The Unique U. S. Failure to Control the Coronavirus

The Unique U.S. Failure to Control the Virus - The New York Times

Nearly every country has struggled to contain the coronavirus and made mistakes along the way.

China committed the first major failure, silencing doctors who tried to raise alarms about the virus and allowing it to escape from Wuhan. Much of Europe went next, failing to avoid enormous outbreaks. Today, many countries — Japan, Canada, France, Australia and more — are coping with new increases in cases after reopening parts of society.

Yet even with all of these problems, one country stands alone, as the only affluent nation to have suffered a severe, sustained outbreak for more than four months: the United States.

Over the past month, about 1.9 million Americans have tested positive for the virus.

That’s more than five times as many as in all of Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Australia, combined.

Even though some of these countries saw worrying new outbreaks over the past month, including 50,000 new cases in Spain …

the outbreaks still pale in comparison to those in the United States. Florida, with a population less than half of Spain, has reported nearly 300,000 cases in the same period.

When it comes to the virus, the United States has come to resemble not the wealthy and powerful countries to which it is often compared but instead far poorer countries, like Brazil, Peru and South Africa, or those with large migrant populations, like Bahrain and Oman.

As in several of those other countries, the toll of the virus in the United States has fallen disproportionately on poorer people and groups that have long suffered discrimination. Black and Latino residents of the United States have contracted the virus at roughly three times as high of a rate as white residents.

How did this happen? The New York Times set out to reconstruct the unique failure of the United States, through numerous interviews with scientists and public health experts around the world. The reporting points to two central themes.

First, the United States faced longstanding challenges in confronting a major pandemic. It is a large country at the nexus of the global economy, with a tradition of prioritizing individualism over government restrictions. That tradition is one reason the United States suffers from an unequal health care system that has long produced worse medical outcomes — including higher infant mortality and diabetes rates and lower life expectancy — than in most other rich countries.

“As an American, I think there is a lot of good to be said about our libertarian tradition,” Dr. Jared Baeten, an epidemiologist and vice dean at the University of Washington School of Public Health, said. “But this is the consequence — we don’t succeed as well as a collective.”

The second major theme is one that public health experts often find uncomfortable to discuss because many try to steer clear of partisan politics. But many agree that the poor results in the United States stem in substantial measure from the performance of the Trump administration.

In no other high-income country — and in only a few countries, period — have political leaders departed from expert advice as frequently and significantly as the Trump administration. President Trump has said the virus was not serious; predicted it would disappear; spent weeks questioning the need for masks; encouraged states to reopen even with large and growing caseloads; and promoted medical disinformation.

In recent days, Mr. Trump has continued the theme, offering a torrent of misleading statistics in his public appearances that make the situation sound less dire than it is.

Some Republican governors have followed his lead and also played down the virus, while others have largely followed the science. Democratic governors have more reliably heeded scientific advice, but their performance in containing the virus has been uneven.

“In many of the countries that have been very successful they had a much crisper strategic direction and really had a vision,” said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who wrote a guide to reopening safely for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group. “I’m not sure we ever really had a plan or a strategy — or at least it wasn’t public.”

Together, the national skepticism toward collective action and the Trump administration’s scattered response to the virus have contributed to several specific failures and missed opportunities, Times reporting shows:

  • a lack of effective travel restrictions;

  • repeated breakdowns in testing;

  • confusing advice about masks;

  • a misunderstanding of the relationship between the virus and the economy;

  • and inconsistent messages from public officials.

Already, the American death toll is of a different order of magnitude than in most other countries. With only 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States has accounted for 22 percent of coronavirus deaths. Canada, a rich country that neighbors the United States, has a per capita death rate about half as large. And these gaps may worsen in coming weeks, given the lag between new cases and deaths.

For many Americans who survive the virus or do not contract it, the future will bring other problems. Many schools will struggle to open. And the normal activities of life — family visits, social gatherings, restaurant meals, sporting events — may be more difficult in the United States than in any other affluent country.

 

In retrospect, one of Mr. Trump’s first policy responses to the virus appears to have been one of his most promising.

On Jan. 31, his administration announced that it was restricting entry to the United States from China: Many foreign nationals — be they citizens of China or other countries — would not be allowed into the United States if they had been to China in the previous two weeks.

It was still early in the spread of the virus. The first cases in Wuhan, China, had been diagnosed about a month before, and the first announced case in the United States had come on Jan. 21. In announcing the new travel policy, Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, declared that the virus posed “a public health emergency.” Mr. Trump described the policy as his “China ban.”

After the Trump administration acted, several other countries quickly announced their own restrictions on travel from China, including Japan, Vietnam and Australia.

But it quickly became clear that the United States’ policy was full of holes. It did not apply to immediate family members of American citizens and permanent residents returning from China, for example. In the two months after the policy went into place, almost 40,000 people arrived in the United States on direct flights from China.

Even more important, the policy failed to take into account that the virus had spread well beyond China by early February. Later data would show that many infected people arriving in the United States came from Europe. (The Trump administration did not restrict travel from Europe until March and exempted Britain from that ban despite a high infection rate there.)

The administration’s policy also did little to create quarantines for people who entered the United States and may have had the virus.

Authorities in some other places took a far more rigorous approach to travel restrictions.

South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan largely restricted entry to residents returning home. Those residents then had to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival, with the government keeping close tabs to ensure they did not leave their home or hotel. South Korea and Hong Kong also tested for the virus at the airport and transferred anyone who was positive to a government facility.

Australia offers a telling comparison. Like the United States, it is separated from China by an ocean and is run by a conservative leader — Scott Morrison, the prime minister. Unlike the United States, it put travel restrictions at the center of its virus response.

Australian officials noticed in March that the travel restrictions they had announced on Feb. 1 were not preventing the virus from spreading. So they went further.

On March 27, Mr. Morrison announced that Australia would no longer trust travelers to isolate themselves voluntarily. The country would instead mandate that everyone arriving from overseas, including Australian citizens, spend two weeks quarantined in a hotel.

The protocols were strict. As people arrived at an airport, the authorities transported them directly to hotels nearby. People were not even allowed to leave their hotel to exercise. The Australian military helped enforce the rules.

Around the same time, several Australian states with minor outbreaks shut their own borders to keep out Australians from regions with higher rates of infection. That hardening of internal boundaries had not happened since the 1918 flu pandemic, said Ian Mackay, a virologist in Queensland, one of the first states to block entry from other areas.

The United States, by comparison, imposed few travel restrictions, either for foreigners or American citizens. Individual states did little to enforce the rules they did impose.

