Long Spring Journey Under Way: Virus Stays in the Lead

Test results are coming in faster and in greater numbers Monday from areas like New York where the ravaging corona virus is already killing people, and at the front lines elsewhere the governors, the county executives and mayors are increasingly facing up to the fact it’s coming for them.

The day’s Corona Virus Task Force briefing was mostly President Trump and very little Task Force but at one point, if you listened closely, there was a plea for government officials at state and local levels, even where there is as yet only a hint of infection, to please take action before it’s too late.

Again it was the Task Force’s Deborah Birx, given a couple of minutes to talk, who had the most to say. She spoke of two unspecified localities where 20 confirmed cases of the virus “becomes 200 that become 2000 and that’s what we’re trying to prevent.”

She was describing the most terrifying aspect of a very contagious virus, the exponential spread if social distancing is delayed too long. It was delayed in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans and Seattle and perhaps Alabama and other areas, allowing infected people without symptoms to be close to their loved ones, their friends, neighbours, colleagues and, in nursing homes, their fellow residents.

“I usually get my data about 2 a.m.,” she continued. There’s a lot of data now because, as noted in Friday’s White House Watch, the Phase 3 legislation, she told everyone, directed the bulk of the data, that generated by commercial laboratories, finally to be dispatched to her for analysis.

“They assimilate all the data from all the states and when you look at all of the states together all of them are moving and have exactly the same curves,” she said.

The “same curves” mean that, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has warned repeatedly, more and more regions will, not may, become just like the “test case,” his state, where every county but one has the virus.

Birx’ plea was delivered with a pained smile and it was not reinforced by the president. “That’s why we really believe this needs to be federal guidance so that every state understands” what’s in store, she said. “I think states still have that opportunity but they’re going to have to do all of these recommendations. These recommendations are recommendations that the globe is using and so we really do recommend that every governor, every mayor looks very carefully and ensures that their communities are utilising these guidances.”

In other words, many states still have time. Twenty-nine of them have imposed some kind of stay-at-home orders. Some are more mandatory than others. The penalties for a violation range from almost nothing to a year in jail.

On one side of the nation’s capital, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan Monday made a point of threatening the year in jail plus a fine. On the other side Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam did a softer version a few hours later. Yes, he said, you can still play golf but the clubhouse will be closed.

Northam did something, however, that could change the face of retail politics. He had his news conference streamed on Twitter’s Periscope service and that means his audience’s real-time reactions to his words scrolled past as he talked. Had he been able to see the scrolling of dozens then hundreds of sharp comments whiz past, he could have taken the temperature of his constituents. Very little praise. A lot of obscenities.

Periscoping Virginians mostly saw threats to liberty and vast incompetence. More than a few were saying he should have gone a lot further, been a lot tougher. A sizable number wanted the answer to one question and pleaded for someone to answer it. Did they have to make this month’s rent payment?

Later at the Task Force briefing, a lot of numbers as President Trump counted how many masks, ventilators and other gear are being shipped by FEMA. The context was missing so it was impossible to know how the shipments match up with the needs. Nurses and doctors continued through the day to tell their interviewers of critical shortages and their dread of the “apex,” the point of peak hospitalisations and deaths.

Yet it was evident that a lot is happening. After a month and a half of sputtering progress and much confusion, President Trump could justifiably brag about how coordinated the ensemble of government agencies has become. CEOs of major corporations and even Mike Lindell, founder of the “My Pillow” firm, a major Fox News advertiser, were at the podium. Instead of pillows, Lindell’s firm is making tens of thousands of masks. Honeywell, Jockey International, United Technologies/Raytheon and P&G were represented, all making huge contributions without being forced to by the Defense Production Act. Only Lindell, though, went further, asking the nation to offer its prayers for success.

On display in the Rose Garden was Abbott Lab’s point-of-care ID NOW platform – a small portable instrument already installed for other tests across the country that displays the new corona virus test result in five minutes or less. Its coming availability was first announced Friday after Abbott was awarded its second Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA. It’s been welcomed as a mechanism that can actually do the number of tests that can help Public Health Service contact tracers to get ahead of the virus. Abbott will be producing 5 million test kits a month and many other pharmaceutical firms are distributing more than two dozen other kinds of test materials. Abbott shares closed up 6.4% and gained another 2% in after-hours trading.

Counting from the signing of the Phase 3 CARES Act Friday, it’s Day 4 of the beginning of the newly aggressive response the pandemic. Or it could be Day 2 if counting from the 180-degree turnaround of Trump Sunday to someone chastened by the worst-case scenario for deaths they told him can happen if he lifted the guidelines – and if any large number of governors had decided to go along, which was doubtful.

As the president abandoned his “aspiration” of packed churches on Easter, extending the mitigation guidelines to April 30, the medical community and anyone else who has been paying attention had a sigh of relief. As Trump said at the latest briefing, “These guidelines we could save more than one million American lives. Think of that. One million American lives.”

Actually worst case was 2.2 million lives, and remembering what Birx and Fauci have said before, the 100,000 estimate that Trump now says would reflect a “good job” of mitigation is close to a best-case scenario, as she said, possible only if the guidelines are followed “perfectly.”

Some governors, like Virginia’s Northam, have already dismissed the possibility of relaxing stay-at-home guidelines as soon as April 30. In Virginia the governor’s order lasts for more than two months.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a call with reporters Monday, said she’s intent on passing a Phase 4 package of government aid, aiming it at broken state budgets, but it won’t happen immediately. Congress is due back on Capitol Hill April 20 and that date could slip. She and Trump have traded insults during the past two days. For him, she is a “sick puppy.” For her, he fiddles while people die.

Extracting substance from the noise, and there was plenty of that, the president said he and the Task Force are considering advising everyone in the country to wear a mask when out of the house. The World Health Organisation has always downplayed the importance of masks for others than health care professionals but some experts say it could help a lot.

As to the noise that seems to distract in every briefing, Trump renewed his implication that some hospitals may be diverting masks, as he said Sunday, “out the back door,” a comment that enraged many people when he first said it. The lack of adequate testing, doctors and nurses have said, is why they have to change masks so often since they have to assume every patient is virus positive.

Trump also announced the government has corralled more than 15 million doses of hydroxychloroquine, an unproven virus therapeutic that makes many experts cringe.

Trump also verbally attacked two reporters, one of them for the second day in a row, for what he called “snarky” and “nasty and snarky” questions such as whether he is reconsidering his early comments minimising the threat.

Will the remaining 21 states enforce the guidelines? There are signs that the word about relentless virus spread is sinking in. Tampa’s Hillsborough County, Florida sheriff saw that megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who happened to pray with Trump in the Oval Office three years ago, was going ahead with services Sunday for 4,000 of his faithful despite a personal warning not to. So, AFP reported, Sheriff Chad Chronister arrested him.

Monday saw 502 people die of the virus in the United States, the worst day so far.



Colin Lambert

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