Four reasons experts say coronavirus cases are dropping in the United States

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In recent weeks, U.S. coronavirus case data — long a closely-watched barometer of the pandemic’s severity — has sent some encouraging signals: The rate of newly recorded infections is plummeting from coast to coast and the worst surge yet is finally relenting. But scientists are split on why, exactly, it is happening.

Some point to the quickening pace of coronavirus vaccine administration, some say it’s because of the natural seasonal ebb of respiratory viruses and others chalk it up to social distancing measures.

And every explanation is appended with two significant caveats: The country is still in a bad place, continuing to notch more than 90,000 new cases every day, and recent progress could still be imperiled, either by new fast-spreading virus variants or by relaxed social distancing measures.

The rolling daily average of new infections in the United States hit its all-time high of 248,200 on Jan. 12, according to data gathered and analyzed by The Washington Post. Since then, the number has dropped every day, hitting 91,000 on Sunday, its lowest level since November.

A former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed the idea that Americans are now seeing the effect of their good behavior — not of increased vaccinations.

“I don’t think the vaccine is having much of an impact at all on case rates,” Tom Frieden said in an interview Sunday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” “It’s what we’re doing right: staying apart, wearing masks, not traveling, not mixing with others indoors.”

However, Frieden noted, the country’s numbers are still higher than they were during the spring and summer virus waves and “we’re nowhere near out of the woods.”

“We’ve had three surges,” Frieden said. “Whether or not we have a fourth surge is up to us, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.”

The current CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, said in a round of TV interviews Sunday morning that behavior will be crucial to averting yet another spike in infections and that it is far too soon for states to be rescinding mask mandates. Walensky also noted the declining numbers but said cases are still “more than two-and-a-half-fold times what we saw over the summer.”

“It’s encouraging to see these trends coming down, but they’re coming down from an extraordinarily high place,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, publisher of a popular coronavirus model, are among those who attribute declining cases to vaccines and the virus’s seasonality, which scientists have said may allow it to spread faster in colder weather.

In the IHME’s most recent briefing, published Friday, the authors write that cases have “declined sharply,” dropping nearly 50 percent since early January.

“Two [factors] are driving down transmission,” the briefing says. “1) the continued scale-up of vaccination helped by the fraction of adults willing to accept the vaccine reaching 71 percent, and 2) declining seasonality, which will contribute to declining transmission potential from now until August.”

The model predicts 152,000 more covid-19 deaths by June 1, but projects that the vaccine rollout will save 114,000 lives.

In the past week, the country collectively administered 1.62 million vaccine doses per day, according to The Washington Post’s analysis of state and federal data. It was the best week yet for the shots, topping even President Biden’s lofty goal of 1.5 million vaccinations per day.

Nearly 40 million people have received at least their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, about 12 percent of the U.S. population. Experts have said that 70 percent to 90 percent of people need to have immunity, either through vaccination or prior infection, to quash the pandemic. And some leading epidemiologists have agreed with Frieden, saying that not enough people are vaccinated to make such a sizable dent in the case rates.

A fourth, less optimistic explanation has also emerged: More new cases are simply going undetected. On Twitter, Eleanor Murray, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, said an increased focus on vaccine distribution and administration could be making it harder to get tested.

“I worry that it’s at least partly an artifact of resources being moved from testing to vaccination,” Murray said of the declines.

The Covid Tracking Project, which compiles and publishes data on coronavirus testing, has indeed observed a steady recent decrease in tests, from more than 2 million per day in mid-January to about 1.6 million a month later. The project’s latest update blames this dip on “a combination of reduced demand as well as reduced availability or accessibility of testing.”

“Demand for testing may have dropped because fewer people are sick or have been exposed to infected individuals, but also perhaps because testing isn’t being promoted as heavily,” the authors write.

They note that a backlog of tests over the holidays probably produced an artificial spike of reported tests in early January, but that even when adjusted, it’s still “unequivocally the wrong direction for a country that needs to understand the movements of the virus during a slow vaccine rollout and the spread of multiple new variants.”

Where most experts agree: The mutated variants of the virus pose perhaps the biggest threat to the country’s recovery. One is spreading rapidly and another, known as B.1.351, contains a mutation that may help the virus partly evade natural and vaccine-induced antibodies.

Fewer than 20 cases have been reported in the United States, but a critically ill man in France underscores the variant’s potentially dangerous consequences. The 58-year-old had a mild coronavirus infection in September and the B.1.351 strain reinfected him four months later.

No matter what’s causing the current downturn in new infections, experts have urged Americans to avoid complacency.

“Masks, distancing, ventilation, avoiding gatherings, getting vaccinated when eligible. These are the tools we have to continue the long trip down the tall mountain,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, said on Twitter. “The variants may throw us a curve ball, but if we keep driving down transmission we can get to a better place.

“I got the vaccine…now what can I do?”

https://mailchi.mp/85f08f5211a4/the-weekly-gist-february-5-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

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A family member in her 70s called with the great news that she received her first dose of the COVID vaccine this week. She mentioned that she was hoping to plan a vacation in the spring with a friend who had also been vaccinated, but her doctor told her it would still be safest to hold off booking travel for now: “I was surprised she wasn’t more positive about it. It’s the one thing I’ve been looking forward to for months, if I was lucky enough to get the shot.” 

It’s not easy to find concrete expert guidance for what it is safe (or safer?) to do after receiving the COVID vaccine. Of course, patients need to wait a minimum of two weeks after receiving their second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to develop full immunity.

But then what? Yes, we all need to continue to wear masks in public, since vaccines haven’t been proven to reduce or eliminate COVID transmission—and new viral variants up the risk of transmission. But should vaccinated individuals feel comfortable flying on a plane? Visiting family? Dining indoors? Finally going to the dentist?
 
It struck us that the tone of much of the available guidance speaks to public health implications, rather than individual decision-making. Take this tweet from CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. A person over 65 asked her if she could drive to visit her grandchildren, whom she hasn’t seen for a year, two months after receiving her second shot. Walensky replied, “Even if you’ve been vaccinated, we still recommend against traveling until we have more data to suggest vaccination limits the spread of COVID-19.” 

From a public health perspective, this may be correct, but for an individual, it falls flat. This senior has followed all the rules—if the vaccine doesn’t enable her to safely see her grandchild, what will? It’s easy to see how the expert guidance could be interpreted as “nothing will change, even after you’ve been vaccinated.”

Debates about masking showed us that in our individualistic society, public health messaging about slowing transmission and protecting others sadly failed to make many mask up.

The same goes for vaccines: most Americans are motivated to get their vaccine so that they personally don’t die, and so they can resume a more normal life, not by the altruistic desire to slow the spread of COVID in the community and achieve “herd immunity”. 

In addition to focusing on continued risk, educating Americans on how the vaccinated can make smart decisions will motivate as many people as possible to get their shots.

How soon can we achieve immunity through vaccinations?

Over the weekend I realized that my son Henry, born in June 2019, has lived more than half of his life in the pandemic era. He’s too young to be cognizant of it, of course, but my wife and I are acutely conscious of the experiences his older brother had already enjoyed by the time he was Henry’s age, things that are impractical or impossible in the moment.

