The national COVID indicators all continued to move in the right direction this week, with new cases down 16 percent, hospitalizations down 26 percent, and deaths (while still alarmingly high at more than 3,000 per day) down 6 percent from the week prior.
More good news: both nationally and globally, the number of people vaccinated against COVID now exceeds the total number of people infected with the virus, at least according to official statistics—the actual number of coronavirus infections is likely several times higher.
On the vaccine front, Johnson & Johnson filed with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for an Emergency Use Authorization for its single-dose COVID vaccine, which could become the third vaccine approved for use in the US following government review later this month. The J&J vaccine is reportedly 85 percent effective at preventing severe COVID disease, although it is less effective at preventing infection than the Pfizer and Moderna shots.
Elsewhere, TheLancet reported interim Phase III results for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine trials, showing it to be 91 percent effective at preventing infection, and a new study found the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to be 75 percent effective against the more-contagious UK virus variant.
Amid the positive vaccine news, the Biden administration moved to accelerate the vaccination campaign, invoking the Defense Production Act to boost production and initiating shipments directly to retail pharmacies. With the House and Senate starting the budget reconciliation process that could eventually lead to as much as $1.9T in stimulus funding, including billions more for vaccines and testing, it feels as though the tide may be finally turning in the battle against coronavirus.
While the key indicators are still worrisome—we’re only back to Thanksgiving-week levels of new cases—and emerging variants are cause for concern, it’s worth celebrating a week that brought more good news than bad.
Best to follow Dr. Fauci’s advice for this Super Bowl weekend, however: “Just lay low and cool it.”
As one of his first official actions upon taking office Wednesday, President Biden signed an executive order implementing a federal mask mandate, requiring masks to be worn by all federal employees and on all federal properties, as well as on all forms of interstate transportation. Yesterday Biden followed that action by officially naming his COVID response team, and issuing a detailed national plan for dealing with the pandemic. Describing the plan as a “full-scale wartime effort”, Biden highlighted the key components of the plan in an appearance with Dr. Anthony Fauci and COVID response coordinator Jeffrey Zients.
The plan instructs federal agencies to invoke the Defense Production Act to ensure adequate supplies of critical equipment, including masks, testing equipment, and vaccine-related supplies; calls for new nationalguidelines to help employers make workplaces safe for workers to return to their jobs, and to make schools safe for students to return; and promises to fully fund the states’ mobilization of the National Guard to assist in the vaccine rollout.
Also included in the plan is a new Pandemic Testing Board, charged with ramping up multiple forms of COVID testing; more investment in data gathering and reporting on the impact of the pandemic; and the establishment of a health equity task force, to ensure that vulnerable populations are an area of priority in pandemic response.
But Biden can only do so much by executive order. Funding for much of his ambitious COVID plan will require quick legislative action by Congress, meaning that the administration will either need to garner bipartisan support for its proposed “American Rescue Plan” legislation, or use the Senate’s budget reconciliation process to pass the bill with a simple majority (with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote). Even that may prove challenging, given skepticism among Republican (and some moderate Democratic) senators about the $1.9T price tag for the legislation.
We’d anticipate intense bargaining over the relief package—with broad agreement over the approximately $415B in spending on direct COVID response, but more haggling over the size of the economic stimulus component, including the promised $1,400 per person in direct financial assistance, expanded unemployment insurance, and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.
Some of the broader economic measures, along with the rest of Biden’s healthcare agenda and his larger proposals to invest in rebuilding critical infrastructure, may have to wait for future legislation, as the administration prioritizes COVID relief as its first—and most important—order of business.
By the time President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Wednesday, more than 400,000 Americans will have died of covid-19 — a dismal milestone in the deadly pandemic.
Yet the crucial task he faces— rapidly distributing coronavirus vaccines to the American public — is one that most experts one year ago didn’t think would even be an option by this point. Few expected multiple vaccines to be approved within a year — a record for vaccine development, by any measure. And although the rollout has been criticized, Israel and Great Britain are the only major nations the United States lags in vaccinations per capita and its daily rate of immunizations has more than doubled in the past two weeks.
