Although other wealthy countries have higher overall coronavirus mortality rates than the United States, the U.S. death rate since May is unrivaled among its peers, according to a new study published in JAMA.
Between the lines: After the first brutal wave of outbreaks, other countries did much better than the U.S. at learning from their mistakes and preventing more of their population from dying.
Why it matters: “If the U.S. had comparable death rates with most high-mortality countries beginning May 10, it would have had 44,210 to 104,177 fewer deaths,” the authors conclude.
- Excess deaths have followed a similar pattern: The hardest-hit European countries had similar or higher rates of excess deaths of all causes to the U.S. early on, but these fell much lower than the America did after the first wave.
Yes, but: Death rates are not static, as this study proves, and outbreaks in several European countries have taken a turn for the worse lately.
The D.C. Health Department is trying to jump-start contact tracing efforts around the White House’s coronavirus outbreak. Tracing has been inadequate so far even as cases spread deeper into the city, Axios’ Marisa Fernandez writes.
The big picture: The White House has decided not to move forward with recommended public health protocols of contact tracing and testing since President Trump tested positive for the virus.
The state of play: Tracing has been done for people who had direct contact with Trump, White House spokesman Judd Deere told the Washington Post.
- Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends tracking the hundreds of people who were at the event.
On Capitol Hill, there’s also no formalized contact tracing program in place, even as lawmakers themselves test positive.
- Two infected staffers in Rep. Doug Lamborn’s (R-Colo.) office were told to not disclose to roommates they may have been exposed, WSJ reports.
The bottom line: The White House’s refusal to contact trace is “a missed opportunity to prevent additional spread,” Emily Wroe, a co-leader of a contact-tracing team at Partners in Health, told Nature.
In mid-June, the post-coronavirus reopening of America was in full swing, even as the number of new cases was rising fast. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was key to President Trump’s grand reopening, providing local officials with guidance on how to open up safely. But in private officials admitted the country had failed to track the spread of the deadly virus and that the agency thus lacked the vital information it needed to offer such guidance, Forbes can now reveal.
Disease tracing systems across U.S. states had proven ineffective in furnishing the agency with adequate data on how to curtail the deadly virus, the agency had conceded. The number of people who needed tracking had become simply unmanageable, the CDC said, writing: “Most jurisdictions have been forced to abandon monitoring because the number of monitorees exceeds the capacity. . . . As a result, critical data for CDC to inform and guide public health response to Covid-19 is unavailable.”
The CDC’s admittance of the national failure came in a contract description obtained via FOIA request, from a deal signed off in a bid to fix the problem. The health agency gave Mitre Corp., a much-trusted nonprofit contractor that Forbes recently revealed to be heavily involved in secretive FBI and DHS snooping projects, $16.5 million to build out a different kind of surveillance system, dubbed Sara Alert. The hope was that rather than only work for singular states, it could be a national tool to effectively track Americans exposed to the virus, one that had by then infected 2.5 million in the United States. The Mitre-led project was titled: “Building an Enduring National Capability to Contain Covid-19.”
The confession came a day before President Trump claimed the disease was “dying out,” and a month after he’d unveiled his Opening Up America Again plan. In May, the CDC was offering guidance to states on how to follow that plan, even though it knew it didn’t have the requisite data. Since then, the nationwide reopening has continued apace, despite warnings from the likes of Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about the risks of opening too soon.
Meanwhile, though they hadn’t openly stated just how ineffective Covid-19 tracing systems had been, CDC officials were stressing why good data on transmission was vital to the country’s response to the pandemic. “I think it’s important that we really have good data at a granular level,” said CDC director Robert Redfield, during a briefing on June 25.
In the same briefing, he noted the agency had handed out $10.2 billion to states “to augment their testing, contact tracing and isolation capability,” whilst bemoaning that “for decades, this nation has underinvested in the core capabilities of public health,” including in data analytics for tracking diseases. CDC has been splashing money on such data analytics tools in its fight against the coronavirus, as Forbes revealed in multiple multimillion-dollar contracts with Palantir, a Silicon Valley giant that has the backing of Trump ally Peter Thiel. But months after signing off on those deals, vital data was still lacking.
President Trump and the CDC are now coming under fire for their push to reopen when they didn’t have adequate information on Covid-19’s spread. Senator Ron Wyden told Forbes it was now clear the health agency was ill-equipped to trace Covid-19 outbreaks, “raising the question of whether the Trump Administration willfully ignored this information while recommending schools and other sectors reopen.”
“As nearly 200,000 Americans have lost their lives, Donald Trump still has no semblance of a national plan to test and trace,” Senator Wyden added.
The CDC hasn’t responded to requests for comment.
Sara to the rescue?
The CDC is now banking on Mitre’s Sara Alert to save the country’s Covid-19 surveillance efforts. Built for free by the nonprofit contractor (one that receives between $1.5 billion and $2 billion every year from Congress), Sara Alert allows public health officials to enroll and monitor individuals and households who are either sick or at risk of being infected. Those who are enrolled are then asked to enter their symptoms daily via text, email, phone or a website. This should help healthcare bodies determine who needs care and who needs to be isolated.