He’s not alone in that, of course. Most Americans are experiencing some ongoing deprivations because of the pandemic. (Most of those for whom the pandemic is not imposing unusual restrictions are, ironically, probably contributing to the pandemic’s extent and duration.) Just about everyone in the United States is eagerly scanning the horizon for signs of normalcy — as we have been for months, occasionally spotting oases that too often turn out to be mirages.

So when will we return to some semblance of normal? It’s hard to say with certainty. The best tool we have to reach that point, though, is the broad deployment of the vaccines approved for emergency use by the government. But even the existence of those vaccines can’t completely answer the question.

For example, the rate at which the vaccines are deployed makes a massive difference. A pace of 2 million shots per day as opposed to 1 million seems like a subtle distinction but, obviously, means achieving immunity for recipients twice as fast.

What level of immunity is necessary is a question of its own. Do we need 70 percent of the country to have been immunized? Or, as infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci has recently said, is the figure closer to 80 or 85 percent?

When doing this calculation, do you include the 26 million Americans who have already had coronavirus infections? What about young people? The vaccine trials included only those age 16 and over. Those younger have constituted about a 10th of the total infections. And what vaccine are we talking about? The Pfizer and Moderna iterations require two shots; the vaccine from Johnson & Johnson requires only one.

All of these factors affect how we can figure out when the country might hit the herd-immunity mark. If we assume that young people will be included among those needed to be vaccinated — a complicated question on its own — the calculator below will allow you to figure out when immunity might be achieved at various immunization rates.

At this rate, the country would reach 70 percent herd immunity through vaccinations by Nov. 10

How we calculate this:
There are about 330 million Americans, meaning that we need 231 million to be resistant to the virus to hit 70 percent immunity. We can take out the 5.8 million Americans who’ve already been vaccinated. That leaves 211.3 million people to be vaccinated.

From there the math is straightforward: doing two-shot vaccinations at a rate of 1.5 million shots per day means it will take 282 days to complete the job.

Bear in mind that sliding the little bar to determine how quickly shots are administered is far easier than actually scaling up the infrastructure to do so. President Biden’s original target for daily vaccinations was 1 million; he recently increased it to 1.5 million. At that rate, we’re still months from resolution. But because administering the vaccine is more complicated and requires more tracking than vaccinations such as that for the seasonal flu, it’s necessarily trickier to scale up.

At this point, the more urgent concern is the efficacy of the vaccine against any variants of the virus that might emerge. Manufacturers have already noted that the vaccine works less well against a virus variant first identified in South Africa, though the vaccines are still broadly effective, particularly at protecting the recipient from severe illness or death after infection.

Well, that and the fact that a fifth of Americans said in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll that they won’t get the vaccine or would do so only if it was required. Happily, more Americans are now saying they’re eager to get a vaccine.

The faster we get people immunized, the better we protect against the emergence of new mutations that prove less able to be controlled by the vaccines. The faster we get shots in arms, as the phrasing has it, the faster we get back to normal.

Which would be nice for all of us, including my 1-year-old.

100 million doses in 100 days: How Biden’s coronavirus vaccine push compares with those of other countries

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/01/23/international-comparison-biden-coronavirus-vaccine-plan/

A key part of President Biden’s new coronavirus strategy is a push to administer 100 million doses in 100 days, or a lofty sounding 1 million immunizations a day.

That goal, part of a comprehensive national plan launched this week, has raised questions about how quickly the United States can, and should aim to, deliver vaccines to its population.

The strategy document calls the 1 million shots per day pace “aggressive,” an effort that will “take every American doing their part.” But critics have pointed out that it does not constitute a major leap from the current rate, which has already neared or even surpassed the target. Many wonder why the country cannot move more swiftly.

It remains possible that the United States could pick up its pace as vaccine supply increases and logistics improve. But in international context 1 million doses a day does not seem slow.

Though differences in population, logistical capacity and data transparency, along with different levels of vaccine vetting and effectiveness between vaccine types, make it hard to compare vaccination campaigns across countries, the United States is near the top of the pack, behind some of the fastest countries to vaccinate, including Israel and Britain, but ahead of most of the rest of the world.

The biggest factor shaping the rate of vaccination is global supply.

Though the development and emergency approval of coronavirus vaccines has unfolded at an unprecedented pace, drug companies are scrambling to make enough doses to meet demand. As some countries receive a high number of doses from among the limited total produced, others must wait their turn.

So far, a small number of relatively rich countries, including the United States, have snapped up the initial supply, relegating low- and middle-income countries to the back of the line — possibly for years. Some projections suggest poor countries will not have enough doses until 2023 or 2024.

Rich countries are set to fare better. The European Commission aims to vaccinate 70 percent of the adult population of the European Union by the summer, though details of that plan are not yet clear.

Anthony S. Fauci, adviser to President Biden and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this week that the United States could potentially reach “herd immunity” by fall 2021.

Will other large countries move faster than the United States?

Possibly, but it is hard to say.

Questions about manufacturing capacity, the potential approval of additional vaccines and the impact of the new U.K. variant make predictions tough. However, India offers an interesting point of comparison.

On Jan. 16, India launched a plan to vaccinate 300 million people by August.

The roughly 200 day push to deliver 600 million doses is more ambitious than the U.S. plan. However, India’s population is more than three times larger than that of the United States.

China promised to vaccinate some 50 million people against the coronavirus before the Lunar New Year holiday next month — a seemingly rapid pace. But a report in a news outlet controlled by the ruling Communist Party said the country had administered 15 million doses by Jan. 20.

There are also questions about whether Chinese-made vaccines are as effective as the Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca formulations used elsewhere.

Days after Brazilian officials announced that a vaccine made by Chinese company Sinovac was 78 percent effective protecting against moderate and severe covid-19 cases, for instance, they were forced to clarify that the shot’s efficacy rate among all cases was only 50.4 percent.

Ultimately, the biggest difference between the U.S. vaccination push and the Chinese effort is need.

Though there are doubts about China’s figures, the country reports just above 4,600 coronavirus deaths to date — comparable to the 4,409 U.S. deaths on Inauguration Day alone.

The Health 202: When will 2021 feel normal again? Here’s what eight experts predict.

We won't be back to normal from coronavirus pandemic until Fall 2021 -  Business Insider

Around half a million Americans are now getting a coronavirus vaccine shot every day. But that pace must accelerate considerably if the United States has any hope of quashing the virus in 2021.

Public health experts differ on how quickly that might happen  and when things might start to feel “normal” again around the country.

To inaugurate our first Health 202 of the new year, we asked eight experts for their predictions.

After all, we all want to know when we can go to concerts and ballgames again. Or even just go to the office. (Let’s start small.)

We asked two questions. The first has to do with when the United States will reach “herd immunity” — the point at which enough people are immune to a virus, either by recovering from it or getting vaccinated against it. Herd immunity generally kicks in when about 70 percent of people are immune, although experts differ on the precise threshold.

To reach herd immunity with the coronavirus, approximately 230 million Americans would need the vaccine. As of yesterday, just 4 million had gotten the first of two shots. Daily immunizations have increased considerably over the past few days, with about 500,000 people getting the shot each day, but experts say that number needs to at least double and ideally quadruple.

We also asked these experts when they personally expect their lives to return to normal.

Here are their responses, edited lightly for clarity and brevity.