“You have my word: We will manage the hell out of this operation,” Biden said in a speech on Friday, announcing his own vaccination plan.
Regardless of whether one views the vaccine effort up to this point as a failure or success, this much is true: Biden and his new administration will face an enormous task, not only in getting the vaccines distributed but also in ramping up testing, convincing Americans to follow public health recommendations and responding to the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Here are six key promises Biden is making about his pandemic response:
1. Administer 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccine during the first 100 days of his administration.
Biden previously cited this as a goal. He reiterated it Friday while rolling out a broader plan for coronavirus vaccinations
The plan would require a rate of 1 million immunizations per day — and the United States isn’t too far away from that goal right now. Nearly 800,000 Americans are getting shots every day on average. That’s a considerable improvement from two weeks ago, when the daily rate was closer to 350,000.
The 100-shot goal is “absolutely a doable thing,” Anthony S. Fauci, direct of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, told NBC’s Chuck Todd yesterday.
“The feasibility of his goal is absolutely clear; there’s no doubt about it,” Fauci said. “That can be done.”
But top Biden advisers are also cautioning ramping up immunizations will be gradual and will require lots of coordination.
“The first days of that 100 days may be substantially slower than it will be towards the end,” Michael Osterholm, a member of Biden’s covid-19 task force, told Stat News.“It’s not going to occur quickly … you’re going to see the ramp-up occurring only when the resources really begin to flow.”
2. Set up mass vaccination clinics.
By the end of his first month in office, Biden has promised to open 100 federally managed clinics to administer shots. According to his vaccination plan, these sites would be set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The federal government would reimburse states for sending National Guard members to help run them.
Biden says he also wants to deploy mobile units to rural and underserved areas, along with boosting the role already being played by pharmacies in distributing shots.
This approach would diverge significantly from how things are being done now, with the Trump administration leaving it up to hospitals, doctors, pharmacies and state public health departments to administer the shots. Some cities and states have set up large vaccination sites, but many haven’t.
“Overall, the president-elect’s plan lays out a more muscular federal role than the Trump administration’s approach, which has relied heavily on each state to administer vaccines once the federal government ships them out,” Anne Gearan, Amy Goldstein and Laurie McGinley report.
“Many of the elements — such as seeking to expand the number of vaccination sites and setting up mobile vaccination clinics — were foreshadowed in a radio interview Biden gave last week and in an economic and health ‘relief plan’ he issued Thursday, which contains a $20 billion request of Congress to pay for a stepped-up campaign of mass vaccination,” our colleagues add.
3. Allow federally qualified health centers to directly access vaccines.
These community health centers — which receive higher government reimbursements but are required to accept all patients regardless of their ability to pay — are a core part of the nation’s safety net for low-income Americans.
Biden’s plan proposes a new program “to ensure [federally qualified health centers] can directly access vaccine supply where needed,” although here, too, it’s unclear exactly how that might work.
Under the Trump administration’s plan, these centers have been asked to enroll with state health departments as vaccine providers. States were then supposed to communicate to the federal government how many doses were needed and where they should go.
How well this is actually working is “all over the map,” said Amy Simmons Farber of the National Association of Community Health Centers. She said supplies vary from county to county and many health centers have received their supplies with little notice, making it challenging to prioritize and plan.
Farber declined to comment on the Biden plan, saying she doesn’t have a lot of details about it. But she’s “very encouraged by the recognition of the important role health centers have played in fighting the pandemic and the need to adequately resource them.”
4. Use the Defense Production Act to ensure plenty of vaccine supplies.
Several times over the course of the pandemic, President Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act, which allows the president to require companies to prioritize contracts deemed essential for national security.
Biden says he will invoke DPA to ensure a steady stream of these supplies, which include glass vials, stoppers, syringes, needles and the capacity for companies to rapidly fill vaccine vials and finish packaging them.
5. Sign executive actions to combat the virus.
Biden has promised a raft of executive actions in his first ten days as president, laid out over the weekend in a memo from incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain. They’ll include a number of pandemic-related orders.
