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.”

 

 

Misinformation on coronavirus is proving highly contagious

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Misinformation on the coronavirus is proving highly contagious ...

As the world races to find a vaccine and a treatment for COVID-19, there is seemingly no antidote in sight for the burgeoning outbreak of coronavirus conspiracy theories, hoaxes, anti-mask myths and sham cures.

The phenomenon, unfolding largely on social media, escalated this week when President Donald Trump retweeted a false video about an anti-malaria drug being a cure for the virus and it was revealed that Russian intelligence is spreading disinformation about the crisis through English-language websites.

Experts worry the torrent of bad information is dangerously undermining efforts to slow the virus, whose death toll in the U.S. hit 150,000 Wednesday, by far the highest in the world, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Over a half-million people have died in the rest of the world.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Hard-hit Florida reported 216 deaths, breaking the single-day record it set a day earlier. Texas confirmed 313 additional deaths, pushing its total to 6,190, while South Carolina’s death toll passed 1,500 this week, more than doubling over the past month. In Georgia, hospitalizations have more than doubled since July 1.

“It is a real challenge in terms of trying to get the message to the public about what they can really do to protect themselves and what the facts are behind the problem,” said Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

He said the fear is that “people are putting themselves in harm’s way because they don’t believe the virus is something they have to deal with.”

Rather than fade away in the face of new evidence, the claims have flourished, fed by mixed messages from officials, transmitted by social media, amplified by leaders like Trump and mutating when confronted with contradictory facts.

“You don’t need masks. There is a cure,” Dr. Stella Immanuel promised in a video that promoted hydroxychloroquine. “You don’t need people to be locked down.”

The truth: Federal regulators last month revoked their authorization of the drug as an emergency treatment amid growing evidence it doesn’t work and can have deadly side effects. Even if it were effective, it wouldn’t negate the need for masks and other measures to contain the outbreak.

None of that stopped Trump, who has repeatedly praised the drug, from retweeting the video. Twitter and Facebook began removing the video Monday for violating policies on COVID-19 misinformation, but it had already been seen more than 20 million times.

Many of the claims in Immanuel’s video are widely disputed by medical experts. She has made even more bizarre pronouncements in the past, saying that cysts, fibroids and some other conditions can be caused by having sex with demons, that McDonald’s and Pokemon promote witchcraft, that alien DNA is used in medical treatments, and that half-human “reptilians” work in the government.

Other baseless theories and hoaxes have alleged that the virus isn’t real or that it’s a bioweapon created by the U.S. or its adversaries. One hoax from the outbreak’s early months claimed new 5G towers were spreading the virus through microwaves. Another popular story held that Microsoft founder Bill Gates plans to use COVID-19 vaccines to implant microchips in all 7 billion people on the planet.

Then there are the political theories — that doctors, journalists and federal officials are conspiring to lie about the threat of the virus to hurt Trump politically.

Social media has amplified the claims and helped believers find each other. The flood of misinformation has posed a challenge for Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, which have found themselves accused of censorship for taking down virus misinformation.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned about Immanuel’s video during an often-contentious congressional hearing Wednesday.

“We did take it down because it violates our policies,” Zuckerberg said.

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat leading the hearing, responded by noting that 20 million people saw the video before Facebook acted.

“Doesn’t that suggest that your platform is so big, that even with the right policies in place, you can’t contain deadly content?” Cicilline asked Zuckerberg.

It wasn’t the first video containing misinformation about the virus, and experts say it’s not likely to be the last.

A professionally made 26-minute video that alleges the government’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, manufactured the virus and shipped it to China was watched more than 8 million times before the platforms took action. The video, titled “Plandemic,” also warned that masks could make you sick — the false claim Facebook cited when it removed the video down from its site.

Judy Mikovits, the discredited doctor behind “Plandemic,” had been set to appear on the show “America This Week” on the Sinclair Broadcast Group. But the company, which operates TV stations in 81 U.S. markets, canned the segment, saying it was “not appropriate” to air.

This week, U.S. government officials speaking on condition of anonymity cited what they said was a clear link between Russian intelligence and websites with stories designed to spread disinformation on the coronavirus in the West. Russian officials rejected the accusations.

Of all the bizarre and myriad claims about the virus, those regarding masks are proving to be among the most stubborn.

New York City resident Carlos Lopez said he wears a mask when required to do so but doesn’t believe it is necessary.

“They’re politicizing it as a tool,” he said. “I think it’s more to try to get Trump to lose. It’s more a scare tactic.”

He is in the minority. A recent AP/NORC poll said 3 in 4 Americans — Democrats and Republicans alike — support a national mask mandate.

Still, mask skeptics are a vocal minority and have come together to create social media pages where many false claims about mask safety are shared. Facebook has removed some of the pages — such as the group Unmasking America!, which had nearly 10,000 members — but others remain.

Early in the pandemic, medical authorities themselves were the source of much confusion regarding masks. In February, officials like the U.S. surgeon general urged Americans not to stockpile masks because they were needed by medical personnel and might not be effective in everyday situations.