When will enough Americans be vaccinated for the U.S. to reach herd immunity, based on how things look right now?

Carlos del Rio, professor of medicine and global health at Emory University

“At the current pace it will take a really long time. … I think if we can get our act together and start vaccinating 1 million people a day like President-elect Biden is promising, then we can get to 260 million people getting at least one dose … more or less or by late August or early September. If we really scale up and get to 3 million per day, then we can get to 260 million people in [less than] 100 days or three months. Can we do it? Yes! But it will require coordination, leadership and funding. So, as you see, my answer is: It depends.”

Eric Topol, director and founder of Scripps Research Translational Institute:

I think by July, if we get 2 to 3 million people vaccinated per day, and even sooner, if we have a rapid neutralization antibody assay to be able to defer those who have had a prior infection and mounted a durable immune response. Yes, that is optimistic, but it can be done.”

Jay Bhattacharya, professor of medicine at Stanford University:

“There is a lot of disagreement in the scientific literature about the herd immunity threshold, which is certain to vary from place to place. I don’t think anyone responsible would confidently say what it is, and would never put forward a single number for the U.S. as a whole. Rather, the key question is how rapidly we inoculate people who have a high risk of mortality conditional on infection — most older folks and some late middle-aged folks with severe chronic conditions. Prioritizing them for vaccination will yield the greatest benefit in reducing covid-19-related mortality, regardless of when herd immunity is hit.”

Jesse Goodman, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Georgetown University:

“I am not sure that in the near future we will reach a level of population immunity where the virus will be virtually shut down, as we are accustomed to with measles. Through immunity due to vaccination, combined, unfortunately, with infections in the unvaccinated, we should reach a state where the risk of exposure is reduced due to a mostly immune population. While cases will still occur, our health system will no longer be stressed and large outbreaks should be less common.

“I am hopeful we can get to such a situation in the last quarter of this year, provided vaccine production, access and acceptance go well and no mutant viruses arise that gain the ability to escape current vaccines.”

Kimberly Powers, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

“That question is difficult to answer, as there is considerable uncertainty around the level of immunity we would need in the population to achieve herd immunity, along with the speed with which we can expect widespread vaccine uptake to occur.”

Leana Wen, public health professor at George Washington University and former Baltimore health commissioner:

“Right now, vaccine distribution is progressing at an unacceptably slow speed, and at this current rate, it will take years to reach herd immunity — if ever. If we are able to pick up speed by many times in January, there is still a chance we could substantially slow down the infection and perhaps approach herd immunity in 2021.”

Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University:

“I think you mean ‘will enough Americans be vaccinated to reach the herd immunity threshold?’ My answer is possibly not because we don’t know if the vaccines protect enough against transmission for the threshold to be achievable, and because the new variant may increase that threshold substantially.”

Michael Osterholm, chairman of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota:

“There are three factors that will independently determine when enough Americans will either be protected from covid-19 via vaccination or development of antibody following actual infection.

First, when will there be sufficient vaccine produced and distributed so everyone can receive their two doses? This includes vaccinating those who may have immune protection from actual infection but are vaccinated anyway to increase durable protection. Second, will enough people agree to be vaccinated? And finally, what is the durability of vaccine-induced protection over time? 

“Each of these factors will play a role in achieving local, regional or national herd immunity protection. I feel confident we can achieve the first factor of sufficient vaccine by the late summer or early fall. But ultimately, the second two factors, how many will be vaccinated and how durable is immune protection will determine the answer to this question. I hope, when considering all three factors, it will be late summer or early fall, but we all realize hope is not a strategy.”

When do you expect your own daily life to feel similar to pre-pandemic times?

Carlos del Rio:

I am hoping to be ‘close to normal’ by December 2021 more or less. However, as a physician seeing patients, I will probably continue to wearing a face mask and goggles for much longer.”

Eric Topol:

“In 2022.”

Jay Bhattacharya: 

“Given the changes that the previous year has had on my professional and personal life, I do not expect my daily life to ever feel similar to pre-pandemic times. More broadly though and given the disappointingly slow roll out of the vaccine to the vulnerable in many states, I anticipate that American society will start to feel more like normal by April 2021.”

Jesse Goodman:

“Hopefully late this yearlife should begin to feel similar to pre-pandemic times. However, it is likely that both great vigilance and some social distancing will still be needed, particularly if the population is not nearly all vaccinated. In addition, we may well require periodic immunization against the current and, possibly, other emerging coronavirus variants.”

Kimberly Powers: 

“I expect daily life to feel more normal by sometime this summer, but I think it will be 2022 before some mitigation measures can be fully relaxed.  And I expect that our society will feel ongoing consequences of this pandemic — physical, mental, emotional, and economic — for years to come.”

Leana Wen: 

“I don’t know. I was much more optimistic a few weeks ago. But given the lag in vaccine rollout thus far and how under-resourced our public health systems are, I am concerned things for much of 2021 will feel more like 2020 than 2019.”

Marc Lipsitch:

I think that sometime in the second half of the year there will be enough vaccination in the U.S. and some other countries that we will begin to treat covid-19 more like seasonal flu, which is deadly to large numbers of people but does not overwhelm health care and does not cause us to curtail normal social contact. This is because with enough vaccine in those at high risk of death and hospitalization, transmission may continue (at a reduced level thanks to some immunity in the population from prior infection and vaccine) but the outcomes will be less severe.”

Michael Osterholm:

“I’m not sure it ever will. We will not go back to a pre-covid-19 normal. We will instead exist in world with a new normal. And even that will in part be determined by the availability of adequate vaccine supply to cover everyone in high, middle and low income countries. I look forward to the day when my office hours are as they were pre-covid-19.”

Fauci on coronavirus herd immunity: ‘That is nonsense and very dangerous’

https://www.yahoo.com/news/fauci-on-coronavirus-herd-immunity-132851933.html

Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday denounced the concept of herd immunity — the notion that if a large enough group of people contract an infection, it will ultimately stop the disease from spreading — calling it “nonsense” during an interview with Yahoo News.

“Anybody who knows anything about epidemiology will tell you that is nonsense and very dangerous,” Fauci said, “because what will happen is that if you do that, by the time you get to herd immunity, you will have killed a lot of people that would have been avoidable.”

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House coronavirus task force, discussed the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s response to it during a live interview Thursday morning with Yahoo News Editor in Chief Daniel Klaidman and Chief Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff.

The coronavirus has killed more than 216,000 people in the U.S. and infected almost 8 million, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Now, more than seven months after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, Fauci said Thursday that the U.S. is not in a good place.

“We talk about a second wave,” he said. “We’ve never really gotten out of the first wave. If you look at the baseline number of daily infections that we have had over the last several weeks, [it’s] been around 40,000 per day. It’s now gone up to about 50,000 per day. So right away, we have a very unfortunate baseline from which we need to deal.”

President Trump and his administration have been pushing the herd immunity approach as a possible solution to ending the pandemic, the New York Times reported Wednesday. During a call with reporters, two officials who requested anonymity cited a petition called the Great Barrington Declaration, which calls for states to lift coronavirus restrictions for the bulk of American citizens, the Times reported.

When asked about the herd immunity approach, Fauci said that while he agrees with what the declaration says about protecting the vulnerable and not closing down the country, virtually anyone with a solid understanding of epidemiology would disagree with the idea of letting everyone get infected.