On Inauguration Day, Biden intends to issue a mask mandate on federal property and for interstate travel, while encouraging all Americans to wear masks for what he’s calling a “100 Day Masking Challenge.”
The following day, Thursday, he’ll sign executive orders aimed at helping schools and businesses reopen safely, expanding testing, protecting workers and establishing clearer public health standards. And on Friday, Biden will direct his Cabinet secretaries to take immediate action to deliver economic relief to families.
“President-elect Biden will take action — not just to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration — but also to start moving our country forward,” Klain wrote.
6. Launch a vaccine education campaign.
The memo says Biden will run a “federally-run, locally-focused public education campaign.”
“The campaign will work to elevate trusted local voices and outline the historic efforts to deliver a safe and effective vaccine as part of a national strategy for beating covid-19,” it says.
But the transition team hasn’t detailed how the education campaign might differ from one launched by the Trump administration last month.
The Department of Health and Human Services said it plans to spend $250 million on efforts to promote vaccine awareness. It kicked off the effort with a $150,000 buy on YouTube for ads that feature Fauci and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn.
England will enter a national lockdown until at least mid-February to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Monday, as the so-called U.K. variant continues to spread throughout the country.
Coronavirus is again surging in the U.K. because of a new, more transmissible mutation of Covid-19 called B.1.1.7.
The lockdown will close all non-essential businesses and restaurants will be required to limit service to takeout orders.
Schools will be closed to all students except for the children of essential workers.
Johnson’s announcement comes after Scotland imposed a similar lockdown earlier Monday.
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.”
“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.”
“Hopefully late this year, life 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“I think that sometime in the second half of the yearthere 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.”
“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.”
President-elect Joe Biden plans to deliver an address on the coronavirus pandemic as the nation experiences what his chief medical adviser on the issue, Anthony S. Fauci, described Tuesday as a surge in cases “that has just gotten out of control in many respects.”
Biden’s remarks, planned Tuesday afternoon in Wilmington, Del., are expected to be his most extensive comments to date since early this month, when he laid out a plan for his first 100 days in office that included imploring all Americans to wear masks.
Fauci, appearing on CNN on Tuesday morning, lamented what he expects to be a post-holiday increase in cases and the strong possibility than January’s caseload will exceed even that of December. “You just have to assume it’s going to get worse,” Fauci said.
Fauci also acknowledged that the rollout of vaccines was not reaching as many Americans as quickly as the 20 million that Trump administration had pledged by the end of the month.
“We certainly are not at the numbers that we wanted to be at the end of December,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We are below where we want to be.”
But Fauci, who accepted Biden’s invitation to play an expanded role in his administration, expressed hope that by “showing leadership from the top,” Biden could make an impact — comments that appeared to be implicit criticism of President Trump, who has said little publicly about the crisis since Election Day.
“What he’s saying is that let’s take at least 100 days and everybody, every single person put aside this nonsense of making masks be a political statement or not,” Fauci said of Biden. “We know what works. We know social distancing works. We know avoiding congregant settings works. For goodness sakes, let’s all do it, and you will see that curve will come down.”
Separately Tuesday, Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris plans to get vaccinated in Washington. Biden received his first shot last week.
In remarks earlier this month, Biden also pledged to distribute 100 million vaccine shots in his first 100 days in office and said he wanted to open as many schools safely during the period as possible. He has also promised to sign an executive order requiring masks to be worn on federal property.
On Monday, Celine Gounder, a member of Biden’s covid-19 advisory board, said during a television appearance that Biden is also considering invoking the Defense Production Act to increase production of coronavirus vaccines,
Appearing on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” Grounder said Biden could invoke the wartime-production law “to make sure the personal protective equipment, the test capacity and the raw materials for the vaccines are produced in adequate supply.”
During his CNN appearance, Fauci said that getting children back to school safely should remain an imperative, despite rising caseloads.
“You can’t have one size fits all, but the bottom line, what I call default position, should be that wherever we are, try as best as we can to get the children back to school and to keep them in school and to have a plan to try and keep them as safe as possible,” he said.
About 200,000 new coronavirus cases have been reported daily in recent weeks, with a record high of 252,431 on Dec. 17.
