Week after week in the spring of 2020, there was little to report about COVID-19 that didn’t involve ever more dire numbers and charts showing lines that seemed to head inevitably upward. At first those charts involved only China; then it was China and a handful of other nations. When the United States first appeared on those charts, there was a period of not-so-blessed ignorance where a lack of any national testing made it seem that cases were stable even as the Northeast had already transformed into a ticking bomb. In March that bomb went off, driving the nation toward its first “wave” of cases and a death rate that, thankfully, has never been equaled again.
The rising trendlines on those charts might as well have been exit ramps from normality, leading to state and local restrictions and eventually to mask requirements. Worth noting: No matter how many times media insists that America was locked down, that never happened. Unwilling to take responsibility and confident that inaction would kill more people in blue states, Donald Trump left everything up to states. Meaning that when there were lockdowns they were erratic and uneven in their application, and even more erratic and irrational in their lifting. Worst of all, there was no effort to coordinate the lockdowns that did occur with a system of testing and case management that could have made them all worth it. This is a big part of why researchers have estimated that at least 400,000 Americans died unnecessarily.
Now the nation seems to be sliding down that awful ramp in reverse, backing into normal life as the numbers for each day are declining almost as quickly as they went up 16 months ago. Which is utterly fantastic. However, the nation making the exit is even less united than it was during the entry, and even state-level data isn’t really providing the detail necessary to see what’s still happening with COVID-19.
Can we all agree that Jen Psaki can never leave?
Let White House press secretary Jen Psaki explain the priority of the COVID-19 crisis to the presidency of Joe Biden, while once again demonstrating that no one has ever matched her performance as press secretary.
Less about Red states, more about red counties
Looking at a list of states with the highest level of COVID-19 cases per population right now offers some reliably top-of-the-charts members of the red state crew including Wyoming, Missouri, Alabama, and Florida. But unexpectedly, that list also includes Washington state—a state that’s right at the bottom when it comes to overall cases per capita. In fact, considering that Washington featured one of the first identified clusters of cases and was one of the states first known to be the site of community spread for COVID-19, it’s performance arguably makes it the most outstanding state when it comes to handling the pandemic carefully and effectively.
So what’s happening now? What’s happening isn’t a story that can easily be told by looking at Washington’s overall numbers. You have to go at least one level down.
This is what the state looks like in terms of overall cases, according to the Washington State Department of Health. The biggest numbers are pretty much were you would expect them to be, centered around Seattle with an eastern spot for Spokane.
But here’s how the state looks over the past week in data tracked by the CDC.
On a per capita basis, COVID-19 cases in rural Lincoln County are appearing at a level that’s six times greater than that in heavily populated King County. With the exception of Spokane, still cooking along at more than 200 cases per 100,000 (four times the state average) the toastiest spots for COVID-19 are all in rural counties. This is a pattern that repeats in state after state. At the start of the epidemic within the the United States, it was clear that the story was very different from state to state. Now that difference is even more fine-grained as urban areas in states—areas where Democrats are concentrated—are seeing high levels of vaccination, and rural areas of many states are seeing relatively low uptake of vaccine.
All of this is a reminder that even if the United States manages to reach the new 70% of the population vaccinated by July 4 target, that doesn’t mean that the nation will be safe. It means that COVID-19 will continue to percolate in these low-vaccination pockets.
Attacks on Dr. Fauci still increasing in volume and ugliness
Earlier this week, a pair of FOIA requests turned up thousands of emails between Dr. Anthony Fauci and hundreds of people around the world. Many of these emails were with colleagues within the government or with health care professionals in the U.S. and elsewhere. Others were requests from media. Still more were theories forwarded to Fauci from both doctors and those who simply thought they had a bright idea. In almost all cases, Fauci’s responses showed someone who was working carefully, trying to avoid being immersed in politics, while providing the best available information. Most of all they show a tireless, if not indefatigable, public servant working nearly around the clock to deal with the biggest crisis in a generation.
So naturally, Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn, the man who has missed more votes in the House than any other member, immediately trundled onto Newsmax to call Dr. Fauci “lazy.”