As of July, Sara Alert had only been deployed in a handful of states—including Arkansas, Maine, Pennsylvania and Vermont—and it’s unclear how widely it’s in use today. Nor has any date been set for the national rollout. Mitre had provided neither comment nor updated data at the time of publication.
Those who have put Sara Alert into action have been impressed. They include the Arkansas Department of Health. “This system allows us to more readily identify secondary cases, really establishing a better handle on social clusters, which has been a challenge,” Dr. Mike Cima, chief epidemiologist, told Forbes earlier this year.
Like Dr. Cima, the CDC wants to use Sara Alert in perpetuity for tracking future epidemics. Once refined and scaled out, it will be the de facto national track-and-trace system for diseases, according to the contract description. But before that, a pilot project has to be completed, with an additional five jurisdictions to be added before any national rollout can take place.
Mitre’s been key to various Covid-19 efforts. In March, the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office tasked it with developing systems to better support local lawmakers with information on the impact of “non-pharmaceutical” measures like social distancing and mask-wearing. And at the start of this month, HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response handed Mitre a $24.5 million contract for a project entitled: “Strategic Engagement, Education, Outreach and Analytics Support for Covid-19 Convalescent Plasma.” When drawn from those who’ve fought off Covid-19, that plasma contains antibodies that could be transfused to patients who need a boost in fighting the virus. In late August, Trump announced emergency authorization for the use of this plasma to treat infected individuals, in lieu of any vaccine.
The number of infected per day has fallen since peaks of above 70,000 in July, but the figure remains higher in September than in the months leading up to and including June. The Sara Alert should provide better data on just how big a catastrophe Covid-19 has become for the country and how the administration’s response has ameliorated (or exacerbated) the eventual impact.
Private calls and unpublished reports leave many Americans and local officials in the dark.
This is a news analysis from the Center for Public Integrity.
From behind a podium and a black mask, Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum faced the press. It was late July, and one percent of his city had tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
A reporter had a question: What did Bynum have to say about the newly leaked White House Coronavirus Task Force document that recommended Tulsa close bars and limit gatherings to 10 people?
The “alleged White House document” was “never officially presented to us … by either the federal government or the state government,” the mayor said. But he was familiar with the document’s recommendations, having read them online. “All of that remains very much on the table.”
Indeed, the White House reports — chock full of local data and recommendations — would be useful for many city leaders, many of whom still don’t know what percentage of coronavirus tests in their metro areas are positive. But Bynum and others didn’t have that information. The White House was sending each state’s report directly to its governor and a select group of other officials instead of distributing the documents widely or posting them publicly.
The nation’s coronavirus response must be “locally executed, state managed, federally supported,” White House officials have said repeatedly. In fact, much of their public health advice has been secret, segmented and inconsistent. Federal guidance isn’t always reaching the local officials it’s meant to support. And scattershot messages mean that average citizens weighing visits to grandparents or countless other daily risks have limited — and sometimes conflicting — information from the officials they are expected to trust.
THE SUMMER OF SECRET WARNINGS
In late June, the White House Coronavirus Task Force began sending reports to governors showing how their states were faring in the pandemic. Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader of the task force, held the documents aloft at a press conference July 8, but they weren’t distributed to reporters. Birx said several states were in the coronavirus “red zone” — with high numbers of cases — and should take special precautions, but Vice President Mike Pence delivered the primary message of the press conference: Reopen schools.
Later that month, the Center for Public Integrity obtained a copy of the compiled report for all 50 states and published it, revealing that 18 states were in the red zone. The next morning, presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway suggested Public Integrity, a 30-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom, had nefarious motives for disclosing public information: “I don’t know about that particular document, and respectfully the Center for Public Integrity is an outside organization that I’m sure doesn’t support the president’s election,” she told reporters.
A spokesman for Pence, Devin O’Malley, later acknowledged the document’s authenticity. But the White House still didn’t release the reports and stayed mum on why it was keeping them secret. Weeks later, White House spokesman Judd Deere sent an email to Public Integrity that didn’t quite answer the question: “The White House Coronavirus Task Force is providing tailored recommendations weekly to every governor and health commissioner for their states and counties,” he wrote. “Local leaders are best positioned to make on-the-ground decisions for their communities … The United States will not be shut down again.”
Public health experts say the reports should be public. “This is a pandemic,” Harvard epidemiologist Bill Hanage told Public Integrity in July. “You cannot hide it under the carpet.”
Dr. David Rubin, who has provided epidemiological modeling to the task force as director of PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, is also befuddled as to why the reports are secret. “I think we’d be in a lot different place today if we had national standards around certain things,” he said. But he doesn’t blame Birx or other scientists working with the White House. “They’re playing the hand that they were dealt.”