The nation’s overall caseload surpassed 19 million Sunday, even as the holidays were expected to cause a lag in reporting. Hospitalizations have exceeded 100,000 since the start of December and hit a peak of 119,000 on Dec. 23. Deaths are averaging more than 2,000 a day, with the most ever reported — 3,406 fatalities — on Dec. 17.
President-elect Joe Biden’s front-runner for secretary of Health and Human Services is New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, and he may announce several of his administration’s health leaders as soon as next week, according to people familiar with the matter.
The position of HHS secretary is down to two possibilities, the people said, between Lujan Grisham and former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, a co-chair of the coronavirus advisory board Biden appointed shortly after he was elected.
Biden’s health team will assume office with the U.S. still suffering from the pandemic, as virus cases and hospitalizations soared over the past month. His health secretary is expected to have input on filling other top health posts, such as FDA commissioner and the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the people said, so those appointments may not be announced until later.
The Health and Human Services secretary will have the tough task of rebuilding Obamacare, which Biden has promised to expand. That will be a difficult undertaking with a Republican-led Senate.
Murthy or Jeff Zients, who led the Obama administration effort to repair healthcare.gov, the faulty Obamacare website, may be named to a leadership role on the pandemic, according to the people familiar with the matter — a “Covid-19 czar.”
Mandy Cohen, the North Carolina state health secretary, is a favorite for CMS, the people said. Biden’s choices to lead the Food and Drug Administration appear narrowed down to David Kessler, a former commissioner of the agency who is another co-chair of his coronavirus advisory board, and Joshua Sharfstein, a former FDA official who is a vice dean at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Biden announced his economic team on Tuesday, a group led by Treasury Secretary-designate Janet Yellen whose top priority will be restoring jobs eliminated by the pandemic. An announcement on some of his health team could come as soon as Monday, the people said.
The people familiar with the matter asked not to be identified because talks are still ongoing and no final decision has been made. It’s not clear how many people will be announced at once, or which positions would later be filled by the health secretary once the Biden administration is in place.
Biden’s transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. recorded 158,000 new coronavirus infections on Monday and a record 205,000 cases three days earlier. Biden will take office as distribution of coronavirus vaccines ramps up, and he has warned that any delay in the transition to his administration could slow or complicate that endeavor.
Lujan Grisham is seen as having an easier path to confirmation than Murthy, who has spoken out against gun violence as a public health threat and may draw strong opposition from Senate Republicans as a result, the people familiar with the matter said.
If he isn’t nominated to lead HHS, Murthy is under consideration as Covid-19 czar or another role, including a second stint as surgeon general, the people said. Murthy talks to Biden almost every day as co-chair of his advisory board and is seen as having influential supporters.
Murthy and Zients have also represented Biden’s transition team on calls with current HHS officials, two of the people said.
Biden’s team is still discussing what the White House coronavirus task force and Operation Warp Speed — the Trump administration’s effort to fast-track vaccines — will look like under the new administration.
If Biden announces his health team next week, he may be just days ahead of the first emergency FDA approval of a coronavirus vaccine. President Donald Trump is planning a vaccine summit next week at the White House, while an FDA advisory panel is scheduled to meet on Dec. 10 to discuss the shots.
When throngs of tourists and revelers left their homes over Memorial Day weekend, public health experts braced for a surge in coronavirus infections that could force a second round of painful shutdowns.
Two weeks later, that surge has hit places like Houston, Phoenix, South Carolina and Missouri. Week-over-week case counts are on the rise in half of all states. Only 16 states and the District of Columbia have seen their total case counts decline for two consecutive weeks.
But instead of new lockdowns to stop a second spike in cases, states are moving ahead with plans to allow most businesses to reopen, lifting stay-at-home orders and returning to something that resembles normal life.
“There is no — zero — discussion of re-tightening any measures to combat this trend. Instead, states are treating this as a one-way trip. That sets us up for a very dangerous fall, but potentially even for a dangerous summer,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who oversaw the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance during the Obama administration.
The moves suggest that many Americans — anxious to end two-plus months of lockdowns, smarting from the devastating economic toll they have already suffered and focused on the social justice protests that have roiled the nation — are ready to put the coronavirus behind them.