“My position is known. Dr. Deborah Birx’s position is known, and Dr. [Robert] Redfield,” he said. “So you have me as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Debbie Birx, as the coordinator and a very experienced infectious disease person, the coordinator of the task force — and you have Bob Redfield, who’s the director of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. All three of us very clearly are against that.”

Trying to reach herd immunity is ‘unethical’ and unprecedented, WHO head says

The head of the World Health Organization said Monday that allowing the novel coronavirus to spread in an attempt to reach herd immunity was “simply unethical.”

The remark was a sharp rebuke of the approach amid mounting new infections around the world. Recent days have seen the most rapid rise in cases since the pandemic began in March.

“Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a Monday media briefing. “It is scientifically and ethically problematic.”

In a public health context, herd immunity typically describes a scenario in which a large enough share of the population is vaccinated against a disease to prevent it from spreading widely, thereby providing default protection to a minority of people who have not been vaccinated.

But as there is still no vaccine for the coronavirus, achieving herd immunity in the current environment would require a large number of people to contract the virus, survive covid-19, and then produce sufficient antibodies to provide long-term protection.

While the scientific community has roundly rejected herd immunity the approach, public interest in it has waxed and waned amid pressure to reopen schools and economies.

Last month, President Trump appeared to praise the idea during a town hall in Pennsylvania.

“You’ll develop herd — like a herd mentality,” he said. “It’s going to be — it’s going to be herd developed — and that’s going to happen.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government initially expressed interest in the theory before backtracking amid public outcry over the dangers of letting the virus spread. Johnson himself was hospitalized with a severe case of covid-19, which he said could have killed him.

Tedros, noting that there had been “some discussion” about the concept recently, told reporters Monday that allowing people to be exposed to a deadly virus whose effects are still not fully known was “not an option.”

“Most people who are infected with the virus that causes covid-19 develop an immune response within the first few weeks, but we don’t know how strong or lasting that immune response is, or how it differs for different people,” he said.

Though rare, there are multiple documented instances of people being infected for a second time after recovering from covid-19. An 89-year-old woman in the Netherlands died after being infected with the coronavirus for a second time, Dutch news reported Monday.

Antibody studies suggest that less than 10 percent of people in most countries have contracted covid-19, Tedros said, which is nowhere near the majority that would be needed for herd immunity.

With the “vast majority” of the world’s population susceptible, letting the virus spread “means allowing unnecessary infections, suffering and death,” he said.

Just in the last four days, Tedros said Monday, the global coronavirus count has continued to break its daily record for the number of new confirmed infections.

“Many cities and countries are also reporting an increase in hospitalizations and intensive care bed occupancy,” he added.

Tedros has urged governments to pursue comprehensive plans that include widespread testing, social distancing, and other preventive measures, such as face-mask wearing, alongside a global push to develop a vaccine. The WHO is spearheading an effort to distribute coronavirus vaccines equitably once they are available, which Trump declined to join.

Nevada man’s COVID-19 reinfection, the first in the US, is ‘yellow caution light’ about risk of coronavirus

https://www.yahoo.com/news/nevada-mans-covid-19-reinfection-223155707.html

COVID-19 reinfection: Nevada man is first confirmed American case

An otherwise healthy 25-year-old Nevada man is the first American confirmed to have caught COVID-19 twice, with the second infection worse than the first.

He has recovered, but his case raises questions about how long people are protected after being infected with the coronavirus that causes the disease, and potentially how protective a vaccine might be.

“It’s a yellow caution light,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, who was not involved in the research.

Respiratory infections like COVID-19 don’t provide lifelong immunity like a measles infection. So, Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said he’s not at all surprised people could get infected twice with the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. 

It’s too soon to know whether the man from Washoe County, Nevada, who had no known health problems other than his double infection, was highly unusual or if many people could easily get infected more than once with SARS-CoV-2, Schaffner said.

“There’s hardly an infectious disease doctor in the country who hasn’t encountered a patient who thinks they’ve had a second infection,” he said. “Whether that’s true or not, we don’t know. There are lots of respiratory infections out there.”

How rare is he?

There have been at least 22 documented cases of reinfection worldwide since the start of the pandemic, but it’s unclear how many cases there have actually been, and how common it may be among people who don’t even know they’re infected.

“It could be a one in a million event, we don’t know,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who wrote a commentary with the study.

With millions of people infected, it’s hard to know if case studies like the new one represent very rare events or the tip of an iceberg, she said. “It’s possible that the vast majority of people are completely protected from reinfection, but we’re not measuring them, because they’re not coming to the hospital.” 

Also, many people don’t know they are infected the first time, so it’s hard to say whether they’re getting re-infected.

In one of the recent cases, a Hong Kong man only knew he was reinfected because it was caught during a routine screening when he returned from outside the country, months after he had cleared an infection and tested negative. 

One reason there may not be more documented cases of reinfection: It’s tough to prove, said Mark Pandori, a pathologist at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, and senior author on the new study

His team coordinated early in the pandemic with members of the Washoe County Health District to look for repeat infections. They had the benefit of sequencing equipment on campus, as well as microbiologists, he said. And they got lucky finding someone who had been tested both times he was infected and cleared in between. 

Why his infection was worse the second time remains unclear, said Pandori, director of the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory. “I can’t tell you if it tells us anything in particular about the biology of this virus.”

The man caught a slightly different version of the virus the second time, according a genetic analysis of the man’s infections. It’s possible the second version was more dangerous, though there is no evidence of that, or that it was just different enough that his body didn’t recognize it, the paper said.

Implications for vaccination

Iwasaki said the study raises questions about how long immunity lasts after a natural infection. Protection with a vaccine is likely to be quite different, she said.

“Vaccines can be designed to induce much higher levels of antibody and much longer lasting immunity,” she said. Just because the natural infection doesn’t give you protection doesn’t mean the vaccines cannot. It’s a separate issue.”

Offit, also a vaccine expert at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said he expects protection from vaccines will likely last at least a year or two.

The protection provided by infection or vaccination isn’t 100% perfect until the day it disappears completely, he said. Instead, protection fades gradually, so someone exposed to a huge dose of the virus might get re-infected within months, while others could be protected for years, Offit said.

It’s also possible the Nevada man has an undiagnosed problem with his immune system. “He probably should be seen by an immunologist,” Offit said. 

The length of time an infection will be protective remains one of the key open questions about the virus.

Infected twice, two months apart

The Nevada man, considered an essential worker, started feeling ill in late March, with a sore throat, cough, headache, nausea and diarrhea. His workplace had been hit with an outbreak early in the pandemic, before safety measures like masks could be put in place, said Heather Kerwin, senior epidemiologist at the Washoe County Health District and a co-author on the paper. 

He went for testing on April 18 and his infection with the coronavirus was confirmed.

On April 27, he reported his symptoms had all resolved and he felt fine, but at the time, employees were required to test negative for COVID-19 twice before they would be allowed back to work, Kerwin said. So he remained isolated at home.

A month later, he began feeling poorly again. At the same time, there was an outbreak where one of his parent’s, also an essential worker, was employed, Kerwin said.