CUSTOM-MADE OR CONFUSING?
In mid-March, a 4×6” blue-and-white postcard appeared in mailboxes across the nation, emblazoned with “President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America” and both the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logos. On the back were a dozen lines of advice, including: “Even if you are young, or otherwise healthy, you are at risk and your activities can increase the risk for others.”
The postcard appeared in the days when the president, vice president, Birx and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci together updated the nation daily on television about the state of the coronavirus. The administration had already pressed the mute button on the CDC (though the agency posted guidance online, it wasn’t giving the regular briefings it had in past epidemics), but the White House was still attempting to send out a cohesive public health message.
Then, as the economy cratered, Trump shifted gears to reopening and pushed responsibility for the pandemic response to the states. After decades of relying on national entities for public health advice and regulation — the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, the surgeon general and others — America handed responsibility for infectious-disease containment to the states.
Doing so allows governors to respond to their unique virus conditions, defenders of the administration said. The U.S. needs “a decentralized approach” said Heritage Foundation visiting fellow Doug Badger, because states have police powers to enforce lockdowns and because they are “better suited to responding to this pandemic, where there is great variation between and within states. […] There’s no one-size-fits-all policy.” Indeed, epidemics unfold at different rates in different geographies, and it makes sense to adjust advice based on whether people live close together or far apart, and how widely the virus is spreading in their communities.
But experts say that even though some public health warnings should be specific to local areas, many messages, such as the need to wear masks, should be nationally consistent. Contradictory guidance undermines trust, and the virus exploits the communities with weakest defenses. “Diseases don’t care about national or state borders,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, Science Communication Lead at the Covid Tracking Project, a volunteer organization collecting pandemic data. “You can’t look at this in a fragmented way otherwise we’re going to continue this fragmented progress.”
“Diseases don’t care about national or state borders.”
JESSICA MALATY RIVERA, SCIENCE COMMUNICATION LEAD AT THE COVID TRACKING PROJECT
In addition, Trump’s desire for state leadership has been selective. After weeks of insisting on a governor-led response, in July Trump Tweeted, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” and threatened to withhold federal funding from school districts that did not open their doors.
WHO DO YOU LISTEN TO?
Splitting public health advice into pieces means that some of those fragments don’t line up. On a private call with state and local leaders earlier this month, Birx said colleges should be testing students as they return to campus, and even be prepared to do 5,000 or 10,000 tests in one day. But the CDC hasn’t endorsed such testing because its effectiveness hasn’t been “systematically studied.”
Nowhere has the fractured advice been more evident than on the topic of how to reopen K-12 schools. The CDC in May issued guidelines, but later replaced them with a more lenient version after the president objected. After insisting schools open their doors, Trump acknowledged that some hot spots may need to delay opening. CDC director Robert Redfield said that schools should go virtual if their areas have more than 5 percent test positivity — a threshold that only 17 states and the District of Columbia met as of Aug. 26 according to a New York Times tracker. Birx has stayed noticeably quiet on the topic. The secret reports from her task force recently endorsed West Virginia’s school reopening guidelines, which say schools must switch to virtual learning if daily new cases in a county exceed 25 per 100,000 residents.
All this leaves local officials with a dizzying set of choices and advice, stuck making the decisions others don’t want blame for.
“This really stinks for local health departments,” said Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “Everybody wants to relinquish authority to the local health department. The authority ends up coming and going depending on how hard it is to address the issue. And it just is not fair to them.”
All this has meant that in the first major pandemic in a century, despite the feeble and disjointed efforts of the White House to corral them, the United States were not united, not even in the messages sent to citizens. That has some experts worried about what’s to come in the fall, when the reluctance of some to be vaccinated could mean the nation fails to reach the threshold for herd immunity that would protect everyone. Rivera, of the Covid Tracking Project, is “absolutely terrified” about that possibility; united messaging is key when trying to help people understand the scientific rigor behind a vaccine, she said. “All it takes is one rumor to completely shift public health behavior.”
HELP FROM THE FOURTH ESTATE
In Tulsa, Bynum can now see all the White House reports. That’s because Public Integrity published a recent Oklahoma report, and local journalists pressed the governor on why he hadn’t handed it out. Last week he agreed to post all of the state’s White House reports.
In other parts of the country, people still don’t know what White House experts are saying about their states or counties. The federal map of red, yellow and green zones — an easy-to-understand stoplight that could help people quickly decide whether to cross state lines, for example — remains off limits to the public. President Trump resumed daily coronavirus briefings this month, but Birx remains relegated to private calls and local press briefings on her treks across states. The CDC continues its silence; Fauci is recovering from a vocal cord surgery and can’t speak.
For more than a century, Congress has given the federal government a prominent role in helping stop the spread of disease from state to state. Americans can debate whether governors or the president should make the big decisions in this particular pandemic. But neither statute nor scientific wisdom puts limits on the federal government’s ability to dole out health advice. And there is no national security reason to make such advice secret.