Gruesome Virus Developments Hardly News Any More

Virus infection cases kept multiplying in the US Thursday, death tolls kept going up, more governors and mayors ignored President Trump’s dream of packed churches on Easter and the US kept mostly ignoring the kind of contact tracing that slowed the virus to a crawl elsewhere.

By one count, the US number of infection cases Thursday exceeded that in Italy. Another count sees it topping the rate in both Italy and China to be the biggest total in the world. The number of US fatalities, though, is still far below that in either of those countries. The US total, Trump said, is “a tribute to our testing”.

If news is a departure from routine, then the daily escalating coronavirus effects and a US national death toll now going up more than two dozen in some hours, is less and less remarkable and more and more just the predictable expanding dimensions of catastrophe. The 56% increase in New Jersey’s confirmed infections Thursday caused hardly a news ripple.

Did we understand those words correctly, that the US is ignoring the kind of contact tracing that allowed the health care system to get ahead of the virus in South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and even in Wuhan – first used in the Ebola epidemic?

At least private medical experts keep repeating it’s the untested carriers without symptoms who are spreading the virus. By the time some of them enter hospitals, they will have had an average 5.1 days to as much as two weeks to unwittingly share their disease with relatives, friends, neighbours and anyone standing close by. They are the leading edge of the pandemic.

How do you find them before they spread some more? It turns out one of the easiest ways is to check the smartphones of the people who test positive. At the most basic level, their location histories are a good reminder of who was visited, where and when so the asymptomatic infectees can be isolated. It’s a tool being used in various ways in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia. China’s smartphone surveillance of health status is the most intrusive. In the UK, an application has been developed that doesn’t run afoul of privacy concerns. Singapore is making its app freely available to any country. In all, nearly a dozen countries use smartphone information to track the virus.

Is the United States doing that? Not yet. The State Department’s Deborah Birx, in the latest evening Corona Virus Task Force briefing Thursday evening, said the Public Health Service is gearing up to be an army of contact tracers.

She also said she is seeing newly aggregated data that suggests drastic forecasts of eventual total fatalities in New York and elsewhere may be way overstated. She added that, however high what New York Governor Andrew Cuomo calls the “apex” is, it will have been determined by how well the metro population follows the guidelines to stay at home and wash their hands.

Cuomo generated more headlines during the day saying that there is no “reasonable scenario” under which New York City hospitals are not overrun in two or three weeks. Birx and Pence said the Task Force is in touch with every city hospital trying to meet their needs. Cuomo also said it appears hospitalised virus patients on ventilators need them much longer than other types of patients, adding to the burden of vastly insufficient supply. Households across the nation received the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control in their mailboxes Thursday.

The NIH’s best source of virus information, the esteemed Dr. Tony Fauci keeps popping up like an Old Testament prophet, telling truths that somehow don’t seem to be making much of an impression on people sometimes standing next to him, like Trump. “You’ve got to be realistic and you got to understand you don’t make the timeline,” he said again in one appearance. “The virus makes the timeline…You have to go with what the situation on the ground is,” Fauci told CNN.

The president sent a letter to governors, released by the White House Thursday, that looked forward to some sections of the country telling their citizens it’s OK to get back to work, to church, to the corner ice cream parlour, because their area of the country is “low risk”. “We will suggest guidelines categorising counties as high-risk, medium-risk or low-risk,” Trump’s letter said. These risk assessments can then be used “in making decisions about maintaining, increasing or relaxing social distancing and other mitigation measures.”

The prospect of getting a “low risk” designation means what, exactly? A get-out-of-jail pass that lasts how long? Because apparently the virus doesn’t know about low-risk areas. It only knows to go where it hasn’t yet gone. That was the view of several familiar faces on cable TV through the afternoon.

Vice President Mike Pence, also in the evening briefing, said he and the rest of the Task Force this weekend will be preparing data that Trump can use to make important decisions. He did not make explicit whether those decisions are just relating to any extension of the stay-at-home guidelines beyond Sunday, or to the more sweeping choice whether to encourage people in some parts of the country to return to work and church by Easter.

Several more governors, before and after getting the president’s letter and speaking to him on a conference call at midday, decided to err on the side of not reopening by Easter. By the end of the week, 22 states covering more than half the nation will be under stay-at-home orders. New Hampshire’s stay-home rule takes effect Friday and extends well past Easter, to the end of May. Washington State is preparing to extend its order to stay homebound past April 8. Easter is April 12.

Los Angeles, where 21 died from the virus during the day and where parks, beaches and non-essential businesses were already supposed to be closed, was reported to be ready to more rigorously enforce the state’s a stay-at-home order for the next two months.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered visitors from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and New Orleans to quarantine themselves for two weeks before mingling with Texans, while Rhode Island is singling out travellers from just New York for the two-week isolation. New Orleans’ skyrocketing infection rate is apparently the gift of revellers in town for Mardi Gras, just as some had warned would happen.

Dr. Birx told the briefing that the federal government will be advising state and local officials to counsel those counties with more cases to tell travellers not to go to counties that have fewer.

Meanwhile, in another sign the virus is morphing into numbing background noise it’s getting harder to scare the stock markets. There was so much relief that the morning’s report on claims for jobless benefits was only a record 3.3 million, the DJIA was able to climb more than 1,351 points, a gain of 6.3%. The actual number without adjustment for recurring seasonal patterns was 2.898 million. Pennsylvania, the hardest hit, alone had 378,908 layoffs.

Those laid off can take heart that the Phase 3 relief bill can apparently give them as much as $600 a week more than their former salary, a generous glitch a handful of senators tried but failed to amend out of existence Wednesday night. They then joined in the unanimous 90-0 Senate approval of the legislation, resigned to the fact it is an imperfect but urgently needed accomplishment. The bonus may still be eliminated by regulation.

Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell made one of his rare forays into the mainstream media, telling the morning audience of NBC’s “Today” show, “This is a unique situation. It is not your typical downturn. We’ve asked people to step back from economic activity for the public good.”

The Fed will be using backstop money from the Treasury Department to underwrite up to $4 trillion in loans to business and perhaps to states and localities. That’s on top of the half a trillion for them in the $2 trillion Phase 3 relief package House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said is going to get final passage Friday after two hours of debate.

With that many trillions in play and perhaps more to come, some Debbie Downers worried whether the dollar can survive long term with its dominance intact.

Powell went on to acknowledge the obvious, that the economy “may well be in a recession,” adding, “There is nothing fundamentally wrong with our economy,” he said, with social media filling in an alternative ending, as in there is no longer a functioning economy.

“We start in a very strong position,” Powell said. “This is a situation where people are being asked to step back from economic activity – close their businesses, stay home from work – so, in principle, if we get the virus spread under control fairly quickly, economic activity can resume and we want to make the rebound as vigorous as possible.”

The words “in principle” seemed to leave room for alternative endings.

The Fed, the White House’s Larry Kudlow again Thursday, plus a football stadium full of private analysts, keep repeating that all the pieces can be put back together.

Trump told the briefing, apparently trying to be reassuring, that he’s seen the projection that a total of 14% of all restaurants will disappear. He said they’ll be back – but may have different owners. He also acknowledged that the longer the economy stays shut, the harder it will be to restart.

A few of the talking heads are pessimists, despite the government’s massive attempt to replace lost income and company earnings. They say credit defaults, bankruptcies and abandonment of defunct businesses – and an acceleration of the purge of malls and brick-and-mortar retailers – could make even sustained growth unlikely for several quarters even after demand is no longer pent up because a vaccine proves to be effective.

Denny Gulino

Colin Lambert

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