On May 31, he went to an urgent care center, reporting fever, headache, dizziness, cough, nausea and diarrhea. On June 5, he went to see a doctor who found his oxygen levels dangerously low and had him hospitalized. Again, the man tested positive for the virus, even though he still had antibodies to the virus in his bloodstream, Kerwin said.

Genetic differences between the viruses responsible for each of his infections suggested he was infected two separate times. The virus doesn’t mutate quickly enough within a single person to explain the differences between the two infections, the researchers found. 

A parent living with the man also caught COVID-19 and was diagnosed on June 5.

Mark Pandori, pathologist
Mark Pandori, pathologist

The paper reports it’s possible the man was reinfected because he was exposed to a higher dose of the virus the second time, perhaps from the family member.

His cough lingered and he suffered from shortness of breath and mental fog, and was on oxygen for six weeks after the second infection, Kerwin said. He has now fully recovered.

Reinfections imply so-called herd immunity cannot be obtained just through natural infection. If natural infection protects for only a few months, then it will be impossible for enough people to be protected simultaneously to reach herd immunity.

The moral of the case study, said co-author Pandori, is even people who already have been sick with COVID-19 need to protect themselves by wearing a mask, avoiding large gatherings, washing hands frequently and maintaining social distance.

“You’re not invulnerable to this,” Pandori said. “In fact, you could get it worse the second time.”

America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/09/pandemic-intuition-nightmare-spiral-winter/616204/

America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral - The Atlantic

As the U.S. heads toward the winter, the country is going round in circles, making the same conceptual errors that have plagued it since spring.

Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways.

Many Americans trusted intuition to help guide them through this disaster. They grabbed onto whatever solution was most prominent in the moment, and bounced from one (often false) hope to the next. They saw the actions that individual people were taking, and blamed and shamed their neighbors. They lapsed into magical thinking, and believed that the world would return to normal within months. Following these impulses was simpler than navigating a web of solutions, staring down broken systems, and accepting that the pandemic would rage for at least a year.

These conceptual errors were not egregious lies or conspiracy theories, but they were still dangerous. They manifested again and again, distorting the debate around whether to stay at home, wear masks, or open colleges. They prevented citizens from grasping the scope of the crisis and pushed leaders toward bad policies. And instead of overriding misleading intuitions with calm and considered communication, those leaders intensified them. The country is now trapped in an intuition nightmare: Like the spiraling ants, Americans are walled in by their own unhelpful instincts, which lead them round and round in self-destructive circles.

“The grand challenge now is, how can we adjust our thinking to match the problem before us?” says Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies disasters. Here, then, are nine errors of intuition that still hamstring the U.S. pandemic response, and a glimpse at the future if they continue unchecked. The time to break free is now. Our pandemic summer is nearly over. Now come fall, the season of preparation, and winter, the season of survival. The U.S. must reset its mindset to accomplish both. Ant death spirals break only when enough workers accidentally blunder away, creating trails that lead the spiraling workers to safety. But humans don’t have to rely on luck; unlike ants, we have a capacity for introspection.

The spiral begins when people forget that controlling the pandemic means doing many things at once. The virus can spread before symptoms appear, and does so most easily through five P’s: people in prolonged, poorly ventilated, protection-free proximity. To stop that spread, this country could use measures that other nations did, to great effect: close nonessential businesses and spaces that allow crowds to congregate indoors; improve ventilation; encourage mask use; test widely to identify contagious people; trace their contacts; help them isolate themselves; and provide a social safety net so that people can protect others without sacrificing their livelihood. None of these other nations did everything, but all did enough things right—and did them simultaneously. By contrast, the U.S. engaged in …

1. A Serial Monogamy of Solutions

Stay-at-home orders dominated March. Masks were fiercely debated in April. Contact tracing took its turn in May. Ventilation is having its moment now. “It’s like we only have attention for only one thing at a time,” says Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida.

As often happens, people sought easy technological fixes for complex societal problems. For months, President Donald Trump touted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure, even as rigorous studies showed that it isn’t one. In August, he switched his attention to convalescent plasma—the liquid fraction of a COVID-19 survivor’s blood that might contain virus-blocking antibodies. There’s still no clear evidence that this century-old approach can treat COVID-19 either, despite grossly misstated claims from FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn (for which he later apologized). More generally, drugs might save some of the very sickest patients, as dexamethasone does, or shorten a hospital stay, as remdesivir does, but they are unlikely to offer outright cures. “It’s so reassuring to think that a magic-bullet treatment is out there and if we just wait, it’ll come and things will be normal,” Dean says.

Other strategies have merit, but are wrongly dismissed for being imperfect. In July, Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington, argued that colleges cannot reopen safely without testing all students upon entry. “The gotcha question I’ve handled most from reporters since is: This school did entry testing, so why did they get an outbreak?” he says. It’s because such testing is necessary for a safe reopening, but not sufficient. “If you do it and screw everything else up, you’ll still have a big outbreak,” Bergstrom adds.

This brief attention span is understandable. Adherents of the scientific method are trained to isolate and change one variable at a time. Academics are walled off into different disciplines that rarely connect. Journalists constantly look for new stories, shifting attention to the next great idea. These factors prime the public to view solutions in isolation, which means imperfections become conflated with uselessness. For example, many critics of masks argued that they provide only partial protection against the virus, that they often don’t fit well, or that people wear them incorrectly. But some protection is clearly better than no protectionAs Dylan Morris of Princeton writes, “X won’t stop COVID on its own is not an argument against doing X.” Instead, it’s an argument for doing X along with other measures. Seat belts won’t prevent all fatal car crashes, but cars also come with airbags and crumple zones. “When we layer things, we give ourselves more wiggle room,” Dean says.

Several experts I’ve talked with have been asked: What now? The question assumes that the pandemic lingers because the U.S. simply hasn’t found the right solution yet. In fact, it lingers because the familiar solutions were never fully implemented. Despite claims from the White House, the U.S. is still not testing enough people. It still doesn’t have enough contact tracers. “We have the playbook, but I think there’s a confusion about what we’ve actually tried and what we’ve just talked about doing,” Dean says. A successful response “is never going to be one thing done perfectly. It’ll be a lot of different things done well enough.” That resilience disappears if we create…

2. False Dichotomies

A world of black and white is easier to handle than one awash with grays. But false dichotomies are dangerous. From the start, COVID-19 has been portrayed as a disease that mostly causes mild symptoms in people who quickly recover, and occasionally causes severe illness that leads to hospitalization and death. This two-sided caricature—severe or mild, sick or recovered—has erased the thousands of “long-haulers” who have endured months of debilitating symptoms at home with neither recognition nor care.

Meanwhile, as businesses closed and stay-at-home orders rolled out, “we presumed a trade-off between saving lives and saving the economy,” says Danielle Allen, a political scientist at Harvard. “That was foolishness of the most profound degree.” The two goals were actually aligned: Epidemiologists and economists largely agree that the economy cannot rebound while the pandemic is still raging. By treating the two as opposites, state leaders rushed to reopen, leading a barely contained virus to surge anew.  