As Politico notes, this was far from the only such assault on the 80-year-old director. Not only did conservative media and talking heads quickly pull out-of-context snippets from those emails to make it seem as if Dr. Fauci was “covering up the origins of COVID-19” or “conspiring with Chinese officials.” And, of course, because a party that follows Donald Trump is always ready with a scam and a cash box, Sen. Rand Paul has launched a new series of fundraising ads on Facebook around the theme of “fire Fauci.” As Poltico notes, Fauci is “a mild-mannered infectious disease specialist who has earned the admiration of Republican and Democratic presidents alike” and who has a reputation for being bluntly honest.
But Republicans are still so anxious to find a pandemic bogeyman who isn’t Donald J. Trump, they’re going at Dr. Fauci with hammer and tongs. So far, the Biden administration is more or less standing aside out of concern that stepping into this fight will only further politicize a position—and a career—that is decidedly apolitical. But considering the level of anti-science rhetoric that’s dominating the Republican position and the volume of personal hatred being directed at Dr. Fauci, it’s unclear that the White House can avoid taking a more direct role.
Don’t believe everything you read about COVID-19’s origin
On Thursday, Daily Kos covered how the story most responsible for heating up debate around the origins of COVID-19 was written by the same reporter who provided a series of ultimately false justifications for the invasion of Iraq. The point of that story was not “see, the lab origin idea is a fake,” but only that the current attention being given this point is predominantly driven by levels of political gamesmanship—and flogged on by a media that would much rather speculate than wait for the results of an actual investigation.
On Thursday evening, blogger Jake Eberts pointed out that another of the most-cited sources driving this story was also more than a little suspect. In this case, the story appeared not in the normal media, but in the journal Environmental Chemistry Letters, which might seem to lend it significant scientific authority. Except that this “paper,” despite its format, was actually an editorial. And with what he calls a half-hour of sleuthing, Eberts turned up some significant facts about the authors behind the piece.
For example, at least two authors had made media appearances calling face masks ineffective. One was a dedicated anti-vaxxer who claimed that the actual origin of SARS-CoV-2 was in a lab … a North Carolina lab, where it was the result of attempts to generate a vaccine against SARS. One of the authors is a urologist. Another a political scientist. And one used the paper to promote a heavily racist fund raiser that, among other things, claimed COVID-19 was becoming less infectious over time.
And again, this doesn’t say a thing about whether or not the lab origin of COVID-19 is more or less probable. Absolutely it may have happened. But it is by no means proven, and the World Health Organization continues to consider it “extremely unlikely.”
The people who actually investigated and reported on this—like Dr. Dominic Dwyer, an Australia researcher who was part of the WHO team—continue to indicate they found “no evidence to back up the lab escape theory.” Dwyer spent four weeks on site in Wuhan, and while it’s easy to speculate from a distance that China hid information, Dwyer claims he had good access to relevant records. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that Dwyer and other members of the WHO team would engage in some global cover-up to protect Chinese officials, or that they are all dupes.
Also, scientists who have looked directly at the genetics of SARS-COV-2 have indicated from the beginning that they see no sign the virus was engineered in any way. The authors of that original paper in Nature Medicine were headed up by a professor for the Scripps Research Institute, the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Edinburgh, the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University, and the The University of Sydney. In other words, not scam artists who were using their paper to push selenium pills and online fundraisers.
None of that guarantees a thing. Prominent scientists are proven wrong every day. That is what makes science science: Its claims are testable and subject to change on the addition of new evidence. But so far that evidence has not appeared.
And while it’s absolutely fine to speculate (I’m guilty a hundred times a day), it’s worth doing so in ways that consider whether that speculation is needlessly helping to further undermine trust in the researchers and institutions involved. Big emphasis on “needlessly.” Scientists are also people, and it’s also easy to believe that the researchers who worked with Chinese colleagues on site, or corresponded with Chinese researchers in the early days of the pandemic, might have been more anxious about getting information on combatting the disease and less concerned about whether they were missing something about its origins. If it turns out that the WHO and other researchers involved in following up on the origins of COVID-19 are wrong on this point, they will well deserve—and get—a big metaphorical smash in the mouth.
But until I see the evidence, I’m pulling my punches.
As you were ...
I wouldn’t exactly call this nostalgia, but this is where we were the last time the COVID-19 cases were at the current level. I made a number of versions of this chart, but by this point it was already more than wearing out its welcome.