Virus Apex Weeks Away as Defences Mount

A thousand distractions filled the news Wednesday, particularly promises contained in the pending congressional effort to replace trillions of dollars of income, pay for medical gear and rescue firms big and little.

Not distracted are the sub-microscopic capsules of single strands of ribonucleic acid that are using unwitting asymptomatic carriers to reach more states. Their future is coming into slightly better focus.

By the time the virus reaches Idaho, Iowa, the Farm Belt and wherever infections are still light and where president Trump hopes Easter will arrive with packed churches, authorities will have learned what New York, New Jersey, even Wuhan are teaching the medical researchers. The overwhelmingly important speed, testing and contact tracing may save much of America from the worst.

“What we’re studying … what is the apex of that line?” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday. “That is the point of the greatest number of people coming into the hospital system. So that’s our greatest load, is the apex.

“And when is that going to happen? Again, that is a projection,” he continued. “Again, that moves around. But the current projection is that could be in 21 days.”

By the time the urgency became obvious in Washington his New York, Seattle and parts of New Jersey were too far gone. A large enough proportion of their population had already been infected and they could not avoid climbing the ladder toward the apex. The same thing had happened in Wuhan, where intense spread went on even after the lockdown.

Only later could the mechanism of mitigation in Wuhan be successfully employed – testing so those found positive could reveal who they were close to. Those not yet symptomatic could then be isolated. Finally that worked. The unwitting carriers, once quarantined, would spread no more. The virus had been conquered.

With testing tardy in the United States and contact tracing still spotty, the edge of the virus footprint continues to spread rapidly. Some of those infected five days to two weeks ago are entering hospital care. Those infected Thursday, Friday and the days farther ahead, however, may be identified as testing speeds up, in the word Wednesday of, yes, Trump, “exponentially”. The new emphasis on contact tracing will find others infected and doctors will intervene a lot earlier, before their symptoms erupt.

With the billions soon to be poured into hospitals and medical research, and with the density reduction that comes with keeping people off the job, out of school and at home the wave of infection will be drastically slowed. Future hotspots will be a lot less hot than New York.

There were signs, beyond use of the word “exponentially” that the president is beginning to absorb at least some of what his medical experts on the Corona Virus Task Force are telling him. Will he consult with his experts before deciding if the 15-day guidelines should be extended, before relaxing federal advice to stay home? “I’ll be speaking with Tony Fauci,” he answered. “I’ll be speaking with Deborah (Birx). I’ll be speaking with some of the people that they like and respect and they’re going to bring along with them.”

He said he’ll be speaking to Vice President Mike Pence and “we’ll be speaking everybody.”

“I’m not going to do anything rash or hastily. I don’t do that,” Trump added. Yet the pull of his dream of restoring a pulse to the country’s economy was still there, as evidenced by the next words, “But the country wants to get back to work.”

Maybe “sections” of the country can come back, he said, apparently assuming that those vast areas of the county with hardly any virus yet are somehow never going to get it.

Whether a virtue or a disability, Trump has shown he can be persuaded to change course and often does, sometimes overnight dropping initiatives he seemed to be pushing. Once, for instance, he was even going to fight the National Rifle Association. In the days remaining before Easter the weight of advice will undoubtedly be to resist the urge to relax all the unprecedented constraints too early.

After the apex? The Task Force’s professionals are already there. NIH’s Tony Fauci, also at the briefing, said China researchers are warning the United States not to become complacent when the peak of infections passes. They’re telling the World Health Organisation to beware of imported cases then, beware of visitors flying in who have now become China’s nearly only source of infection.

“They went through the entire cycle of the curve to come down,” Fauci said. “They have very, very few cases but what they’re starting to see as they’re relaxing the constraints on travel that they’re getting imported cases and they wanted to warn us.”

Even if the curve of infection is flattened, after the death toll starts to come down, the virus will still be out there, ready for a vicious rebound. Dr. Birx called it cycle “B” and “C” and by that time, months from now, the US has to be ready, she said, with renewed mitigation, hopefully a vaccine and the unrelenting vigilance now standard operating procedure.

Now let’s point the camera at Capitol Hill where during the day news conferences and floor speeches in the Senate saw Republicans blast Democrats for unwarranted delay and Democrats returned the derision for not including provisions in Phase 3 they wanted. Once again Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, also at the briefing, said the Senate would pass Phase 3 “tonight”. This time he was right.

Some Republican senators said their negotiators were too generous, with too much in the way of unemployment benefits in Phase 3 and there must be an amendment to fix that provision. If that weren’t enough to shock the stock markets with 16 minutes to go before the close of trading, Senator Bernie Sanders said if that provision were touched, it would be he who puts a hold on Phase 3.

In those 16 minutes the Dow industrials lost 820 points, turning what was an outstanding day for gains into a middling day in which the Dow ended up just 2.39%, or 495.94 – so much less that the 1,300 point jump that had seemed within reach.

The Nikkei Asia Review report from a supplier that Apple is considering delaying its new 5G smartphone for a few months turned the Nasdaq negative. The negativity carried over to early Thursday Asian markets where for a time the Nikkei was down 3.8%.

In floor speech after floor speech, more senators voiced their grievances. Workers should not get more in unemployment benefits than what their wages had been, said Sen. Lindsey Graham and some other Republicans. Democrats said New York should not have been short changed billions of dollars in aid it was counting on. Nor should the District of Columbia have been deprived of $700 million.

As it went on past nine hours and on, and midnight approached it was an unusual spectacle, actual back-and-forth argument, not just canned speeches.

“This is actually turning out to be a debate on the floor of the Senate. It’s almost historic,” said Dick Durbin, the second highest-ranking Senate Democrat.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had told CNN in the evening that she is ready to have the House pass Phase 3. So it is expected to pass easily in the House after 9 a.m. ET Thursday by voice vote. Trump said he will sign it soon after the House vote.

“I’m damned proud” of what we did,” Schumer said to a Senate chamber nearly emptied by social distancing. “When we pass this bill…we will wave from a distance.” And so they did.

Passage was finally assured around 10:30 p.m. ET as voting began to dispose of an amendment. By 11:27 p.m. the final 60-vote threshold had been reached. The final vote was 90-0. It may well pass the House without objection as well.

McConnell said the senators will not have to return to Washington until April 20 at the soonest, but if there’s need for emergency action, they need to be ready to rush back on 24 hours notice.

Colin Lambert

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