Now, as winter looms and the pandemic continues, another dichotomy has emerged: enter another awful lockdown, or let the virus run free. This choice, too, is false. Public-health measures offer a middle road, and even “lockdowns” need not be as overbearing as they were in spring. A city could close higher-risk venues like bars and nightclubs while opening lower-risk ones like retail stores. There’s a “whole control panel of dials” on offer, but “it’s hard to have that conversation when people think of a light switch,” says Lindsay Wiley, a professor of public-health law at American University. “The term lockdown has done a lot of damage.” It exacerbated the false binary between shutting down and opening up, while offering …

3. The Comfort of Theatricality

Stay-at-home orders saved lives by curtailing COVID-19’s spread, and by giving hospitals some breathing room. But the orders were also meant to buy time for the nation to ramp up its public-health defenses. Instead, the White House treated months of physical distancing as a pandemic-ending strategy in itself. “We squandered that time in terms of scaling up testing and contact tracing, enacting policies to protect workers who get infected on the job, getting protective equipment to people in food-processing plants, finding places for people to isolate, offering paid sick leave … We still don’t have those things,” says Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and regular Atlantic contributor. The country is now facing the fall with many of the same problems that plagued it through the summer.

Showiness is often mistaken for effectiveness. The coronavirus mostly spreads through air rather than contaminated surfaces, but many businesses are nonetheless trying to scrub and bleach their way toward reopening. My colleague Derek Thompson calls this hygiene theater—dramatic moves that appear to offer safety without actually doing so. The same charge applies to temperature checks, which can’t detect the many COVID-19 patients who don’t have a fever. It also applies to the porous and inefficient travel bans that Trump and his allies still tout as policy successes. These tactics might do some good—let’s not conflate imperfect with useless—but they cause harm when they substitute for stronger measures. Theatricality breeds complacency. And by emphasizing solutions that can be easily seen, it exacerbated the American preference for …

4. Personal Blame Over Systemic Fixes

SARS-CoV-2 spread rapidly among America’s overstuffed prisons and understaffed nursing homes, in communities served by overstretched hospitals and underfunded public-health departments, and among Black, Latino, and Indigenous Americans who had been geographically and financially disconnected from health care by decades of racist policies. Without paid sick leave or a living wage, “essential workers” who earn a low, hourly income could not afford to quarantine themselves when they fell ill—and especially not if that would jeopardize the jobs to which their health care is tied. “The things I do to stay safe, they don’t have that as an option,” says Whitney Robinson, a social epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But tattered social safety nets are less visible than crowded bars. Pushing for universal health care is harder than shaming an unmasked stranger. Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, and Americans gravitated toward the latter. News outlets illustrated pandemic articles with (often distorted) photos of beaches, even though open-air spaces offer low-risk ways for people to enjoy themselves. Marcus attributes this tendency to America’s puritanical roots, which conflate pleasure with irresponsibility, and which prize shame over support. “The shaming gets codified into bad policy,” she says. Chicago fenced off a beach, and Honolulu closed beaches, parks, and hiking trails, while leaving riskier indoor businesses open.

Moralistic thinking jeopardizes health in two ways. First, people often oppose measures that reduce an individual’s risk—seat belts, condoms, HPV vaccines—because such protections might promote risky behavior. During the pandemic, some experts used such reasoning to question the value of masks, while the University of Michigan’s president argued that testing students widely would offer a “false sense of security.” These paternalistic false-assurance arguments are almost always false themselves. “There’s very little evidence for overcompensation to the point where safety measures do harm,” Bergstrom says.

Second, misplaced moralism can provide cover for bad policies. Many colleges started their semester with in-person teaching and inadequate testing, and are predictably dealing with large outbreaks. UNC Chapel Hill lasted just six days before reverting to remote classes. Administrators have chastised students for behaving irresponsibly, while taking no responsibility for setting them up to faila pattern that will likely continue through the fall as college clusters inevitably grow. “If you put 10,000 [students] in a small space, eating, sleeping, and socializing together, there’ll be an explosion of cases,” Robinson says. “I don’t know what [colleges] were expecting.” Perhaps they fell prey to …

5. The Normality Trap

In times of uncertainty and upheaval, “people crave a return to familiar, predictable rhythms,” says Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. That pull is especially strong now because the pandemic’s toll is largely invisible. There’s nothing as dramatic as ruined buildings or lapping floodwater to hint that the world has changed. In some circles, returning to normal has been valorized as an act of defiance. That’s a reasonable stance when resisting terrorists, who seek to stoke fear, but a dangerous one when fighting a virus, which doesn’t care.

The powerful desire to re-create an old world can obscure the trade-offs necessary for surviving the new one. Keeping high-risk indoor businesses open, for example, helps the virus spread within a community, which makes reopening schools harder. “If schools are a priority, you have to put them ahead of something. What is that something?” says Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard. “In an ideal world, they would be the last to close and the first to open, but in many communities, casinos, bars, and tattoo parlors opened before them.” A world with COVID-19 is fundamentally different from one without it, and the former simply cannot include all the trappings of the latter. Cherished summer rituals like camps and baseball games have already been lost; back-to-school traditions and Thanksgiving now hang in the balance. Change is hard to accept, which predisposes people to …

6. Magical Thinking

Back in April, Trump imagined the pandemic’s quick end: “Maybe this goes away with heat and light,” he said. From the start, he and others wondered if hot, humid weather might curb the spread of COVID-19, as it does other coronavirus diseases. Many experts countered that seasonal effects wouldn’t stop the new virus, which was already spreading in the tropics. But, fueled by shaky science and speculative stories, people widely latched on to seasonality as a possible savior, before the virus proved that it could thrive in the Arizona, Texas, and Florida summer.

This brand of magical thinking, in which some factor naturally defuses the pandemic, has become a convenient excuse for inaction. Recently, some commentators have argued that the pandemic will imminently fizzle out for two reasons. First, 20 to 50 percent of people have defensive T-cells that recognize the new coronavirus, because they were previously exposed to its milder, common-cold-causing cousins. Second, some modeling studies claim that herd immunity—whereby the virus struggles to find new hosts, because enough people are immune—could kick in when just 20 percent of the population has been infected.

Neither claim is implausible, but neither should be grounds for complacency. No one yet knows if the “cross-reactive” T-cells actually protect against COVID-19, and even if they do, they’re unlikely to stop people from getting infected. Herd immunity, meanwhile, is not a perfect barrier. Even if the low thresholds are correct, a fast-growing and uncontrolled outbreak will still shoot past themPursuing this strategy will mean that, in the winter, many parts of the U.S. may suffer what New York City endured in the spring: thousands of deaths and an untold number of lingering disabilities. That alone should be an argument against …

7. The Complacency of Inexperience

When illness is averted and lives are spared, “nothing happens and all you have is the miracle of a normal, healthy day,” says Howard Koh, a public-health professor at Harvard. “People take that for granted.” Public-health departments are chronically underfunded because the suffering they prevent is invisible. Pandemic preparations are deprioritized in the peaceful years between outbreaks. Even now, many people who have been spared the ravages of COVID-19 argue that the disease wasn’t a big deal, or associate their woes with preventive measures. But the problem is still the disease those measures prevented: The economy is still hurtingmental-health problems are growing, and educational futures have been curtailed, not because of some fearmongering overreaction, but because an uncontrolled pandemic is still afoot.