“People need a bit more than a suggestion to look after their own health,” said Dr. Mackay, who has been working with Australian officials on their pandemic response. “They need guidelines, they need rules — and they need to be enforced.”

Travel restrictions and quarantines were central to the success in controlling the virus in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, as well as New Zealand, many epidemiologists believe. In Australia, the number of new cases per day fell more than 90 percent in April. It remained near zero through May and early June, even as the virus surged across much of the United States.

In the past six weeks, Australia has begun to have a resurgence — which itself points to the importance of travel rules. The latest outbreak stems in large part from problems with the quarantine in the city of Melbourne. Compared with other parts of Australia, Melbourne relied more on private security contractors who employed temporary workers — some of whom lacked training and failed to follow guidelines — to enforce quarantines at local hotels. Officials have responded by banning out-of-state travel again and imposing new lockdowns.

Still, the tolls in Australia and the United States remain vastly different. Fewer than 300 Australians have died of complications from Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus. If the United States had the same per capita death rate, about 3,300 Americans would have died, rather than 158,000.

Enacting tough travel restrictions in the United States would not have been easy. It is more integrated into the global economy than Australia is, has a tradition of local policy decisions and borders two other large countries. But there is a good chance that a different version of Mr. Trump’s restrictions — one with fewer holes and stronger quarantines — would have meaningfully slowed the virus’s spread.

Traditionally, public health experts had not seen travel restrictions as central to fighting a pandemic, given their economic costs and the availability of other options, like testing, quarantining and contact tracing, Dr. Baeten, the University of Washington epidemiologist, said. But he added that travel restrictions had been successful enough in fighting the coronavirus around the world that those views may need to be revisited.

“Travel,” he said, “is the hallmark of the spread of this virus around the world.”

 

On Jan. 16, nearly a week before the first announced case of the coronavirus in the United States, a German hospital made an announcement. Its researchers had developed a test for the virus, which they described as the world’s first.

The researchers posted the formula for the test online and said they expected that countries with strong public health systems would soon be able to produce their own tests. “We’re more concerned about labs in countries where it’s not that easy to transport samples, or staff aren’t trained that thoroughly, or if there is a large number of patients who have to be tested,” Dr. Christian Drosten, the director of the Institute for Virology at the hospital, known as Charité, in Berlin.

It turned out, however, that the testing problems would not be limited to less-developed countries.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed their own test four days after the German lab did. C.D.C. officials claimed that the American test would be more accurate than the German one, by using three genetic sequences to detect the virus rather than two. The federal government quickly began distributing the American test to state officials.

But the test had a flaw. The third genetic sequence produced inconclusive results, so the C.D.C. told state labs to pause their work. In meetings of the White House’s coronavirus task force, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the C.D.C. director, played down the problem and said it would soon be solved.

Instead, it took weeks to fix. During that time, the United States had to restrict testing to people who had clear reason to think they had the virus. All the while, the virus was quietly spreading.

By early March, with the testing delays still unresolved, the New York region became a global center of the virus — without people realizing it until weeks later. More widespread testing could have made a major difference, experts said, leading to earlier lockdowns and social distancing and ultimately less sickness and death.

“You can’t stop it if you can’t see it,” Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the director general at the World Health Organization, said.

While the C.D.C. was struggling to solve its testing flaws, Germany was rapidly building up its ability to test. Chancellor Angela Merkel, a chemist by training, and other political leaders were watching the virus sweep across northern Italy, not far from southern Germany, and pushed for a big expansion of testing.

By the time the virus became a problem in Germany, labs around the country had thousands of test kits ready to use. From the beginning, the government covered the cost of the tests. American laboratories often charge patients about $100 for a test.

Without free tests, Dr. Hendrik Streeck, director of the Institute of Virology at the University Hospital Bonn, said at the time, “a young person with no health insurance and an itchy throat is unlikely to go to the doctor and therefore risks infecting more people.”

Germany was soon far ahead of other countries in testing. It was able to diagnose asymptomatic cases, trace the contacts of new patients and isolate people before they could spread the virus. The country has still suffered a significant outbreak. But it has had many fewer cases per capita than Italy, Spain, France, Britain or Canada — and about one-fifth the rate of the United States.

The United States eventually made up ground on tests. In recent weeks, it has been conducting more per capita than any other country, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.

But now there is a new problem: The virus has grown even more rapidly than testing capacity. In recent weeks, Americans have often had to wait in long lines, sometimes in scorching heat, to be tested.

One measure of the continuing troubles with testing is the percentage of tests that come back positive. In a country that has the virus under control, fewer than 5 percent of tests come back positive, according to World Health Organization guidelines. Many countries have reached that benchmark. The United States, even with the large recent volume of tests, has not.

“We do have a lot of testing,” Ms. Rivers, the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, said. “The problem is we also have a lot of cases.”

The huge demand for tests has overwhelmed medical laboratories, and many need days — or even up to two weeks — to produce results. “That really is not useful for public health and medical management,” Ms. Rivers added. While people are waiting for their results, many are also spreading the virus.

In Belgium recently, test results have typically come back in 48 to 72 hours. In Germany and Greece, it is two days. In France, the wait is often 24 hours.

 

For the first few months of the pandemic, public health experts could not agree on a consistent message about masks. Some said masks reduced the spread of the virus. Many experts, however, discouraged the use of masks, saying — somewhat contradictorily — that their benefits were modest and that they should be reserved for medical workers.

“We don’t generally recommend the wearing of masks in public by otherwise well individuals because it has not been up to now associated with any particular benefit,” Dr. Michael Ryan, a World Health Organization official, said at a March 30 news conference.

His colleague Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove explained that it was important to “prioritize the use of masks for those who need them most.”

The conflicting advice, echoed by the C.D.C. and others, led to relatively little mask wearing in many countries early in the pandemic. But several Asian countries were exceptions, partly because they had a tradition of mask wearing to avoid sickness or minimize the effects of pollution.

By January, mask wearing in Japan was widespread, as it often had been during a typical flu season. Masks also quickly became the norm in much of South KoreaThailandVietnamTaiwan and China.

In the following months, scientists around the world began to report two strands of evidence that both pointed to the importance of masks: Research showed that the virus could be transmitted through droplets that hang in the air, and several studies found that the virus spread less frequently in places where people were wearing masks.

On one cruise ship that gave passengers masks after somebody got sick, for example, many fewer people became ill than on a different cruise where people did not wear masks.

Consistent with that evidence was Asia’s success in holding down the number of cases (after China’s initial failure to do so). In South Korea, the per capita death rate is about one-eightieth as large as in the United States; Japan, despite being slow to enact social distancing, has a death rate about one-sixtieth as large.

