are reluctant to share information. Here too the Snow memorandum falls short on specifics.

The declaration and memorandum are both online and taking signatures, but is this how complex policy should be decided? I find the idea that the fate of the globe will hinge on who garners the most signatures to be Kafkaesque.

Worse, the dueling petitions further divide us, when we should be talking together and working together. It does not escape me that many forces seek to tie these petitions to the Republican and Democratic parties — a dangerous but growing movement to equate pandemic policy with politics.

Signing these petitions may already be a form of identity or virtue signaling, letting others in our political circles know that we are on the virtuous team. Moreover, having signed them, we may be less likely to be willing to change our mind: To think one moment “we ought to open universities,” and the next moment, “let’s consider alternative policies, if hospitalizations rise.”

Instead of these divisive petitions, surely there are things we can all agree to. There is a hierarchy of importance to activities and events in life. Bars, strip clubs, conferences for work — fall on the low end. Schools for young kids, particularly public schools in poor or minority communities, and hospitals are among the most important. There are simple interventions that we can test in controlled trials and implement in the meantime, such as face-shields, plexiglass barriers, widespread hand sanitizer, and masks. We must prioritize schools over bars, and policy must remain individualized (to specific nation/state/county and local preferences) and fluid — able to scale up and down, as we balance the harms of the virus with the harms of closure.

Finally, we have to separate rules from behavior. You can allow restaurants to open, but it won’t help the economy if no one eats there. And, you can close everything, but you won’t slow the spread if people have backyard barbecues with dozens of people. What are the best ways to encourage desired behavior? That’s a harder problem.

Finally, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What works in a remote island nation with a strong safety net, that can cut off contact with the rest of the world, may not work in a nation with hundreds of millions who face the threat of starvation if the economy grinds to a halt.

We need fewer pompously named petitions and instead, a COVID policy response that engages with people who hold views and perspectives different than our own; which acknowledges the lives lost from the virus and lost through the response; which is nimble and responsive to new data, new facts, and new perspectives; which engages values and preferences and local norms and the messy reality of the world as it is, not as we wish it were.

And, almost most importantly, one which is bipartisan, spanning political ideology, which unites rather than divides us.

And no, I don’t need your signature.

Jobless claims increase to 898,000, a sign the recovery could be stalling

The number of new unemployment claims jumped last week, the latest sign of the toll the coronavirus pandemic continues to take on the economy.

States across the country processed 898,000 new unemployment claims, up more than 50,000 from the previous week, the largest increase in first-time jobless applications since August.

These numbers marked another unfortunate milestone: The number of unemployment claims has been above the pre-pandemic one-week record of 695,000 for 30 weeks now.

Claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, for gig and self-employed workers, went down, to 373,000 from about 460,000.

And the total number of people on all unemployment programs dropped slightly, to 25.3 million for the last week of September, down from 25.5 million the previous week.

The number of new claims has fallen greatly from its peak in the spring, but economists say they are concerned that the number remains so high.

“No question this report casts doubt on the recovery,” said Andrew Chamberlain, the chief economist at Glassdoor. “This is a sign covid is still dealing heavy blows to the labor market. We’re nowhere near having the virus under control.”

The news comes amid a string of poor economic news, with headlines punctuated with reports of large companies announcing layoffs in recent weeks.

These companies include Disney, insurance company Allstate, American and United Airlines, Aetna, and Chevron.

“It’s not coming down quickly,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at the jobs site ZipRecruiter. “It’s unclear how quickly we can recover. We’re likely to see additional layoffs and high numbers of unemployment for the foreseeable future.”

Pollak said there are indications that consumer spending has fallen since the expiration of government aid programs — another warning sign about more economic trouble ahead.

Many economists, including those at the Federal Reserve, have urged Congress and the White House to pass a new package of aid. House Democrats passed a $2.2 trillion plan earlier this month that Republicans have declined to advance, while Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has been pushing a $1.8 trillion plan.

Still, there are signs that Senate Republicans would not be willing to accept that plan, either. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that he would not bring the plan to the floor, saying Senate Republicans believed the deal should top out at $1.5 trillion.

One sign of the severity of the economic crisis is the growing number of people who are transitioning to Pandemic Emergency unemployment compensation — for those who hit the maximum number of time that their state plans allow for. That number grew 818,000, according to the most recent figures, from the end of September.

Questions remain about the integrity of the data, as well.

A number of issues have complicated a straightforward read of the weekly release, such as issues with fraud, which are believed to have driven up these numbers an unknown amount, and backlogs in states like California. The country’s largest state typically accounts for about 20-28 percent of the country’s total weekly claims, but has put its claims processing on hold temporarily.

Instead, the Department of Labor is using a placeholder number for the state — 226,000, the number of new initial claims in the state from mid-September.

But some economists like Chamberlain are critical of this method.

“The idea of cutting and pasting the data from a state is so absurd,” he said. “They could at least use a model. But instead they’re carrying over the number. It’s quite a crisis.”

Quirks in the new filing process require people to apply for traditional unemployment and get rejected before applying for PUA — a source of potential duplicate claims.

Economists have been warning for months that the unemployment rate, which has improved steadily since its nadir in April, is at risk of getting worse without further government intervention.

States that saw significant jumps in unemployment claims last week include Indiana, Alaska, Arizona, Illinois, New Mexico and Washington.

Still, some economists have found reasons to hope. Pollak said job postings on ZipRecruiter have topped 10 million for the first time since the start of the pandemic, equaling a number last seen in January.

The jobs are different now, she said — fewer tech and business jobs and more warehousing jobs, temporary opportunities and contracting work.

Cartoon – Social Distancing Overreaction

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