COVID DIARIES, 11 SEPTEMBER 2020
If We Talk About The Virus Less, Maybe It’ll Just Go Away
Declining disease this week, but there’s still a long way to go
If all we do is look at this week’s coronavirus numbers in isolation, most of them look great.
Nationally, coronavirus metrics were down this week, with 28% fewer new cases and 25% fewer in deaths compared with the previous week. However, total tests also fell by 17%, the first decline in testing since mid-August.
Key metrics are way down in California and nationwide. In fact, new cases fell 28% in California, the biggest single-week decline since the virus arrived in the US. Hospitalizations, ICU patients, and deaths also declined — all signs that the June/July surge is continuing to wind down. (See all the numbers at the end of this report.)
But, to borrow a metaphor that seems apt this week, there’s a big difference between partial and full containment of a wildfire.
We still have nearly twice as much virus around as we did when the summer surge began — now around 35,000 new cases per day nationwide, compared with about 20,000 new cases in early June.
Moreover, for reasons I can’t explain, testing was way down this week. California saw 17% fewer tests this past week, the biggest drop since early May. Nationally, testing fell by 11%. That’s the biggest single-week drop in US testing ever, or at least since public release of testing stats began in late February.
National positivity declined a bit, from 5.5% to 5.1%, according to the CDC. It’s possible we got worse at targeting tests where they’re needed this week, but shifts that large in a single week seem unlikely. Again, I don’t have a valid rationale for reduced testing, especially now as more businesses and schools begin to reopen.
Also, significant hotspots remain around the country, with the Midwestern and Southern populations remaining especially infectious.
Another red flag appeared this week in a report that administration officials have been pressuring CDC scientists to alter or even stop reporting to align with political objectives.
Every week, career scientists at the CDC issue the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) to inform epidemiologists, public health officials, physicians, drug researchers and the general public about where the virus is spreading, and who’s at risk.
Healthcare providers consider the MMWR, which began in 1981 with HIV coverage, a vital and unbiased source of COVID-19 data. Quoting the article in Politico, “It’s the go-to place for the public health community to get information that’s scientifically vetted,” said Jennifer Kates, who leads the Kaiser Family Foundation’s global health work.
Recently, however, the MMWR has undergone another kind of vetting, according to the Politico report.
Ever since the installation of spokesperson Michael Caputo, who has no scientific or medical background, at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), CDC officials say the administration has made repeated efforts to alter reporting, retroactively change reports, or stop the reports altogether.
HHS emails leaked this week also show repeated efforts to muzzle Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert. These efforts backfired, with Dr. Fauci pointedly noting that “no one tells me what I can and cannot say.”
(EDIT: Given its COVID-19 content, I’ve added coverage of this week’s release of a Bob Woodward book about the president.)
This was also the week that saw the publication of “Rage” by Bob Woodward, a book based on 18 taped conversations with the president. This is not a political observation. All of the following statements about the Woodward book are statements of fact, not statements of value, sourced from the president’s statements on tape:
- In early February, the president said in private that the novel coronavirus was a deadly public-health threat. In public he said it was not serious and would disappear soon.
- Also in early February, the president stated in private that the virus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” The president told the nation in February that coronavirus was no more serious than a seasonal flu, and insisted the government had it under control.
- The president knew in early February that the virus could be transmitted through the air. He downplayed mask-wearing for months, and first appeared in public wearing a mask in July.
Two popular parlor games this week have been to second-guess both the president and Woodward — the former for what might have happened if there’d been a coordinated federal response based on what he knew in February, and the latter for not releasing his tapes at the time.
As both are hypotheticals, it’s impossible to say “what might have been.” Again, these are statements of fact: (a) there was knowledge at the highest levels of the federal government early on about the threat posed, and (b) the government pressured career scientists and public-health officials to downplay the risks involved.
Political interference is anathema to medical and scientific research. It’s also counterproductive to the administration’s stated goal of reducing viral loads.
The virus doesn’t care who wins the next presidential election. And the virus certainly won’t go away if we talk about it less. Dr. Fauci also said this week, and not for the first time, that the virus isn’t going away by itself.
Closer to home, the picture is much brighter. Computational biologist Mike Bass’ analysis of state data shows sharp declines in new cases, both statewide and here in Ventura County, since the summer surge peaked in mid-July. The statewide picture is even better in recent days, with several recent new-case reports below the 14-day trend line. In Ventura County, new cases remain along the 14-day trend line.
However, California still faces the same challenges as the rest of the nation. The state still has around twice the number of new cases per day now than we did when the surge began in June.
Also, Labor Day was this past Monday. We won’t know for at least another two weeks whether new cases trend upward, as they did after the Memorial Day and Fourth of July holiday weekends. The good news is that, based on recent encouraging trends, we’re likely to see continued declines for another week or two. It’s too soon to say what will happen after that.
While measures such as masking and physical distancing clearly have helped, the virus continues to rage, both locally and nationwide. We’ve made good progress, but we’re still a long way from full containment.
Here are this week’s numbers, all sourced from covidtracking.com.
US stats for the week ending Friday, September 11 (with % change from previous week):
Total tests (positive, negative, pending): 4,603,246 (-11%)
New cases: 242,418 (-15%)
Cumulative US cases: 6,411,913
Confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations: 31,421 (-8%)
Confirmed COVID-19 ICU: 6,379 (-8%)
Deaths: 5,227 (-13%)
Cumulative US deaths: 184,967
CA stats for the week ending Friday, September 4 (with % change from previous week):
Total tests (positive, negative, pending): 654,690 (-17%)
New cases: 23,908 (-28%)
Cumulative CA cases: 746,191
Confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations: 4,023 (-9%)
Confirmed COVID-19 ICU: 1,172 (-5%)
Deaths: 599 (-25%)
Cumulative CA deaths: 14,089