“We should have told people to wear cloth masks right off the bat,” Dr. George Rutherford of the University of California, San Francisco, said.

In many countries, officials reacted to the emerging evidence with a clear message: Wear a mask.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada began wearing one in May. During a visit to an elementary school, President Emmanuel Macron of France wore a French-made blue mask that complemented his suit and tie. Zuzana Caputova, the president of Slovakia, created a social media sensation by wearing a fuchsia-colored mask that matched her dress.

In the United States, however, masks did not become a fashion symbol. They became a political symbol.

Mr. Trump avoided wearing one in public for months. He poked fun at a reporter who wore one to a news conference, asking the reporter to take it off and saying that wearing one was “politically correct.” He described former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s decision to wear one outdoors as “very unusual.”

Many other Republicans and conservative news outlets, like Fox News, echoed his position. Mask wearing, as a result, became yet another partisan divide in a highly polarized country.

Throughout much of the Northeast and the West Coast, more than 80 percent of people wore masks when within six feet of someone else. In more conservative areas, like the Southeast, the share was closer to 50 percent.

A March survey found that partisanship was the biggest predictor of whether Americans regularly wore masks — bigger than their age or whether they lived in a region with a high number of virus cases. In many of the places where people adopted a hostile view of masks, including Texas and the Southeast, the number of virus cases began to soar this spring.

 

Throughout March and April, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia and staff members held long meetings inside a conference room at the State Capitol in Atlanta. They ordered takeout lunches from local restaurants like the Varsity and held two daily conference calls with the public health department, the National Guard and other officials.

One of the main subjects of the meetings was when to end Georgia’s lockdown and reopen the state’s economy. By late April, Mr. Kemp decided that it was time.

Georgia had not met the reopening criteria laid out by the Trump administration (and many outside health experts considered those criteria too lax). The state was reporting about 700 new cases a day, more than when it shut down on April 3.

Nonetheless, Mr. Kemp went ahead. He said that Georgia’s economy could not wait any longer, and it became one of the first states to reopen.

“I don’t give a damn about politics right now,” he said at an April 20 news conference announcing the reopening. He went on to describe business owners with employees at home who were “going broke, worried about whether they can feed their children, make the mortgage payment.”

Four days later, across Georgia, barbers returned to their chairs, wearing face masks and latex gloves. Gyms and bowling alleys were allowed to reopen, followed by restaurants on April 27. The stay-at-home order expired at 11:59 p.m. on April 30.

Mr. Kemp’s decision was part of a pattern: Across the United States, caseloads were typically much higher when the economy reopened than in other countries.

As the United States endured weeks of closed stores and rising unemployment this spring, many politicians — particularly Republicans, like Mr. Kemp — argued that there was an unavoidable trade-off between public health and economic health. And if crushing the virus meant ruining the economy, maybe the side effects of the treatment were worse than the disease.

Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, put the case most bluntly, and became an object of scorn, especially from the political left, for doing so. “There are more important things than living,” Mr. Patrick said in a television interview the same week that Mr. Kemp reopened Georgia.

It may have been an inartful line, but Mr. Patrick’s full argument was not wholly dismissive of human life. He was instead suggesting that the human costs of shutting down the economy — the losses of jobs and income and the associated damages to living standards and people’s health — were greater than the costs of a virus that kills only a small percentage of people who get it.

“We are crushing the economy,” he said, citing the damage to his own children and grandchildren. “We’ve got to take some risks and get back in the game and get this country back up and running.”

The trouble with the argument, epidemiologists and economists agree, was that public health and the economy’s health were not really in conflict.

Early in the pandemic, Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist and former Obama administration official, proposed what he called the first rule of virus economics: “The best way to fix the economy is to get control of the virus,” he said. Until the virus was under control, many people would be afraid to resume normal life and the economy would not function normally.

The events of the last few months have borne out Mr. Goolsbee’s prediction. Even before states announced shutdown orders in the spring, many families began sharply reducing their spending. They were responding to their own worries about the virus, not any official government policy.

And the end of lockdowns, like Georgia’s, did not fix the economy’s problems. It instead led to a brief increase in spending and hiring that soon faded.

In the weeks after states reopened, the virus began surging. Those that opened earliest tended to have worse outbreaks, according to a Times analysis. The Southeast fared especially badly.

In June and July, Georgia reported more than 125,000 new virus cases, turning it into one of the globe’s new hot spots. That was more new cases than Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Australia combined during that time frame.

Americans, frightened by the virus’s resurgence, responded by visiting restaurants and stores less often. The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits has stopped falling. The economy’s brief recovery in April and May seems to have petered out in June and July.

In large parts of the United States, officials chose to reopen before medical experts thought it wise, in an attempt to put people back to work and spark the economy. Instead, the United States sparked a huge new virus outbreak — and the economy did not seem to benefit.

“Politicians are not in control,” Mr. Goolsbee said. “They got all the illness and still didn’t fix their economies.”

The situation is different in the European Union and other regions that have had more success reducing new virus cases. Their economies have begun showing some promising signs, albeit tentative ones. In Germany, retail sales and industrial production have risen, and the most recent unemployment rate was 6.4 percent. In the United States, it was 11.1 percent.

 

The United States has not performed uniquely poorly on every measure of the virus response.

Mask wearing is more common than throughout much of Scandinavia and Australia, according to surveys by YouGov and Imperial College London. The total death rate is still higher in Spain, Italy and Britain.

But there is one way — in addition to the scale of the continuing outbreaks and deaths — that the United States stands apart: In no other high-income country have the messages from political leaders been nearly so mixed and confusing.

These messages, in turn, have been amplified by television stations and websites friendly to the Republican Party, especially Fox News and the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which operates almost 200 local stations. To anybody listening to the country’s politicians or watching these television stations, it would have been difficult to know how to respond to the virus.

Mr. Trump’s comments, in particular, have regularly contradicted the views of scientists and medical experts.

The day after the first American case was diagnosed, he said, “We have it totally under control.” In late February, he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” Later, he incorrectly stated that any American who wanted a test could get one. On July 28, he falsely proclaimed that “large portions of our country” were “corona-free.”

He has also promoted medical misinformation about the virus. In March, Mr. Trump called it “very mild” and suggested it was less deadly than the common flu. He has encouraged Americans to treat it with the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, despite a lack of evidence about its effectiveness and concerns about its safety. At one White House briefing, he mused aloud about injecting people with disinfectant to treat the virus.