Even as case curves bend upward again, little action has been taken to counter the reversal.
“There are places that I suspect a lot of people are shrugging their shoulders and just rushing forward,” said David Rubin, who runs the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “I just worry that they might lose control of their epidemic, and that’s what you have to worry about these days.”
The statistics are startling. The average number of confirmed cases over a two-week period has doubled or more in Arizona, Arkansas, Oregon and Utah. Fewer than a quarter of intensive care unit beds in Alabama, Georgia and Rhode Island are available.
In Texas, the number of people admitted to the hospital has grown 42 percent since Memorial Day. Arizona’s top health official has urged hospitals to activate their emergency plans.
North Carolina, California, Mississippi and Arkansas are all reporting record levels of hospitalizations.
Some experts worry Americans have begun to accept the drumbeat of death, numbed by the nearly 2 million cases already confirmed across the country and the 112,000 who have died.
A virus once dismissed as not a serious threat to the nation and later acknowledged as a public health emergency is now becoming just another daily worry to be absorbed.
“One fear is that the U.S. will accept tens of thousands of deaths, as from gun violence, unlike other countries,” said Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Obama administration.
“It’s not just lives. Unless we protect lives, we won’t get livelihoods back,” said Frieden, who now runs Resolve to Save Lives, a global health nonprofit.
The race to reopen comes even as new research shows the lockdowns were working. The dramatic steps Americans took to stop the virus saved an estimated 5 million infections through April 6, according to research by the Global Policy Lab at the University of California-Berkeley.
President Trump has been perhaps the loudest proponent of reopening, at times putting pressure on states to lift coronavirus restrictions even if the data is flashing warning signs.
World Health Organization (WHO) officials have practically begged nations to be slow and considerate as they move to reopen their economies.
“We need to focus on the now. This is far from over,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the coronavirus, told reporters at a virtual press conference Monday. “I know many of us would like this to be over and I know many situations are seeing positive signs. But it is far from over.”
On Wednesday, WHO’s director of emergency programs acknowledged the challenges of lockdown life.
“We fully understand that governments are very reticent to go back into lockdowns that can be damaging to social and economic life,” said Mike Ryan.
“There has to be a balance between lives and livelihoods and the public health control of COVID-19,” Ryan added.
There are few signs that Americans are heeding the warnings.
“We’re just at the beginning of the Memorial Day story, not at the end,” Rubin said. “We are seeing the sea levels rise.”
It’s been less than two weeks since New Zealand imposed a coronavirus lockdown so strict that swimming at the beach and hunting in bushland were banned. They’re not essential activities, plus we’ve been told not to do anything that could divert emergency services’ resources.
People have been walking and biking strictly in their neighborhoods, lining up six feet apart while waiting to go one-in-one-out into grocery stores, and joining swaths of the world in discovering the vagaries of home schooling.
It took only 10 days for signs that the approach here — “elimination” rather than the “containment” goal of the United States and other Western countries — is working.
The number of new cases has fallen for two consecutive days, despite a huge increase in testing, with 54 confirmed or probable cases reported Tuesday. That means the number of people who have recovered, 65, exceeds the number of daily infections.
“The signs are promising,” Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health, said Tuesday.
The speedy results have led to calls to ease the lockdown conditions, even a little, for the four-day Easter holiday, especially as summer lingers on.
But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is adamant that New Zealand will complete four weeks of lockdown — two full 14-day incubation cycles — before letting up. She has, however, given the Easter Bunny special dispensation to work this weekend.
How has New Zealand, a country I still call home after 20 years abroad, controlled its outbreak so quickly?
When I arrived here a month ago, traveling from the epicenter of China via the hotspot of South Korea, I was shocked that officials did not take my temperature at the airport. I was told simply to self-isolate for 14 days (I did).
But with the coronavirus tearing through Italy and spreading in the United States, this heavily tourism-reliant country — it gets about four million international visitors a year, almost as many as its total population — did the previously unthinkable: it shut its borders to foreigners on March 19.
