Depending on whether you check WorldOMeters, Johns Hopkins, or NBC News, the number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States on Friday was 81,210, 83,757, or 79,303 cases, respectively. However, there is one thing on which all three sites agree—Friday’s numbers represent the highest single-day total of new cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
Sadly, not only was this predictable, it was predicted. For seven straight weeks, starting in September, the United States has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases. The totals now are also boosted because even the low point of this “third surge” started at a point well above the crest of the initial wave of cases that swept over the Northeast and Washington state during March and April.
Following that initial surge, a disciplined approach in states like hard hit New York helped break the exponential increase, and genuinely “flattened the curve” for a period that extended into early June. However, Republican governors, eager to please Donald Trump, rushed the reopening of states like Texas and Florida, ignoring CDC guidelines to reopen everything from day cares to day spas. Since by that point, COVID-19 was well-established across the nation, this second surge went up even faster, generating both far more cases and far more deaths. And now, with Trump-loving militias scheming to kidnap governors who advocate for mask wearing, and Trump telling the most at-risk citizens to not fear the COVID, the U.S. is moving into a stage where cases are rising steeply again, and solutions are much harder to find.
The hardest thing about writing this story is knowing that I will be writing it again next week.
This week’s peak is 10,000 cases above last week’s peak. Which was 10,000 cases over the previous week’s peak, which was 9,000 cases over the week before, which was just a thousand over the week before that. With enough squinting, it’s possible to find some possible good news in there—it seems as if while there’s no sign of flattening the curve, it may have been straightened to mere linear growth rather than the exponential growth seen at the start of this surge. In past months, that kind of straightening has forecast a crest of the wave not too far in the future.
But the problem this time is that it’s hard to see just why there should be any kind of crest, short of an absolute tsunami. In the first surge, most cases were in the Northeast and Northwest, where governors and local governments reacted quickly to put in place tough restrictions. Northeast states were absolutely blindsided by a disease that had come into the nation through Europe and had been building up a base for a month before anyone realized it was spreading through the community. The result was a region unprepared for the viscious speed with which the outbreak hit, and a medical system both unprepared and inexperienced in treating COVID-19 patients.
Had there been a national system of testing and contact tracing in advance of that initial outbreak, many, of not most, of the deaths that happened in that first wave might have been lives that were saved. But that ship sailed long ago.
The response to that first wave of disease wasn’t just a disaster in New York, but a frisson of fear that ran through the nation. Even such Trump-pandering stalwarts as Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida and Gov. Mike Parson in Missouri issued stay at home orders in March or April … both of them lasting just three weeks. That was the time it took for Trump and Fox News to convince people that the “cure is worse than the disease.” After all, what’s the point of living if you can’t get your nails done?
At that point, nationwide cases had dropped by about 30%, but almost all of those gains came from decreases in the states that were hardest hit in early weeks. Other areas were already moving upwar—even as restrictions were starting to go away. With DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott leading the charge to “reopen” their states, even though the CDC guidelines were flashing nothing but stop lights, the Sunbelt led America into a second surge that was both larger and taller than the first.
It took until late July before Republican governors relented in not just refusing to throw their states a lifeline, but actively handing out anchors—by prosecuting local officials who tried to set reasonable rules or mandate masks. By then, Republicans were so fixed in an anti-mask, open-at-all-cost culture, that they made a sheriff who refused to honor a mask mandate into a primetime speaker at the RNC. With Trump swinging between a set of messages that insisted masks were useless, the disease was harmless, and that children couldn’t catch a disease that was busily killing children, Republicans successfully sold the idea that allowing Americans to die is patriotic.
Still, with governors like Abbott and Doug Ducey in Arizona taking their foot off the accelerator long enough to allow local officials to institute mask mandates and restrictions at the county and city level, that second surge was pushed down mostly in the form of Sunbelt states dropping away from horrendously high peaks. But even then, the lowest point that was reached was still higher than the peak that had come in that first Northeast wave.
And when things started going up again, they started going up everywhere. Even states that have been “good” are starting to see a genuine weltschmerz when it comes to dealing with COVID-19. With reason. Because if surrounding states had taken reasonable actions earlier, the level of disease might have been reduced to the point where it wasn’t necessary to keep businesses closed. We could be looking at opening schools and shops right now, safely, with numbers of cases reduced to a small fraction of even that first surge. If we had a national testing plan. If there was coordinated contact tracing and case management. If there were uniform, enforced guidelines across the nation for what activities were allowed and what activities were restricted.
If. if. If. The ships of our “might have beens” are enough to form a mighty fleet.
But there is one thing that could be done—right now, immediately—that would genuinely break the back of this third surge, absolutely result in a falling number of cases, and save hundreds of thousands of lives. That one thing is a mask mandate. It would cost nothing. It’s 100% beneficial.
Only Donald Trump will not do it.
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