These comments have helped create a large partisan divide in the country, with Republican-leaning voters less willing to wear masks or remain socially distant. Some Democratic-leaning voters and less political Americans, in turn, have decided that if everybody is not taking the virus seriously, they will not either. State leaders from both parties have sometimes created so many exceptions about which workplaces can continue operating normally that their stay-at-home orders have had only modest effects.

“It doesn’t seem we have had the same unity of purpose that I would have expected,” Ms. Rivers, the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, said. “You need everyone to come together to accomplish something big.”

Across much of Europe and Asia, as well as in Canada, Australia and elsewhere, leaders have delivered a consistent message: The world is facing a deadly virus, and only careful, consistent action will protect people.

Many of those leaders have then pursued aggressive action. Mr. Trump and his top aides, by contrast, persuaded themselves in April that the virus was fading. They have also declined to design a national strategy for testing or other virus responses, leading to a chaotic mix of state policies.

“If you had to summarize our approach, it’s really poor federal leadership — disorganization and denial,” said Andy Slavitt, who ran Medicare and Medicaid from 2015 to 2017. “Watch Angela Merkel. Watch how she communicates with the public. Watch how Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand does it. They’re very clear. They’re very consistent about what the most important priorities are.”

New York — both the city and the state — offers a useful case study. Like much of Europe, New York responded too slowly to the first wave of the virus. As late as March 15, Mayor Bill de Blasio encouraged people to go to their neighborhood bar.

Soon, the city and state were overwhelmed. Ambulances wailed day and night. Hospitals filled to the breaking point. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — a Democrat, like Mr. de Blasio — was slow to protect nursing home residents, and thousands died. Earlier action in New York could have saved a significant number of lives, epidemiologists say.

By late March, however, New York’s leaders understood the threat, and they reversed course.

They insisted that people stay home. They repeated the message every day, often on television. When other states began reopening, New York did not. “You look at the states that opened fast without metrics, without guardrails, it’s a boomerang,” Mr. Cuomo said on June 4.

The lockdowns and the consistent messages had a big effect. By June, New York and surrounding states had some of the lowest rates of virus spread in the country. Across much of the Southeast, Southwest and West Coast, on the other hand, the pandemic was raging.

Many experts now say that the most disappointing part of the country’s failure is that the outcome was avoidable.

What may not have been avoidable was the initial surge of the virus: The world’s success in containing previous viruses, like SARS, had lulled many people into thinking a devastating pandemic was unlikely. That complacency helps explains China’s early mistakes, as well as the terrible death tolls in the New York region, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Britain and other parts of Europe.

But these countries and dozens more — as well as New York — have since shown that keeping the virus in check is feasible.

For all of the continuing uncertainty about how this new coronavirus is transmitted and how it affects the human body, much has become clear. It often spreads indoors, with close human contact. Talking, singing, sneezing and coughing play a major role in transmission. Masks reduce the risk. Restarting normal activity almost always leads to new cases that require quick action — testing, tracing of patients and quarantining — to keep the virus in check.

When countries and cities have heeded these lessons, they have rapidly reduced the spread of the virus and been able to move back, gingerly, toward normal life. In South Korea, fans have been able to attend baseball games in recent weeks. In Denmark, Italy and other parts of Europe, children have returned to school.

In the United States, the virus continues to overwhelm daily life.

“This isn’t actually rocket science,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, who ran the New York City health department and the C.D.C. for a combined 15 years. “We know what to do, and we’re not doing it.”

 

 

Coronavirus Cases Rise Sharply in Prisons Even as They Plateau Nationwide

Protesters held a rally to bring awareness about the spread of the coronavirus inside the Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio, in May.

Prison officials have been reluctant to do widespread virus testing even as infection rates are escalating.

Cases of the coronavirus in prisons and jails across the United States have soared in recent weeks, even as the overall daily infection rate in the nation has remained relatively flat.

The number of prison inmates known to be infected has doubled during the past month to more than 68,000. Prison deaths tied to the coronavirus have also risen, by 73 percent since mid-May. By now, the five largest known clusters of the virus in the United States are not at nursing homes or meatpacking plants, but inside correction institutions, according to data The New York Times has been collecting about confirmed coronavirus cases since the pandemic reached American shores.

And the risk of more cases appears imminent: The swift growth in virus cases behind bars comes as demonstrators arrested as part of large police brutality protests across the nation have often been placed in crowded holding cells in local jails.

A muddled, uneven response by corrections officials to testing and care for inmates and workers is complicating the spread of the coronavirus. In interviews, prison and jail officials acknowledged that their approach has largely been based on trial and error, and that an effective, consistent response for U.S. correctional facilities remains elusive.

“If there was clearly a right strategy, we all would have done it,” said Dr. Owen Murray, a University of Texas Medical Branch physician who oversees correctional health care at dozens of Texas prisons. “There is no clear-cut right strategy here. There are a lot of different choices that one could make that are going to be in-the-moment decisions.”

The inconsistent response to the spread of the coronavirus in correctional facilities is in contrast with efforts to halt its spread in other known incubators of the virus: Much of the cruise ship industry has been closed down. Staff members and residents of nursing homes in several states now face compulsory testing. Many meat processing plants have been shuttered for extensive cleaning.

As the toll in prisons has increased, so has fear among inmates who say the authorities have done too little to protect them. There have been riots and hunger strikes in correctional facilities from Washington State to New York. And even the known case numbers are likely a significant undercount because testing has been extremely limited inside prisons and because some places that test do not release the results to the public.

“It’s like a sword hanging over my head,” said Fred Roehler, 77, an inmate at a California prison who has chronic inflammatory lung disease and other respiratory ailments. “Any officer can bring it in.”

Public officials have long warned that the nation’s correctional facilities would likely become vectors in the pandemic because they are often overcrowded, unsanitary places where social distancing is impractical, bathrooms and day rooms are shared by hundreds of inmates, and access to cleaning supplies is tightly controlled. Many inmates are 60 or older, and many suffer from respiratory illnesses or heart conditions.

In response, local jails have discharged thousands of inmates since February, many of whom had been awaiting trials to have charges heard or serving time for nonviolent crimes. State prison systems, where people convicted of more serious crimes are housed, have been more reluctant to release inmates.

Testing for the virus within the nation’s penal institutions varies widely, and has become a matter of significant debate.

Republican-led states like Texas, Tennessee and Arkansas — which generally spend less on prisoners than the national average — have found themselves at the forefront of testing inmates.

In Texas, the number of prisoners and staff members known to be infected has more than quadrupled to 7,900 during the past three weeks after the state began to test every inmate.

Yet states that typically spend far more on prisons have carried out significantly less testing.

