US Government Still Catching Up with Virus Needs

What’s become a literal American deathwatch was a grinding slog on Wednesday with whatever major progress being made behind the scenes obscured by the questions on why progress is not faster.

The evening’s Corona Virus Task Force briefing seemed more bogged down with vague answers rather than being illuminated by fresh information, perhaps an inevitable sag in a daily routine. After Tuesday’s session placing the brutal reality of inexorable virus spread and its consequences in full view, there was also an element of anticlimactic letdown although no one wanted even worse news.

Detroit became the most rapidly deteriorating epicentre, appearing to overtake California as the third worst after New York and New Jersey. Florida and Massachusetts are not far behind. President Trump seemed reluctant to criticise when questioned about the adequacy of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ new state-wide stay-at-home order added to the existing Miami metro restrictions. And he seemed reluctant to criticise Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, whom he spoke to in a telephone call and whose refusal to order virus precautions has sparked calls for impeachment.

There has been no apparent movement toward any national stay-at-home order from the White House as some states drag their feet despite the urgency, nor toward a federal allocation strategy to bring order to a still chaotic and uneven distribution of medical supplies. Why not advise all Americans to stay at home regardless of their state’s precautions? “Some states don’t have much of a problem,” Trump said. That was a head scratcher for those who have been told the point of all the precautions is to protect against future problems that are steadily approaching everywhere.

The complaints continued on TV screens from hospital emergency room personnel, medical experts and others on the front lines in several states, still working in many areas without enough protective gear. Even Fox News White House correspondent John Roberts got his turn to be attacked by the president when he tried to ask a question about the White House’s earlier elimination of pandemic experts, an accusation the president said was “false.” Hurling what is apparently a supreme insult within the White House, Trump asked him, “Are you working for CNN?”

Such atmospherics seemed even more trivial against the backdrop of this week’s Task Force projections that even under fairly optimistic assumptions, from 100,000 to 250,000 Americans will succumb to the corona virus.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo piled on earlier in the day, saying projections he looks at see 16,000 of his state residents dying. The often-mentioned “apex” of hospitalisations might not arrive, he said, until a month from now. Cuomo Wednesday closed New York City playgrounds, something Mayor Bill de Blasio would not do.

Another question asked seemed to illustrate some of what medical personnel see as maddening discrepancies. Testing has ramped up to 100,000 a day, yet that is far short of the millions of test kits the Task Force has said have been shipped. The Task Force’s expert Deborah Birx Tuesday offered an explanation, saying test procedures that could be done a lot faster are still being directed to laboratories with slow equipment.

At the latest evening’s briefing. Vice President Mike Pence gave a less specific explanation that skirted around the issue that has characterised any discussion of testing from the beginning. New faster tests are still in the pipeline, not at the testing centres. The testing centres are still mostly in areas already hard hit, not where they’re needed to detect the carriers without symptoms who are the virus’ cutting edge.

Asked how uninsured Americans are going to afford virus tests and treatment, Pence gave a response so roundabout and rambling that Trump interrupted him to congratulate on saying so much while explaining so little. Trump then conceded it’s not “fair” to exclude the large group of uninsured Americans from access to health care and said it’s an issue the Task Force will look at.

Masks, gowns, ventilators still seem as scarce as toilet paper while the Task Force and Trump describe massive manufacturing efforts that apparently have a payoff sometime in the future. Trump said again the Task Force is weighing the benefit of advising everyone in the country to wear a mask. The mayor of Los Angeles isn’t waiting. He issued the mask directive late Wednesday.

If, at this point, an anguished reader says, “Holy Cow, I’m not seeing much new here,” that’s the point.

“You see how terrible it is, especially when you look at the numbers from yesterday,” Trump said, not reversing course again now that he has fully embraced the warnings from the Task Force specialists. Then he surprised at the beginning of the briefing with an announcement of a major government push against the chronic problem of drug running through Central America and across the Mexico border. To showcase the announcement he brought to the podium the attorney general, the secretary of defence and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Trump did not offer an extended explanation for “why now” questions. The sudden deployment of Navy destroyers, radar surveillance planes, almost a couple of dozen Coast Guard cutters to Mexico’s east and west coasts had social media posters wondering what was the real reason. Twenty-two other countries, including Mexico, are participating.

Trump even said in an aside that the pace of drug running was a little diminished lately. One reason, to cut off drug income to Venezuela’s Maduro regime, seemed plausible to some but in the midst of a pandemic, still somehow inadequate.

Trump added the crackdown could also help keep migrants south of the border, except for farm workers who will be let in. “Otherwise there’ll be no farmers,” he said.

What did not seem quite plausible was Trump’s assertion that yes, he would take a call from presidential candidate Joe Biden to discuss the pandemic.

Trump was also drawn into a discussion of the staggering oil market, saying he believes he knows what will work to stop the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. And that is? Can’t tell yet.

Those thousands aboard the cruise liners that aren’t permitted to dock in Florida, Trump said, are being evacuated to their home countries, like Canada and the UK. The Americans will be taken off too so the liners don’t become “ghost ships.” The passengers “are dying,” he said. “We’ve got to do what’s right” despite the state’s blockade.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper said sailors afflicted with corona virus and 2,700 more aboard the USS Roosevelt in port in Guam are being evacuated by Friday after the plea for help from the aircraft carrier’s commander became public. Esper said, though, the military is going to perform its protective mission, virus or not.

As to his earlier tweet about intelligence information pointing to an Iran-backed sneak attack on American facilities in Iraq, Trump said the “good information” he has is what prompted his public warning to Iran not to risk large-scale retaliation. One official said Iran has refused US humanitarian aid.

Still another digression was his veiled comments about what the White House knows about China’s suspect virus numbers, which are “a little bit on the light side.”

Through the distractions and extraneous noise, the ominous background to the briefing was Tuesday’s death toll projection, that without adequate social distancing the death total could approach a million or maybe as much as two million. Without more testing whether “adequate” is enough remains unanswered. Without surveillance testing, in middle America where there are only a few confirmed virus cases, it can’t be known where the virus is today, before its presence is made obvious by hospitalisations one and two weeks from now. There are new signs that one in four contagious carriers show no symptoms.

US stock market traders and investors were depressed again as the indices took the down-leg of what’s become the rollercoaster ups and downs that have made 1%, 2% and 3% moves commonplace. For Wednesday, the Dow industrials, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq all dropped 4.4% as if coordinated by some god of the markets. One economist, Grant Thornton’s Diane Swonk, reinforced the gloom by guessing there have been nine million layoffs in the past week.

Early Thursday Asia trading wasn’t quite as negative. The same analysts who Tuesday saw green shoots were Wednesday spraying market herbicide again, as always, sharply split on whether to buy the bargains or run for cover.

The credit market did improve, with still another Federal Reserve announcement. This time it was a year-long suspension of the big-bank “supplementary leverage ratio” restrictions that enables more commercial institution purchases of Treasury securities.

The president of the Boston Fed, Eric Rosengren, provided a peek under the hood in the afternoon, telling a teleconference audience that some Fed support for various markets was still not sufficiently effective or began to be only “a couple of days ago.”

Rosengren also said his dissents from last year’s pre-virus rate cuts have been proven to be prudent. The Fed used up valuable ammunition and low rates encouraged some over-borrowing, he said, that will make the financial damage from the pandemic worse than it would be otherwise. He opined that far in the distance, an economic recovery won’t be possible until everyone is no longer scared to use mass transit.


Colin Lambert

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