Declining US Trajectory Does Not Necessarily Mean Declining

The first rule of virus reporting is to focus on what the virus is doing, despite the many distractions from the White House and statehouses, from anti-mitigation demonstrations to progress reports on testing and the chronic complaints of short supplies. On a beautiful Sunday in many parts of the country, more demonstrations and more people just enjoying the outdoors, and neither group practicing social distancing.

The virus was out there too, wafting its way into the nasal passages and eyelids, picking off more victims by the hundreds. The percentage who will die is a moving target and differs with geography.

So many news services and networks are doing such a great job tracking the virus. Let’s just pick the unembellished language of a Reuters lead paragraph: “The US death toll from the novel coronavirus rose to more than 40,000 on Sunday, the highest in the world and almost double the number of deaths in the next highest country, Italy.”

The death toll “increased to 40,000 from 30,000 in four days.”

Retail sales in South Carolina reopen Monday for pickups. Texas will announce a reopening plan in a week as the governor gets blasted for following “emotional decision makers in Washington who have caused massive economic damage,” in the words of a former state senator. The Texas stay-at-home order is only two weeks old. As in Texas, California’s governor appointed a task force to plan for reopening, holding off the increased pressure to get on with it. The state’s task force has 80 members.

Several large cities are not levelling their new cases or their death counts, Boston and Philadelphia among them.

Always ready with good news, President Trump Sunday night said, “In many of the hot spots including a 50 percent decline over a nine-day period in New York City, that’s a fantastic plan, it’s a beautiful thing to see after going through the opposite. We continue to see improvement with a declining trajectory of cases in Seattle, Detroit, New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Houston metro areas – more evidence that our aggressive strategy is working.”

He left it to Vice President Mike Pence to hint at the bad news. “The Denver metro area is stable. We’re dealing in Colorado with a meat packing plant issue and of course, California and Washington remain low and steady,” he said. “Areas that we continue to watch carefully on the Task Force include the Chicago metro area, Boston metro and the Philadelphia area.

It’s’ important to be reminded that when the president uses the words “declining trajectory” in many cases that doesn’t mean anything is declining. It often means the bad numbers are going up a little more slowly but still up, every day.

The broad numbers miss the little exploding epicentres, like the Waterloo, Iowa poultry processing plant that throws out half of the 192 new cases. The plant is still open and the staff keeps reporting for work.

Looking around the world Russia, India and Saudi Arabia reported new highs in cases Sunday.

There are only another 20,000 deaths until the US hits the new presumed ultimate total of 60,000, with the stay-at-home behaviour still in full force in most areas, whether mandated or suggested. Expectations are rising for May 1, less than two weeks, when states who want to get with the president’s hopes and in little ways, at least, begin reopening. That means in less than two weeks the nation’s mitigation efforts will have peaked.

If you were able to hang in through the president’s rambling, very repetitive and long Sunday night briefing, all presented without the benefit of any actual Task Force members other than the vice president, you would have perhaps caught the only two significant news nuggets.

One is that the legislation negotiated for the 96 hours since the money allocated to the Paycheck Protection Program ran out has expanded under pressure from House Democrats, whose votes are necessary for its passage. So there is an additional $25 billion, by all accounts, for testing, just as governors of both parties have been demanding. All told the package, an addition to the CARES Act, is up to $310 billion, though the total could change by the time agreement is announced, likely Monday.

The other nugget is that the White House is invoking the Defense Production Act again, under pressure from governors, this time to order the production of the newly designed nasal swabs needed for virus testing by the millions. Testing has ramped up toward a million a week. The Task Force will tell governors on Monday where in their states are testing and processing facilities as the White House keeps straining to have states pick up the pace despite the widely acknowledged shortage of swabs and test materials.

As Monday arrives, it’s hard to ignore other news that shows what the global economy’s synchronized collapse of demand for gasoline, jet fuel and fuel oil has brought about. Oil that costs $11 a barrel. More precisely, $11.69 for West Texas Intermediate in the futures market, a 36% collapse in price in a single day.


Colin Lambert

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