California, which spends $12 billion annually on its prison system, has tested fewer than 7 percent of inmates in several of its largest, most crowded facilities, according to the state’s data. Other Democratic-led states that also spend heavily on prisons, including New York, Oregon and Colorado, have also conducted limited testing despite large outbreaks in their facilities.

New York has tested about 3 percent of its 40,000 prison inmates; more than 40 percent of those tested were infected.

Critics say that the dearth of testing in some facilities has meant that prison and public health officials have only vague notions about the spread of the virus, which has allowed some elected officials to suggest that it is not present at all.

“We have really no true idea of how bad the problem is because most places are not yet testing the way they should,” said Dr. Homer Venters, who served as chief medical officer for the New York City jail system and now works for a group called Community Oriented Correctional Health Services, which works to improve health care services in local jails. “I think a lot of times some of the operational challenges of either not having adequate quarantine policies or adequate medical isolation policies are so vexing that places simply decide that they can just throw up their hands.”

Most state prison systems have conducted few tests. Systems in Illinois, Mississippi and Alabama have tested fewer than 2.5 percent of inmates. And in Louisiana, officials had tested several dozen of its 31,000 inmates in March when the warden and medical director at one of the state’s largest prisons died of the coronavirus. The state has since announced plans to test every inmate.

Prison officials in states where only a limited number of inmates have been tested say they are following federal guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that only prisoners with symptoms be tested.

Prisons that have conducted mass testing have found that about one in seven tests of inmates have come back positive, the Times database shows. The vast majority of inmates who have tested positive have been asymptomatic.

Public health officials say that indicates the virus has been present in prison populations for far longer than had previously been understood.

“If you don’t do testing, you’re flying blind,” said Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

But in California, there continues to be reluctance to test each of the state’s 114,000 inmates, despite growing criticism to take a more aggressive approach. One in six inmates in the state’s prisons have been tested, and the state has released some inmates who were later found to have the virus, raising fears that prison systems could seed new infections outside penal institutions.

“Nothing significant had been done to protect those most vulnerable to the virus,” said Marie Waldron, the Republican minority leader of the California State Assembly.

But J. Clark Kelso, who oversees prison health care in California, said that mass testing would provide only a snapshot of the virus’s spread.

“Testing’s not a complete solution,” Mr. Kelso said. “It gives you better information, but you don’t want to get a false sense of security.”

California’s health department has recommended that a facility’s prison inmates and staff members be given priority for testing once an infection has been identified there.

But the state prison system has conducted mass testing at only a handful of institutions where infections have been found, according to state data. In one of those facilities, the California Institution for Men in Chino, nearly 875 people have tested positive and 13 inmates have died.

Instead, California has employed surveillance testing, which involves testing a limited number of inmates at each state prison regardless of the known infection rate.

That method, Mr. Kelso said, had led officials to conclude that the vast majority of its prisons are free of the virus.

“We’re not 100 percent confident because we’re not testing everyone,” he said. “As we learn every single day from what we’re doing, we may suddenly decide, ‘No, we actually have to test all of them.’ We’re not at that point yet.”

In interviews, California prison inmates say prison staff have sometimes refused to test them, even after they complained about symptoms similar to the coronavirus. Several prisoners said they had been too weak to move for weeks at a time, but were never permitted to see a nurse and had never been tested.

“I had chest pains. I couldn’t breathe,” said Althea Housley, 43, an inmate at Folsom State Prison, where no inmates have tested positive, according to state data. “They told us it was the flu going around, but I ain’t never had a flu like that.”

Mr. Kelso did not dispute the prisoners’ accounts.

In Texas, mass testing has found that nearly 8,000 inmates and guards have been infected. Sixty-two people have died, including some who had not exhibited symptoms.

Dr. Murray, the physician who oversees much of Texas’ prison health care system, said the disparate approaches taken by prison authorities might actually be beneficial as officials compare notes.

“I’m glad we’ve got 50 states and everyone is trying to do something a little different — whether that’s by intent or not — because it’s really the only basis that we’re going to have for comparison later on,” he said.

But Baleegh Brown, 31, an inmate at a California prison, said he was displeased about being part of what he considered a science experiment. His prison has had more than 170 infections.

He said that he and his cellmate are confined to a 6-by-9-foot space for about 22 hours each day as the prison tries to prevent the virus from spreading further. Mr. Brown said he had a weakened immune system after a case of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, making him particularly vulnerable to illness.

“We need more testing here so everyone knows for sure,” he said. “And for me, my body has been compromised, so I don’t know how it is going to react. That makes all you don’t know even scarier.”

 

 

Healthcare groups call racism a ‘public health’ concern in wake of tensions over police brutality

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/practices/healthcare-groups-denounce-systemic-racism-wake-tensions-over-police-brutality?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWmpobE5XVmlaRGd6T0dFdyIsInQiOiJsQmxnbVNxNVlISVNkczJIZkJXb3ZFZG9tVlpMblZ1XC9oVVB6SlRINzNhOXE4MWQzNk1cL3JTaDlcL2l0MGdhSnk0NUtqY1RzdThCN1wvZ1ZoVUxqOHJwZFJcL1wvK3FtS0o5NFwvSHA0WHhTUnhVNnY3bk5RNmhRQTdxYzYwclhYN3JTRW8ifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

After days of protests across the world against police brutality toward minorities sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, healthcare groups are speaking out against the impact of “systemic racism” on public health.

“These ongoing protests give voice to deep-seated frustration and hurt and the very real need for systemic change. The killings of George Floyd last week, and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor earlier this year, among others, are tragic reminders to all Americans of the inequities in our nation,” Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association (AHA), said in a statement.

As places of healing, hospitals have an important role to play in the wellbeing of their communities. As we’ve seen in the pandemic, communities of color have been disproportionately affected, both in infection rates and economic impact,” Pollack said. “The AHA’s vision is of a society of healthy communities, where all individuals reach their highest potential for health … to achieve that vision, we must address racial, ethnic and cultural inequities, including those in health care, that are everyday realities for far too many individuals. While progress has been made, we have so much more work to do.”

The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) also decried the public health inequality highlighted by the dual crises.

“The violent interactions between law enforcement officers and the public, particularly people of color, combined with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on these same communities, puts in perspective the overall public health consequences of these actions and overall health inequity in the U.S.,” SHEA said in a statement. Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) executives called for health organizations to do more to address inequities. 

“Over the past three months, the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the racial health inequities harming our black communities, exposing the structures, systems, and policies that create social and economic conditions that lead to health disparities, poor health outcomes, and lower life expectancy,” said David Skorton, M.D., AAMC president and CEO, and David Acosta, M.D., AAMC chief diversity and inclusion officer, in a statement.

