COVID-19 DIARIES, 18 SEPTEMBER 2020

More Virus, Less Science

As cases and deaths rise, the administration goes to war with its own scientists

(WARNING: This being the election silly season, there was a lot of coronavirus political news this week. If you don’t want to hear about it, read the first paragraph below, and come back next week…)

US coronavirus cases rose this past week after more than a month of steady declines. So did deaths. The complete weekly stats, both national and statewide, are at the end of this report.

It is too soon to say whether this is the beginning of a post-Labor Day spike, but some warning signs are there.

In Florida, cases are surging among teens and college students since schools reopened. During the surge that began in June, a spike in infections among young adults preceded spread to older adults.

Testing also rose this week after several weeks of declines, which is a good sign. However, positive cases rose at a faster rate. Also, more than 20 states either don’t release or have incomplete testing data.[2]

About the only good news on the national scene is that the numbers of hospital and ICU patients continued to decline.

As we near 200,000 US COVID-19 fatalities, this was also the week the administration went into prolonged and open conflict with its own scientists. Among the week’s developments:

- Political appointees required the CDC to publish testing guidance, released over scientists’ objections, that asymptomatic patients do not require tests.[3] The CDC later revised that guidance.

- The president disputed statements by the CDC director, Dr. Robert Redfield, that mask-wearing is effective, and that a vaccine wouldn’t be widely available until 2021.[4]

- Michael Caputo, the top spokesman at the Department of Health and Human Services, accused CDC scientists of “sedition” in their handling of the pandemic.[5] This came after the release of documents last week in which Caputo and others tried to water down or delay the CDC’s official reports. After strong pushback from the scientific community, Caputo took a leave of absence.[6]

- Emails show the administration sought to censor statements[7] by deputy CDC director Dr. Anne Schuchat as cases surged in the South and West saying “we have too much virus in the country” because the statements contradicted upbeat assessments by vice president Pence. One official called Schuchat “duplicitous” for contradicting the administration.[8]

- Olivia Troye, formerly Pence’s lead liaison to the White House coronavirus task force, said the president’s biggest concern about the coronavirus had been how it would affect his reelection and said that he didn’t care about people getting sick. The president dismissed Troye’s comments as those of a disgruntled employee.[9]

- The president said the coronavirus situation looked much better without blue states.[10] In fact, the most infectious states this week — North Dakota, Kansas, Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Iowa — all voted for the president in 2016. Measured per capita, North Dakota was 16 times more infectious than New York this week.

All administrations, of all political stripes, seek to shape the news to further political aims. But here’s the thing: The virus doesn’t care about the political affiliation of the people it infects.

Political responses to what is fundamentally a medical problem aren’t helpful. We need better science and evidence-backed responses to address our shared problem. If anything, as cases rose this past week we got further away from a coordinated response.

In California and locally here in Ventura County, new cases continue pretty much right along the 14-day average trend lines. Statewide, news cases dropped 1% this week, while testing increased after a couple of weeks of declines.

In Ventura County, new cases showed a slight uptick. The case numbers were a bit lumpy this week, with some days way over and way under the trend line. These more or less balanced out, with a slight rise toward the end of the week. As with the national picture, it’s too soon to say whether this is the beginning of an upward trend.

The number of hospital and ICU patients with confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to drop statewide and in Ventura County. That’s generally encouraging, but some of it could be due to the death rate.

Deaths rose sharply statewide this week, with a 21% jump over the previous week. Computational biologist Mike Bass noted that deaths are likewise trending higher in Ventura County.[1]

Until this week, we’d been seeing a steady downward trend in all coronavirus metrics, both nationally and locally. That changed this week. It will be interesting to see next week whether this week’s numbers were a momentary blip or the beginning of something much more serious. Until then, wear a mask and stay safe!

Here are this week’s numbers, all sourced from covidtracking.com.

US stats for the week ending Friday, September 18 (with % change from previous week):

Total tests (positive, negative, pending): 5361043 (+8%)
New cases: 276914 (+14%)
Cumulative US cases: 6,688,827

Confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations: 29492 (-6%)
Confirmed COVID-19 ICU: 6,175 (-3%)
Deaths: 5598 (+7%)
Cumulative US deaths: 190,566

CA stats for the week ending Friday, September 18 (with % change from previous week):

Total tests (positive, negative, pending): 725526 (+11%)
New cases: 23,604 (-1%)
Cumulative CA cases: 769,831
Confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations: 3,570 (-11%)
Confirmed COVID-19 ICU: 965 (-18%)
Deaths: 723 (+21%)
Cumulative CA deaths: 14,812

Photographer, editor, recovering engineer.