Two days later, Ardern delivered a televised address from her office — the first time since 1982 that an Oval Office-style speech had been given — announcing a coronavirus response alert plan involving four stages, with full lockdown being Level 4.
A group of influential leaders got on the phone with her the following day to urge moving to Level 4.
“We were hugely worried about what was happening in Italy and Spain,” said one of them, Stephen Tindall, founder of the Warehouse, New Zealand’s largest retailer.
“If we didn’t shut down quickly enough, the pain was going to go on for a very long time,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s inevitable that we will have to shut down anyway, so we would rather it be sharp and short.”
On the Monday, March 23, Ardern delivered another statement and gave the country 48 hours to prepare for a Level 4 lockdown. “We currently have 102 cases,” she said. “But so did Italy once.”
From that Wednesday night, everyone had to stay at home for four weeks unless they worked in an essential job such as health care, or were going to the supermarket or exercising near their home.
There have been critics and rebels. The police have been ordering surfers out of the waves. The health minister was caught — and publicly chastised by Ardern, who said she would have fired him if it weren’t disruptive to the crisis response — for mountain biking and taking his family to the beach.
But there has been a sense of collective purpose. The police phone line for nonemergencies has been overwhelmed with people calling to “dob in,” as we say here, others they think are breaching the rules.
The response has been notably apolitical. The center-right National Party has clearly made a decision not to criticize the government’s response, and in fact to help it.
These efforts appear to be paying off.
After peaking at 89 on April 2, the daily number of new cases ticked down to 67 on Monday and 54 on Tuesday. The vast majority of cases can be linked to international travel, making contact tracing relatively easy, and many are consolidated into identifiable clusters.
Because there is little evidence of community transmission, New Zealand does not have huge numbers of people overwhelming hospitals. Only one person, an elderly woman with existing health problems, has died.
The nascent slowdown reflected “a triumph of science and leadership,” said Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago and one of the country’s top epidemiologists.
“Other countries have had a gradual ramp-up, but our approach is exactly the opposite,” he said. While other Western countries have tried to slow the disease and “flatten the curve,” New Zealand has tried to stamp it out entirely.
In New Zealand’s case, being a small island nation makes it easy to shut borders. It also helps that the country often feels like a village where everyone knows everyone else, so messages can travel quickly.
New Zealand’s next challenge: Once the virus is eliminated, how to keep it that way.
The country won’t be able to allow people free entry into New Zealand until the virus has stopped circulating globally or a vaccine has been developed, said Baker. But with strict border control, restrictions could be gradually relaxed and life inside New Zealand could return to almost normal.
Ardern has said her government is considering mandatory quarantine for New Zealanders returning to the country post-lockdown. “I really want a watertight system at our border,” she said this week, “and I think we can do better on that.”
The rotating cast of officials appearing behind President Trump to detail the government’s response to the coronavirus are leading to new criticisms that they reflect a scattered approach from the White House that too often leaves states fending for themselves.
Top Trump administration officials say the appearances by a broad range of administration officials shows the “all of government” undertaken to combat the coronavirus.
But some current and former government officials see a disconnected strategy where it can be unclear who’s in charge of what or whether there is a coordinated long-term plan.
The shifting assignments and addition of officials with unclear responsibilities have contributed to the inefficient distribution of key supplies, those officials argue, which has been exacerbated by Trump’s insistence that the federal government merely play a supporting role for states.
“The approach that’s been taken at the White House with respect to critical inputs – protective gear, testing kits, ventilators, reagents, skilled personnel – there has never been a clear plan,” said Steve Morrison, director of Global Health Policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“And the alternative has been a very haphazard patchwork approach that has gone from overpromising and underdelivering multiple times and left the states on their own,” added Morrison, a former Clinton administration official.
In recent days, more than a dozen administration officials have appeared behind Trump at the daily briefings.
Attorney General William Barr rolled out new drug interdiction efforts; Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke about the military pitching in while retaining combat readiness; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin touched on economic relief for businesses; senior adviser Jared Kushner outlined partnerships with the private sector; and top trade adviser Peter Navarro elaborated on the use of the Defense Production Act.