Public health officials changed their tune when it became apparent that the virus could spread among people showing no symptoms.

Yet Trump remained reluctant to use a mask, mocked his rival Joe Biden for wearing one and suggested people might be covering their faces just to hurt him politically. He did an abrupt about-face this month, claiming that he had always supported masks — then later retweeted Immanuel’s video against masks.

The mixed signals hurt, Fauci acknowledged in an interview with NPR this month.

“The message early on became confusing,” he said.

Many of the claims around masks allege harmful effects, such as blocked oxygen flow or even a greater chance of infection. The claims have been widely debunked by doctors.

Dr. Maitiu O Tuathail of Ireland grew so concerned about mask misinformation he posted an online video of himself comfortably wearing a mask while measuring his oxygen levels. The video has been viewed more than 20 million times.

“While face masks don’t lower your oxygen levels. COVID definitely does,” he warned.

Yet trusted medical authorities are often being dismissed by those who say requiring people to wear masks is a step toward authoritarianism.

“Unless you make a stand, you will be wearing a mask for the rest of your life,” tweeted Simon Dolan, a British businessman who has sued the government over its COVID-19 restrictions.

Trump’s reluctant, ambivalent and late embrace of masks hasn’t convinced some of his strongest supporters, who have concocted ever more elaborate theories to explain his change of heart. Some say he was actually speaking in code and doesn’t really support masks.

O Tuathail witnessed just how unshakable COVID-19 misinformation can be when, after broadcasting his video, he received emails from people who said he cheated or didn’t wear the mask long enough to feel the negative effects.

That’s not surprising, according to University of Central Florida psychology professor Chrysalis Wright, who studies misinformation. She said conspiracy theory believers often engage in mental gymnastics to make their beliefs conform with reality.

“People only want to hear what they already think they know,” she said. 

 

 

 

US coronavirus data will now go straight to the White House. Here’s what this means for the world

https://theconversation.com/us-coronavirus-data-will-now-go-straight-to-the-white-house-heres-what-this-means-for-the-world-142814?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20July%2028%202020%20-%201689316298&utm_content=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20July%2028%202020%20-%201689316298+Version+A+CID_abf5f3d50179e225ba3e81ad0fbb430c&utm_source=campaign_monitor_us&utm_term=US%20coronavirus%20data%20will%20now%20go%20straight%20to%20the%20White%20House%20Heres%20what%20this%20means%20for%20the%20world

US coronavirus data will now go straight to the White House ...

Led by physicians, scientists and epidemiologists, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is one of the most reliable sources of knowledge during disease outbreaks. But now, with the world in desperate need of authoritative information, one of the foremost agencies for fighting infectious disease has gone conspicuously silent.

For the first time since 1946, when the CDC came to life in a cramped Atlanta office to fight malaria, the agency is not at the front line of a public health emergency.

On April 22, CDC director Robert Redfield stood at the White House briefing room lectern and conceded that the coronavirus pandemic had “overwhelmed” the United States. Following Redfield at the podium, President Donald Trump said the CDC director had been “totally misquoted” in his warning that COVID-19 would continue to pose serious difficulties as the US moved into its winter ‘flu season in late 2020.

Invited to clarify, Redfield confirmed he had been quoted correctly in giving his opinion that there were potentially “difficult and complicated” times ahead.

Trump tried a different tack. “You may not even have corona coming back,” the president said, once again contradicting the career virologist. “Just so you understand.”

The exchange was interpreted by some pundits as confirmation that the CDC’s venerated expertise had been sidelined as the coronavirus continued to ravage the US.

In the latest development, the New York Times reported this week the CDC has even been bypassed in its data collection, with the Trump administration ordering hospitals to send COVID-19 data directly to the White House.

Diminished role

When facing previous public health emergencies the CDC was a hive of activity, holding regular press briefings and developing guidance that was followed by governments around the world. But during the greatest public health emergency in a century, it appears the CDC has been almost entirely erased by the White House as the public face of the COVID-19 pandemic response.

This diminished role is obvious to former leaders of the CDC, who say their scientific advice has never before been politicised to this extent.

As the COVID-19 crisis was unfolding, several CDC officials issued warnings, only to promptly disappear from public view. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, predicted on February 25 that the virus was not contained and would grow into a pandemic.

The stock market plunged and Messonnier was removed from future White House press briefings. Between March 9 and June 12 there was no CDC presence at White House press briefings on COVID-19.

The CDC has erred during the pandemic, most significantly in its initial efforts to develop a test for COVID-19. The testing kits proved to be faulty – a problem compounded by sluggish efforts to rectify the situation – and then by severe delays in distributing enough tests to the public.

But many public health specialists are nevertheless baffled by the CDC’s low profile as the pandemic continues to sweep the globe.

“They have been sidelined,” said Howard Koh, former US assistant secretary for health. “We need their scientific leadership right now.”

What does it mean for the world?

The CDC being bypassed in the collection of COVID-19 data is another body blow to the agency’s standing.

Hospitals have instead been ordered to send all COVID-19 patient information to a central database in Washington DC.