If anything, the U.S. did not react swiftly or strongly enough. Nations that had previously dealt with emerging viral epidemics, including several in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, were quick to take the new coronavirus seriously. By contrast, America’s lack of similar firsthand experience, combined with its sense of exceptionalism, might have contributed to its initial sloppiness. “One of my colleagues went to Rwanda in February, and as soon as he hit the airport, they asked about symptoms, checked his temperature, and took his phone number,” says Abraar Karan, an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “In the U.S., I flew in July, and walked out of the airport, no questions asked.”

Even when the virus began spreading within the U.S., places that weren’t initially pummeled seemed to forget that viruses spread. “In April, I was seeing COVID patients in the ER every day,” Karan says. “In Texas, I had friends saying, ‘No one believes it here because we have no cases.’ In L.A., fellow physicians said, ‘Are you sure this is worse than the flu? We’re not seeing anything.’” Three months later, Texas and California saw COVID-19 all too closely. The tendency to ignore threats until they directly affect us has consigned the U.S. to …

8. A Reactive Rut

In March, Mike Ryan at the World Health Organization advised, “Be fast, have no regrets … The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly.” The U.S. failed to heed that warning, and has repeatedly found itself several steps behind the coronavirus. That’s partly because exponential growth is counterintuitive, so “we don’t understand that things look fine until right before they’re very not fine,” says Beth Redbird, a sociologist at Northwestern. It’s also because the coronavirus spreads quickly but is slow to reveal itself: It can take a month for infections to lead to symptoms, for symptoms to warrant tests and hospitalizations, and for enough sick people to produce a noticeable spike. Pandemic data are like the light of distant stars, recording past events instead of present ones. This lag separates actions from their consequences by enough time to break our intuition for cause and effect. Policy makers end up acting only when it’s too late. Predictable surges get falsely cast as unexpected surprises.

This reactive rut also precludes long-term planning. In April, Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told me that “people haven’t understood that [the pandemic] isn’t about the next couple of weeks [but] about the next two years.” Leaders should have taken the long view then. “We should have been thinking about what it would take to ensure schools open in the fall, and prevent the long-term harms of lost children’s development,” Redbird says. Instead, we started working our way through a serial monogamy of solutions, and, like spiraling army ants, marched forward with no sense of the future beyond the next few footsteps.

These errors crop up in all disasters. But the COVID-19 pandemic has special qualities that have exacerbated them. The virus moved quickly enough to upend the status quo in a few months, deepening the allure of the hastily abandoned past. It also moved slowly enough to sweep the U.S. in a patchwork fashion, allowing as-yet-untouched communities to drop their guard. The pandemic grew huge in scope, entangling every aspect of society, and maxing out our capacity to deal with complexity. “People struggle to make rational decisions when they cannot see all the cogs,” says Njoki Mwarumba, an emergency-management professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Full of fear and anxiety, people furiously searched for more information, but because the virus is so new, they instead spiraled into more confusion and uncertainty. And tragically, all of this happened during the presidency of Donald Trump.

Trump embodied and amplified America’s intuition death spiral. Instead of rolling out a detailed, coordinated plan to control the pandemic, he ricocheted from one overhyped cure-all to another, while relying on theatrics such as travel bans. He ignored inequities and systemic failures in favor of blaming China, the WHO, governors, Anthony Fauci, and Barack Obama. He widened the false dichotomy between lockdowns and reopening by regularly tweeting in favor of the latter. He and his allies appealed to magical thinking and steered the U.S. straight into the normality trap by frequently lying that the virus would go away, that the pandemic was ending, that new waves weren’t happening, and that rising case numbers were solely due to increased testing. They have started talking about COVID-19 in the past tense as cases surge in the Midwest.

“It’s like mass gaslighting,” says Martha Lincoln, a medical anthropologist at San Francisco State University. “We were put in a situation where better solutions were closed off but a lot of people had that fact sneak up on them. In the absence of a robust federal response, we’re all left washing our hands and hoping for the best, which makes us more susceptible to magical thinking and individual-level fixes.” And if those fixes never come, “I think people are going to harden into a fatalistic sense that we have to accept whatever the risks are to continue with our everyday lives.”

That might, indeed, be Trump’s next solution. The Washington Post reports that Trump’s new adviser—the neuroradiologist Scott Atlas—is pushing a strategy that lets the virus rip through the non-elderly population in a bid to reach herd immunity. This policy was folly for Sweden, which is nowhere near herd immunity, had one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death rates, and has a regretful state epidemiologist. Although the White House has denied that a formal herd-immunity policy exists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently changed its guidance to say that asymptomatic people “do not necessarily need a test” even after close contact with an infected personThis change makes no sense: People can still spread the virus before showing symptoms. By effectively recommending less testing, as Trump has specifically called for, the nation’s top public-health agency is depriving the U.S. of the data it needs to resist intuitive errors. “When there’s a refusal to take in the big picture, we are stuck,” Mwarumba says.

The pandemic is now in its ninth month. Uncertainties abound as fall and winter loom. In much of the country, colder weather will gradually pack people into indoor spaces, where the coronavirus more readily spreads. Winter also typically heralds the arrival of the flu and other respiratory viruses, and although the Southern Hemisphere enjoyed an unusually mild flu season, that’s “because of the severe precautions they were taking against COVID-19,” says Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University. “It’s not clear to me that our precautions will be successful enough to also prevent the flu.”

Schools are reopening, which will shape the path of the pandemic in still-uncertain ways. Universities are more predictable: Thanks to magical thinking and misplaced moralism, the U.S. already has at least 51,000 confirmed infections in more than 1,000 colleges across every state. These (underestimated) numbers will grow, because only 20 percent of colleges are doing regular testing, while almost half are not testing at all. As more are forced to stop in-person teaching, students will be sent back to their communities with COVID-19 in tow. “I expect this will blow up outbreaks in places that never had outbreaks, or in places that had outbreaks under control,” Murray says. Further spikes will likely occur after Thanksgiving and Christmas, as people who yearn to return to normal (or who think that the country overreacted) travel to see their family. Despite that risk, the CDC recently dropped its recommendation that out-of-state travelers should quarantine themselves for 14 days.

But many of the experts I spoke with thought it unlikely that “we’ll have cities going full New York,” as Bergstrom puts it. Doctors are getting better at treating the disease. States like Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey have managed to avoid new surges over the summer, showing that local leadership can at least partly compensate for federal laxity. A new generation of cheap, rapid, paper-based tests will hit the market and make it easier to work out who is contagious. And despite the spiral of bad intuitions, many Americans are holding the line: Mask use and support for physical distancing are still high, according to Redbird, who has been tracking pandemic-related attitudes since March. “My feeling is that while things are going to get worse, I’m not sure they’ll be catastrophic, because of situational awareness,” Bill Hanage says.

Meanwhile, Trump seems to be teeing up a vaccine announcement in late October, shortly before the November 3 election. Moncef Slaoui, the scientific head of Operation Warp Speed, told NPR that it’s “extremely unlikely” a vaccine will be ready by then, and many scientists are concerned that the FDA will be pressured into approving a product that hasn’t been adequately tested, as Russia and China already have. Many Americans share this concern. A safe and effective vaccine could finally bring the pandemic under control, but its arrival will also test America’s ability to resist the intuitive errors that have trapped it so far. Vaccination has long been portrayed as the ultimate biomedical silver bullet, separating an era when masks and social distancing mattered from a world where normality has returned. This is yet another false dichotomy. “Everyone’s imagining this moment when all of a sudden, it’s all over, and they can go on vacation,” Natalie Dean says. “But the reality is going to be messier.”