“Now, the brutal and shocking deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have shaken our nation to its core and once again tragically demonstrated the everyday danger of being black in America,” they said. “Police brutality is a striking demonstration of the legacy racism has had in our society over decades.”

They called on health system leaders, faculty researchers and other healthcare staff to take a stronger role in speaking out against forms of racism, discrimination and bias. They also called for health leaders to educate themselves, partner with local agencies to dismantle structural racism and employ anti-racist training.

 

 

 

U.S. Passes 2 Million Coronavirus Cases as States Lift Restrictions, Raising Fears of a Second Wave

https://www.democracynow.org/2020/6/11/dr_craig_spencer?utm_source=Democracy+Now%21&utm_campaign=a7a0b2232c-Daily_Digest_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_fa2346a853-a7a0b2232c-192434661

U.S. Reaches More Than 2 Million Coronavirus Cases - YouTube

The number of confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases has officially topped 2 million as states continue to ease stay-at-home orders and reopen their economies and more than a dozen see a surge in new infections. “I worry that what we’ve seen so far is an undercount and what we’re seeing now is really just the beginning of another wave of infections spreading across the country,” says Dr. Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.

AMY GOODMAN: I certainly look forward to the day you’re sitting here in the studio right next to me, but right now the numbers are grim. The number of confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases has officially topped 2 million in the United States, the highest number in the world by far, but public health officials say the true number of infections is certain to be many times greater. Officially, the U.S. death toll is nearing 113,000, but that number is expected to be way higher, as well.

This comes as President Trump has announced plans to hold campaign rallies in several states that are battling new surges of infections, including Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Arizona — which saw cases rise from nearly 200 a day last month to more than 1,400 a day this week.

On Tuesday, the country’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, called the coronavirus his worst nightmare.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Now we have something that indeed turned out to be my worst nightmare: something that’s highly transmissible, and in a period — if you just think about it — in a period of four months, it has devastated the world. … And it isn’t over yet.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Vice President Mike Pence tweeted — then deleted — a photo of himself on Wednesday greeting scores of Trump 2020 campaign staffers, all of whom were packed tightly together, indoors, wearing no masks, in contravention of CDC guidelines to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Well, for more, we’re going directly to Dr. Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. His recent piece in The Washington Post is headlined “The strange new quiet in New York emergency rooms.”

Dr. Spencer, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with this, though this day is a very painful one. Cases in the United States have just topped 2 million, though that number is expected to be far higher, with the number of deaths at well over 113,000, we believe, Harvard University predicting that that number could almost double by the end of September. Dr. Craig Spencer, your thoughts on the reopening of this country and what these numbers mean?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: That’s a really good question. So, when you think about those numbers, remember that very early on, in March, in April, when I was seeing this huge surge in New York City emergency departments, we weren’t testing. We were testing people that were only being admitted to the hospital, so we were knowingly sending home, all across the epicenter, people that were undoubtedly infected with coronavirus, that are not included in that case total. So you’re right: The likely number is much, much higher, maybe 5, 10 times higher than that.

In addition, we know that that’s true for the death count, as well. This has become this political flashpoint, talking about how many people have died. We know that it’s an incredible and incalculable toll, over 100,000. Within the next few days, we’ll have more people that have died from COVID than died during World War I here in the United States. So that’s absolutely incredible.

We know that, also, just because New York City was bad, other places across the country might not get as bad, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not bad. So, we had this huge surge, of a bunch of deaths in New York City, you know, over 200,000 cases, tens of thousands of deaths. What we’re seeing now is we’re seeing this virus continue to roll across this country, causing these localized outbreaks.

And this is, I think, going to be our reality, until we take this serious, until we actually take the actions necessary to stop this virus from spreading. Opening up, like we’ve seen in Arizona and many other places, is exactly counter to what we need to be doing to keep this virus under control. So, yeah, I worry that what we’ve seen so far is an undercount and what we’re seeing now is really just the beginning of another wave of infections spreading across the country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Dr. Spencer, I want to ask — it’s not just in the U.S. that cases have hit this dreadful milestone. Worldwide, cases have now topped 7 million, although, like the U.S., the number is likely to be much higher because of inadequate testing all over the world. But I’d like to focus on the racial dimension of the impact of coronavirus, not just in the U.S., but also worldwide. Just as one example, in Brazil — and this is a really stunning statistic — that in Rio’s favelas, more people have died than in 15 states in Brazil combined. So, could you talk about this, both in the context of the U.S., and explain whether that is still the case, and what you expect in terms of this racial differential, how it will play out as this virus spreads?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: Absolutely. What we’re seeing, not just in the United States, but all over the world, is coronavirus is amplifying these racial and ethnic inequities. It is impacting disproportionately vulnerable and already marginalized populations.

Starting here in the U.S., if you think about the fact, in New York City, the likelihood of dying from coronavirus was double if you’re Black or African American or Latino or Hispanic, double than what it was for white or Asian New Yorkers, so we already know that this disproportionate impact on already marginalized and vulnerable communities exists here in the United States, in the financial capital of the world. It’s the same throughout the U.S. A lot of the data that we’re seeing over the past few days, as we’re getting this disaggregated data by race and ethnic background, is that it is hitting these communities much harder than it is hitting white and other communities in the United States.

The statistics that you give for Brazil are being played out all over the world. We know that communities that already lack access to good healthcare or don’t have the same economic ability to stay home and participate in social distancing are being disproportionately impacted.

That is why we need to focus on and think about, in our public health messaging and in our public health efforts, to think about those communities that are already on the margins, that are already vulnerable, that are already suffering from chronic health conditions that may make them more likely to get infected with and die from this disease. We need to think about that as part of our response, not just in New York, not just in the U.S., but in Brazil, in Peru, in Ecuador, in South Africa, in many other countries, where we’re seeing the disproportionate number of cases coming from now.

We’re seeing — you know, I think it was just pointed out that three-quarters of all the new cases, the record-high cases, over 136,000 this past weekend on one day, three-quarters of those are coming from just 10 countries. And we know that that will continue, and it will burn through those countries and will continue through many more.