This will have a range of likely knock-on effects. For starters, the new database will not be available to the public, prompting inevitable questions over the accuracy and transparency of data which will now be interpreted and shared by the White House.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which issued the new order, says the change will help the White House’s coronavirus task force allocate resources. But epidemiologists and public health experts around the world fear the new system will make it harder for people outside the White House to track the pandemic or access information.

This affects all nations, because one of the CDC’s roles is to provide sound, independent public health guidance on issues such as infectious diseases, healthy living, travel health, emergency and disaster preparedness, and drug efficacy. Other jurisdictions can then adapt this information to their local context — expertise that has become even more essential during a pandemic, when uncertainty is the norm.

It is difficult to recall a previous public health emergency when political pressure led to a change in the interpretation of scientific evidence.

What happens next?

Despite the inevitable challenges that come with tackling a pandemic in real time, the CDC remains the best-positioned agency – not just in the US but the entire world – to help us manage this crisis as safely as possible.

In the absence of US leadership, nations should start thinking about developing their own national centres for disease control. In Australia’s case, these discussions have been ongoing since the 1990s, stymied by cost and lack of political will.

COVID-19, and the current sidelining of the CDC, may be the impetus needed to finally dust off those plans and make them a reality.

 

 

 

Truth dies in silence. Sadly, so do people.

Truth dies in silence. Sadly, so do people.

UNESCO launches “Truth Never Dies” campaign to tackle crimes ...

I have been writing columns for physicians for twenty years.  And year after year, I have had physicians say this: “I’m glad you said what you did. If I said it, I’d be fired.” There are variations on the theme, but they’re much the same.  Twenty years, and far more than 20 years, during which the alleged health care leaders in America have been routinely muzzled because they aren’t supposed to speak the truth.  Open discussions shut down because they might embarrass someone or upset an administrator. Because it might, heaven forbid, shine a light on a genuine problem.

Some years ago, as the mental health crisis was gathering steam across the emergency departments of the land, I was contacted by a news show in France.  The producers wanted to come to South Carolina and follow me on some shifts in my ED. They wanted to see how mental health was working out here. “We have socialized care, but mental health is also a huge problem in our country,” the producer said.

I dutifully, and appropriately, went to administration. “No, we can’t do that,” I was informed. I was given this explanation when everyone knew the mental health system was at the breaking point: “What if they uncover a problem?” Here was a chance for publicity, for potential grant money or to demonstrate that a political solution was in order.  How dare we let in fresh air? How dare we suggest that things were not perfect?

The same thing is happening in the midst of the pandemic.  Physicians, nurses, and other assorted health care professionals are being threatened for wearing masks.  Administrators say, “They make the patients nervous.” Also likely, administrators have realized they don’t have adequate equipment.  Facilities and systems with enormous budgets caught unprepared in a pandemic.

I see the stories of these professionals as I follow online forums.  Physicians, nurses, and others, threatened with firing because they dared to speak out on the issue of PPE (personal protective equipment).

Like police officers without ballistic vests, these physicians don’t want to go into the rooms of COVID-19 patients without the masks and respirators, gloves, gowns, and face shields that will keep them safe. The equipment that will allow them to return home to their loved ones and prevent them from infecting their families.  This isn’t a good look.  A hospital that refuses to acknowledge the concerns and safety of its professionals is a hospital that ultimately doesn’t deserve them.

The same veil of silence pervades dialogue on the treatment of coronavirus.  When I follow discussions, I see a lot of shaming. “There just isn’t enough evidence to try hydroxychloroquine, Zithromax, convalescent plasma, an untried vaccine, HIV drugs, etc.” Those who suggest we might try are considered reckless or ignorant.  As the battle rages and lives are lost, innovation and risk are viewed with disdain.  And our medical establishment is locked into the paradigm of double-blinded, placebo-controlled studies involving tens of thousands of people and lasting years. Here’s a view of the same from the U.K. Unfortunately, to suggest that we may need to react faster is only met with ridicule, and often tied to political views instead of expediency. Worse,  it ignores the deep, fundamental need to offer hope, any hope, to hundreds of millions of professionals and citizens who are living in fear.

There is a tragic irony here; a painful coincidence.  Physicians silenced. Let’s see.  Where did we see that sort of thing resulting in a worldwide pandemic?  Does China come to mind? The Chinese Communist Party threatened (and who knows what else) physicians who dared to speak out about coronavirus, even when they knew its danger.  Even when they knew how easily and widely it spread.

They continued to soft-peddle numbers about total cases and case fatality.  The party continued to allow travel to and from China long after the problem was known. They even suggested that Italians have a “hug a Chinese person” campaign to combat alleged racism; a charge delightfully accepted and repeated by gullible Western journalists in pursuit of a narrative.

Truth dies in silence.  Sadly, so do people.  And certainly when we tell dedicated health care professionals to keep their mouths shut when they have identified problems, offered solutions and simply asked for help.  Whether it’s a private business, a totalitarian government, or anything in between, we should insist that the truth be spoken; freely and without fear of punishment.

Because, for the foreseeable future, lives will depend on it.