This problem is not unique to COVID-19. It’s more compelling to hope that drug-resistant bacteria can be beaten with viruses than to stem the overuse of antibiotics, to hack the climate than to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, or to invest in a doomed oceanic plastic-catcher than to reduce the production of waste. Throughout its entire history, and more than any other nation, the U.S. has espoused “an almost blind faith in the power of technology as panacea,” writes the historian Howard Segal.* Instead of solving social problems, the U.S. uses techno-fixes to bypass them, plastering the wounds instead of removing the source of injury—and that’s if people even accept the solution on offer.

A third of Americans already say they would refuse a vaccine, whether because of existing anti-vaccine attitudes or more reasonable concerns about a rushed development process. Those who get the shot are unlikely to be fully protected; the FDA is prepared to approve a vaccine that’s at least 50 percent effective—a level comparable to current flu shots. An imperfect vaccine will still be useful. The risk is that the government goes all-in on this one theatrical countermeasure, without addressing the systemic problems that made the U.S. so vulnerable, or investing in the testing and tracing strategies that will still be necessary. “We’re still going to need those other things,” Dean says.

Between these reasons and the time needed for manufacturing and distribution, the pandemic is likely to drag on for months after a vaccine is approved. Already, the event is exacting a psychological toll that’s unlike the trauma of a hurricane or fire. “It’s not the type of disaster that Americans specifically are used to dealing with,” says Samantha Montano of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, who studies disasters. “Famines and complex humanitarian crises are closer approximations.” Health experts are burning outLong-haulers are struggling to find treatments or support. But many Americans are turning away from the pandemic. “People have stopped watching news about it as much, or talking to friends about it,” Redbird says. “I think we’re all exhausted.” Optimistically, this might mean that people are becoming less anxious and more resilient. More worryingly, it could also mean they are becoming inured to tragedy.

The most accurate model to date predicts that the U.S. will head into November with 220,000 confirmed deaths. More than 1,000 health-care workers have died. One in every 1,125 Black Americans has died, along with similarly disproportionate numbers of Indigenous people, Pacific Islanders, and Latinos. And yet, a recent poll found that 57 percent of Republican voters and 33 percent of independents think the number of deaths is acceptable. “In order for us to mobilize around a social problem, we all have to agree that it’s a problem,” Lori Peek says. “It’s shocking that we haven’t, because you really would have thought that with a pandemic it would be easy.” This is the final and perhaps most costly intuitive error …

9. The Habituation of Horror

The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racismschool shootings and police brutalitymass incarceration and sexual harassmentwidespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.

 

 

 

 

The Pandemic’s Most Treacherous Phase

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/us-pandemic-crisis-will-worsen-in-october-by-barry-eichengreen-2020-09?utm_source=Project+Syndicate+Newsletter&utm_campaign=d57658f7c7-sunday_newsletter_13_09_2020&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_73bad5b7d8-d57658f7c7-105592221&mc_cid=d57658f7c7&mc_eid=5f214075f8

The most dangerous phase of the COVID-19 crisis in the US may actually be now, not last spring. If the economy falters a second time, whether because of inadequate fiscal stimulus or flu season and a second COVID-19 wave, it will not receive the additional monetary and fiscal support that protected it in the spring.

April marked the most dramatic and, some would say, dangerous phase of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. Deaths were spiking, bodies were piling up in refrigerated trucks outside hospitals in New York City, and ventilators and personal protective equipment were in desperately short supply. The economy was falling off the proverbial cliff, with unemployment soaring to 14.7%.

Since then, supplies of medical and protective equipment have improved. Doctors are figuring out when to put patients on ventilators and when to take them off. We have recognized the importance of protecting vulnerable populations, including the elderly. The infected are now younger on average, further reducing fatalities. With help from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, economic activity has stabilized, albeit at lower levels.

Or so we are being told.

In fact, the more dangerous phase of the crisis in the US may actually be now, not last spring. While death rates among the infected are declining with improved treatment and a more favorable age profile, fatalities are still running at roughly a thousand per day. This matches levels at the beginning of April, reflecting the fact that the number of new infections is half again as high.

Mortality, in any case, is only one aspect of the virus’s toll. Many surviving COVID-19 patients continue to suffer chronic  and impaired mental function. If 40,000 cases a day is the new normal, then the implications for morbidity – and for human health and economic welfare – are truly dire.

And, like it or not, there is every indication that many Americans, or at least their current leaders, are willing to accept 40,000 new cases and 1,000 deaths a day. They have grown inured to the numbers. They are impatient with lockdowns. They have politicized masks.

This is also a more perilous phase for the economy. In March and April, policymakers pulled out all the stops to staunch the economic bleeding. But there will be less policy support now if the economy again goes south. Although the Federal Reserve can always devise another asset-purchase program, it has already lowered interest rates to zero and hoovered up many of the relevant assets. This is why Fed officials have been pressing the Congress and the White House to act.

Unfortunately, Congress seems incapable of replicating the bipartisanship that enabled passage of the CARES Act at the end of March. The $600 weekly supplement to unemployment benefits has been allowed to expire. Divisive rhetoric from President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders about “Democrat-led” cities implies that help for state and local governments is not in the cards.

Consequently, if the economy falters a second time, whether because of inadequate fiscal stimulus or flu season and a second COVID-19 wave, it will not receive the additional monetary and fiscal support that protected it in the spring.

The silver bullet on which everyone is counting, of course, is a vaccine. This, in fact, is the gravest danger of all.

There is a high likelihood that a vaccine will be rolled out in late October, at Trump’s behest, whether or not Phase 3 clinical trials confirm its safety and effectiveness. This specter conjures memories of President Gerald Ford’s rushed swine flu vaccine, also prompted by a looming presidential election, which resulted in cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome and multiple deaths. This episode, together with a fraudulent scientific paper linking vaccination to autism, did much to help foster the modern anti-vax movement.5

The danger, then, is not merely side effects from a flawed vaccine, but also widespread public resistance even to a vaccine that passes its Phase 3 clinical trial and has the support of the scientific community. This is especially worrisome insofar as skepticism about the merits of vaccination tends to rise anyway in the aftermath of a pandemic that the public-health authorities, supposedly competent in such matters, failed to avert.

Studies have shown that living through a pandemic negatively affects confidence that vaccines are safe and disinclines the affected to vaccinate their children. This is specifically the case for individuals who are in their “impressionable years” (ages 18-25) at the time of exposure, because it is at this age that attitudes about public policy, including health policy, are durably formed. This heightened skepticism about vaccination, observed in a variety of times and places, persists for the balance of the individual’s lifetime.

The difference now is that Trump and his appointees, by making reckless and unreliable claims, risk aggravating the problem. Thus, if steps are not taken to reassure the public of the independence and integrity of the scientific process, we will be left only with the alternative of “herd immunity,” which, given COVID-19’s many known and suspected comorbidities, is no alternative at all.

All this serves as a warning that the most hazardous phase of the crisis in the US will most likely start next month. And that is before taking into account that October is also the beginning of flu season.