As of right now, we haven’t seen huge numbers in places like West Africa and East Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, where many people were concerned about initially. Part of that is because they have in place a lot of the tools from previous outbreaks, especially in West Africa around Ebola. But it may be that we need more testing. It may be that we’re still waiting to see the big increase in cases that may eventually hit there, as well.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Spencer, you mentioned that on Sunday — it was Sunday where there were 136,000 new infections, which was a first. It was the highest number since the virus began. But even as the virus is spreading, much like states opening in the U.S., countries are also starting to reopen around the world, including countries that have now among the highest outbreaks. Brazil is now second only to the U.S. in the number of infections, and Russia is third, and these countries are opening, along with India and so on. So, could you — I mean, there are various reasons that countries are opening. A lot of them are not able — large numbers of people are not able to survive as long as the country is closed, like, in fact, Brazil and India. So what are the steps that countries can take to reopen safely? What is necessary to arrest the spread of the virus and allow people at the same time to be out?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: It’s tough, because we know that this virus cannot infect you if this virus does not find you. If there’s going to be people in close proximity, whether it’s in India or Illinois, this virus will pass and will infect you. I have a lot of concern, much as you pointed out, places like India, 1.3 billion people, where they’re starting to open up after a longer period of being locked down, and case numbers are steadily increasing.

You’re right that a lot of people around the world don’t have access to multitrillion-dollar stimulus plans like we do in the United States, the ability to provide at least some sustenance during this time that people are being forced at home. Many people, if they don’t go outside, don’t eat. If they don’t work, you know, their families can’t pay rent or really just can’t live.

What do we do? We rely on the exact same tools that we should be relying on here, which is good public health principles. You need to be able to locate those people who are sick, isolate them, remove them from the community, and try to do contact tracing to see who they potentially have exposed. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to have people circulating with this virus that can continue to infect other people.

It’s much harder in places where people may not have access to a phone or may not have an address or may not have the same infrastructure that we have here in the United States. But it’s absolutely possible. We’ve done this with smallpox eradication decades ago. We need to be doing this good, simple, bread-and-butter, basic public health work all around the world. But that takes a lot of commitment, it takes a lot of money, and it takes a lot of time.

AMY GOODMAN: It looks like President Trump is reading the rules and just doing the opposite — I mean, everything from pulling out of the World Health Organization, which — and if you could talk about the significance of this? You’re a world health expert. You yourself survived Ebola after working in Africa around that disease. And also here at home, I mean, pulling out of Charlotte, the Republican convention, because the governor wouldn’t agree to no social distancing, and he didn’t want those that came to the convention to wear masks. If you can talk about the significance, what might seem trite to some people, but what exactly masks do? And also, in this country, the states we see that have relaxed so much — he might move, announce tomorrow, the convention to Florida. There’s surges there. There’s surges in Arizona, extremely desperate question of whether a lockdown will be reimposed there. What has to happen? What exactly, when we say testing, should be available? And do you have enough masks even where you work?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: Great. Yes. So, let me answer each of those. I think, first, on the World Health Organization, and really the rhetoric that is coming from the White House, it needs to be one of global solidarity right now. We are not going to beat this alone. I think that that’s been proven. This idea of American exceptionalism now is only true in that we have the most cases of anywhere in the world. We are not going to beat this alone. No country is going to beat this alone. As Dr. Fauci said, this is his worst nightmare. It’s my worst nightmare, as well. This is a virus that was first discovered just months ago, and has now really taken over the world. We need organizations like the World Health Organization, even if it isn’t perfect. And I’ve had qualms with it in the past. I’ve written about it, I’ve spoken about it, about the response as part of the West Africa Ebola outbreak that I witnessed firsthand. But at the end of the day, they do really, really good work, and they do the work that other organizations, including the United States, are not doing around the world, and that protects us. So, we absolutely, despite their imperfections, need to further invest and support them.

In terms of masks, masks may be, in addition to social distancing, one of the few things that really, really helps us and has proven to decrease transmission. We know that if a significant proportion of society — you know, 60, 70, 80% of people — are wearing masks, that will significantly decrease the amount of transmission and can prevent this virus from spreading very rapidly. Everyone should be wearing masks. I think, in the United States right now, we should consider the whole country as a hot zone. And the risk of transmission being very high, regardless of whether you’re in New York or North Dakota, people should be wearing a mask when they’re going outside and when they’re interacting with others that they generally don’t interact with.

We know the science is good. I will say that from a public health perspective, there was some initial reluctance and, really, I guess, some confusion early on about whether people should be using masks. We didn’t have a lot of the science to know whether it would help. We do now. And thankfully, we’re changing our recommendations.

We also were concerned about the availability of masks early on. As you mentioned, there was questions around availability of personal protective equipment, whether we had enough in hospitals to provide care while keeping providers safe. It’s better now, but there are still a lot of people who are saying that they’re reusing masks, that we still need more personal protective equipment. So, for the moment, everyone should be wearing a mask.

AMY GOODMAN: And for the protests outside?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: Absolutely. Yeah, of course. Just because I think we have personal passions around public health crises, that doesn’t prevent us from being infected. From a public health perspective, of course I have concerns that people who are close and are yelling and are being tear-gassed and are not wearing masks, if that’s all the case, it’s certainly an environment where the coronavirus could spread.

So, what I’ve been telling everyone that’s protesting is exercise your right to protest — I think that’s great — but be safe. We are in a pandemic. We’re in a public health emergency. Wear a mask. Socially distance as much as you possibly can. Wash your hands.

AMY GOODMAN: And are you telling the authorities to stop tear-gassing and pepper-spraying the protesters?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: I mean, well, one, it’s illegal. You should definitely stop tear-gassing. We know that what happens when people get tear-gassed is they cough, and it increases the secretions, which increases the risk. It increases the transmissibility of this virus.

In addition to that, you know, holding people and arresting them and putting them into small cells with others without masks is also, as we’ve seen from this huge number of cases in places like meatpacking plants or in jails, in prisons, the number of cases have been extremely high in those places. Putting people into holding cells for a prolonged period of time is not going to help; it’s definitely going to increase the transmissibility of this virus.

So, yes, everyone should be wearing a mask. I think everyone should have a mask on when you’re anywhere that your interacting with others can potentially spread this.

I think your other question was around testing. We know that right now testing has significantly increased in the U.S. Is it adequate? No, I don’t think so. I know I hear from a lot of people who say they still have to drive two to three hours to get a test. We still have questions around the reliability of some of serology tests, or the antibody tests. Those are the tests that will tell you whether or not you’ve been previously exposed and now have antibodies to the disease. Some of the more readily available tests just aren’t that great. And so, we can’t use them yet to make really widespread decisions on who might have antibodies, who might have protection and who can maybe more safely go back into society without the fear of being infected.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Spencer, we just have 30 seconds. Very quickly, there are 135 vaccines in development. What’s your prognosis? When will there be a vaccine or a drug treatment?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: We have one drug that shortens the time that people are sick. We don’t know about the impact on mortality. There are other treatments that are in process now. Hopefully some of them work.