A White House spokesman rejected criticism that the effort has been disconnected. He identified Vice President Pence as the person in charge of coordinating the entire response, and listed dozens of actions taken by the administration that include travel restrictions, disaster declarations for states and funding for businesses and families impacted by the virus.
“As both the President and Vice President have said, this is a locally executed, state managed, federally supported response to a global pandemic,” deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement. “Every level of government needs to deliver solutions and that is what we are doing in partnership. During these difficult times, Americans are receiving comfort, hope and resources from their President, as well as their local officials, because this is an all-of-America effort.”
The White House has shifted responsibilities as it scrambled to get its arms around the magnitude of the pandemic, which Trump downplayed for January and most of February.
The White House created a coronavirus task force at the end of January, putting Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar in charge.
Trump tapped Pence in late February to oversee the federal response as it became apparent the virus was spreading domestically. Within days, Pence was identifying himself as the leader of the task force, pushing Azar aside and adding officials from across the government to help steer the response effort.
In the weeks since, Azar and Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have been largely absent from public briefings, and the CDC has stopped holding its own briefings for reporters even as the public health crisis worsened.
Kushner made his first appearance in the briefing room Thursday, where he elaborated on the work he’s done to facilitate the supply chain at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to try and get ventilators and other equipment out to states in need.
The president’s son-in-law has drawn scrutiny for his increased portfolio in responding to the virus given his lack of medical background. But Kushner rejected the idea that he is operating a “shadow task force.”
“I would just say very simply — look, the president asked the vice president to run the task force. The vice president asked me to assist,” Kushner said. “I’ve been serving really at the direction of the vice president, and he’s asked me to get involved in different projects.”
FEMA was put in charge of organizing the response to states, but only in late March, forcing an agency typically tasked with targeting relief toward a region reeling from wildfires or hurricanes to quickly grasp the logistics of responding to a nationwide pandemic.
But Kushner and some of his allies have set up shop with FEMA to mobilize the private sector. While officials describe the effort as well intentioned, it has further clouded who was responsible for getting desperately needed ventilators and personal protective gear to states facing shortages.
Trump put Navarro in charge of managing the Defense Production Act to push companies to produce essential supplies. And while Navarro spoke at length about that effort from the White House on Thursday, Trump has been the one needling companies like General Motors and 3M on Twitter and invoking the act to ramp up manufacturing of masks and ventilators.
“There have been so many iterations. Who’s in charge has been a constantly evolving item,” said one government official who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
That has been a particular point of frustration for states. Governors in both parties have pushed for the federal government to use a stronger hand in leading the process of procuring equipment so that states aren’t forced to bid against each other. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) last week urged Trump to be more like Tom Brady than a backup quarterback.
But Trump has been adamant that he views the federal government’s role as secondary, going as far as to blame states who failed to foresee the pandemic for their own shortages.
“Remember, we are a backup for them. The complainers should have been stocked up and ready long before this crisis hit,” Trump tweeted Thursday. “Other states are thrilled with the job we have done. Sending many Ventilators today, with thousands being built. 51 large cargo planes coming in with medical supplies. Prefer sending directly to hospitals.”
Kushner adopted that tone on Thursday when he chided state leaders for not having a full accounting of their supplies before suggesting the national stockpile wasn’t intended for states to use.
Trump’s criticism of states; preparedness for the pandemic may be difficult for some local leaders to swallow, given the president was still comparing the death toll from the coronavirus to the flu and automobile accidents as recently as two weeks ago.
The president has adopted a more somber tone in the past week as the White House rolled out grim projections that show hundreds of thousands of Americans could die from the virus even with strong mitigation measures.
But public health experts and former health officials have expressed skepticism that Trump is thinking far enough ahead to address the supply chain and medical problems the virus will pose in the weeks and months to come.
“There is a basic playbook for how to deal with an epidemic,” said Thomas Frieden, who served as CDC director during the Obama administration.
“You have the incident manager, they control the response, they are aligned with political leadership. They tee up the decisions to be made, there are policy decisions to be made,” he said. “I don’t see that happening. That makes me really worried. I don’t see us thinking a week, two weeks, a month ahead.”