In terms of vaccines, we will have a vaccine, very likely, that we know is effective, probably at some time later this year. The bigger process is going to be how do we scale it up to make hundreds of millions of doses; how do we do it in a way that we can get it to all of the people that deserve it, not just the people that can pay for it. I think these are going to be some of the bigger questions and bigger problems that we’re going to face, going forward. But I’m optimistic that we’ll have a vaccine or many vaccines, hopefully, in the next year.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Craig Spencer, we want to thank you so much for being with us, director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. And thank you so much for your work as an essential worker. Dr. Spencer’s recent piece, we’ll link to at democracynow.org. It’s in The Washington Post, headlined “The strange new quiet in New York emergency rooms.”

When we come back, George Floyd’s brother testifies before Congress, a day after he laid his brother to rest. Stay with us.

 

 

 

 

Scientists caught between pandemic and protests

https://www.axios.com/black-lives-matter-protests-coronavirus-science-15acc619-633d-47c2-9c76-df91f826a73c.html

Scientists accused of double standards on coronavirus and Black ...

When protests broke out against the coronavirus lockdown, many public health experts were quick to warn about spreading the virus. When protests broke out after George Floyd’s death, some of the same experts embraced the protests. That’s led to charges of double standards among scientists.

Why it matters: Scientists who are seen as changing recommendations based on political and social priorities, however important, risk losing public trust. That could cause people to disregard their advice should the pandemic require stricter lockdown policies.

What’s happening: Many public health experts came out against public gatherings of almost any sort this spring — including protests over lockdown policies and large religious gatherings.

  • But some of the same experts are supporting the Black Lives Matter protests, arguing that addressing racial inequality is key to tackling the coronavirus epidemic.
  • The systemic racism that protesters are decrying contributes to massive health disparities that can be seen in this pandemic — black Americans comprise 13% of the U.S. population, but make up around a quarter of deaths from COVID-19. Floyd himself survived COVID-19 before he was killed by a now former police officer in Minneapolis.
  • “While everyone is concerned about the risk of COVID, there are risks with just being black in this country that almost outweigh that sometimes,” Abby Hussein, an infectious disease fellow at the University of Washington, told CNN last week.

Yes, but: Spending time in a large group, even outdoors and wearing masks — as many of the protesters are — does raise the risk of coronavirus transmission, says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

  • In a Twitter thread over the weekend, coronavirus expert Trevor Bedford estimated that each day of protests would result in some 3,000 additional infections, which over time could lead to hundreds of additional deaths each day.
  • Public health experts who work in the government have struck a cautionary note. Mass, in-person protests are a “perfect setup” for transmission of the virus, Anthony Fauci told radio station WTOP last week. “It’s a delicate balance because the reasons for demonstrating are valid, but the demonstration puts one at additional risk.”

The difference in tone between how some public health experts are viewing the current protests and earlier ones focused on the lockdowns themselves was seized upon by a number of critics, as well as the Trump campaign.

  • “It will deepen the idea that the intellectual classes are picking winners and losers among political causes,” says Tom Nichols, author of the “The Death of Expertise.”
  • Politico reported that the Trump campaign plans to restart campaign rallies in the next two weeks, with advisers arguing that “recent massive protests in metropolitan areas will make it harder for liberals to criticize him” despite the ongoing pandemic.

The current debate underscores a larger question: What role should scientists play in policymaking?

  • “We should never try to harness the credibility of public health on behalf of our judgments as citizens,” writes Peter Sandman, a retired professor of environmental journalism. He tells Axios some scientists who supported one protest versus others “clearly damaged the credibility of public health as a scientific enterprise that struggles to be politically neutral.
  • But some are pushing back against the very idea of scientific neutrality. “Science is part of how we got to our racist system in the first place,” Susan Matthews wrote in Slate.
  • Medical science has often betrayed the trust of black Americans, who receive less, and often worse, care than white Americans. That means — as Uché Blackstock, a physician and CEO of Advancing Health Equity, told NPR — that the pandemic presents “a crisis within a crisis.”

The big picture: The debate risks exacerbating a partisan divide among Americans in their reported trust in scientists.

  • 53% of Democrats polled in late April — about a month before Floyd’s death — reported a “great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the public interests” versus 31% of Republicans.
  • If science-driven policymaking continues to be seen as biased, it will have repercussions for public trust in issues beyond the pandemic, including climate change, AI and genetic engineering.

What to watch: If there is a rise in new cases in the coming weeks, there will be pressure to trace them — to protests, rallies and the reopening of states. How experts weigh in could affect how their recommendations will be viewed in the future — and whether the public, whatever their political leanings, will follow them again.

 

 

 

 

Protests essential despite risk of coronavirus spread, healthcare workers say

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/public-health/protests-essential-despite-risk-of-coronavirus-spread-healthcare-workers-say.html?utm_medium=email

After months of pleading for social distancing, health officials ...

Though the protests that erupted after a black man died in police custody might result in spikes of COVID-19, some healthcare workers say that they are important, as racial disparities in healthcare is also a public health issue, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Public health experts and healthcare workers across the country are joining in the protests that began after George Floyd died at the hand of police in Minneapolis in late May. He is the most recent example of police brutality against black people and joins a long list of deaths of African Americans in police custody.

Healthcare experts and workers are saying though the protests may result in a new wave of coronavirus cases, the issue at hand is more important and the potential benefits outweigh the risks, especially since the risk of transmission is lower outside than inside when precautions are taken.

Darrell Gray, MD, a black gastroenterologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, has been attending protests, telling the Journal, “I prioritize being at protests and peaceful demonstrations because I strongly believe that they can be leveraged to produce change.” He said that he is taking precautions, wearing a face mask and distancing himself as much as possible.

Dr. Gray also said that the pandemic has disproportionately affected black communities, as the underlying conditions that are linked to more severe COVID-19 illness, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, are more rampant in those communities.

Jennifer Nuzzo, DrPH, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, also supports the protests, though she has not been able to attend one in person as yet due to time constraints.

She told the Journal although she is worried about virus transmission, “there are some categories of risk that are, for me, completely worth it.” These protests are in those categories, she said.

Dr. Nuzzo and other health experts have also said protesters can reduce the risk of transmission by wearing masks, trying to maintain 6 feet of social distance when possible and making sure they are washing their hands often or using hand sanitizer.

More than 1,000 public health and infectious disease experts and community stakeholders signed an open letter last week saying that demonstrations were important for combating race-based health inequities, largely a result of racism, the Journal reports.

 

 

Cartoon – Pillars of Democracy

Exhibit highlights cartoonists' focus on First Amendment | WTOP