Virus Still Unchallenged in US and Dominating the Narrative

The coronavirus, heedless of the new battle of narratives, is steadily spreading mostly unseen Tuesday in and beyond the “hotspots” as US cases topped 50,000, more than half of them around New York City.

Fearful that infected New Yorkers fleeing the city will seed other virus hotspots elsewhere, the two most senior government experts in an evening briefing urged any of those who have gone to Long Island, Florida or anywhere else self-quarantine for two weeks before they mingle with relatives, friends and neighbours. “This will be very critical,” Task Force expert Deborah Birx said, “That those individuals do self quarantine in their homes over the next 14 days to make sure they don’t pass the virus to others.”

Testing is advancing rapidly but within a comparatively small footprint, denying the Corona Virus Task Force enough readings by which to gauge the full extent of spread. As the NIH’s Tony Fauci said in a late-day briefing, the Task Force is just starting to compile the necessary data. Those now being infected won’t show symptoms for up to another two weeks, won’t seek testing right away and so won’t be entering the government database by the time the “15-day” guidelines for mitigation ends next Sunday. “We need to put a light on those dark spots that we don’t know,” Fauci said. “We have to act policy-wise on data and we’re going to be getting more data, a lot more data.”

While President Trump Tuesday encouraged consideration of allowing crowds to assemble and even “pack” churches on Easter, at least in some parts of the country, Task Force medical professionals conceded in a roundabout way that at this point they are still flying blind. On a proportional basis, considering the difference in population, US testing so far has been more than three dozen times less inclusive than is the case in South Korea even though, as President Trump repeated during the day, the raw number of US tests has now equalled in eight days what that country did in eight weeks. South Korea, with just 100 deaths and relatively few new cases, has already moved to smartphone apps that tell if infected persons are in the vicinity.

The steepening curve of world infection, with the exponential increase now a nearly vertical ascent when charted, is displayed in graphic relief on the “Worldometer” website managed by an international team of developers, researchers and volunteers that has become the gold standard for tracking virus spread.

The New York City/New Jersey Metro area is among the worst hit in the world. The infection “attack rate,” Dr Birx said, is 10 times that elsewhere in the country, one in a thousand.

Trump earlier in the day virtually mandated news writers everywhere to leap to their keyboards when he first told Fox News, in a Town Hall broadcast and in a later interview, that he would “love” to encourage people to leave their home sequestration by Easter. Legions of doctors and nurses were on camera on cable channels – other than Fox News – soon afterward expressing their distress – some said “horror” – at the prospect of encouraging the return of crowds as soon as April 12. They also repeated their widespread complaints of being forced to work without proper protective gear.

“We can socially distance ourselves and go to work,” Trump said. Later he doubled down, saying it would be a “beautiful time” to see churches packed with people on the Easter holy day. “You’ll have packed churches all over our country,” he said. Finally, late in the day, he said, “We were thinking in terms of sooner” than Easter. “I’d love to see it coming even sooner, but I just think it would be a beautiful timeline.”

He added, “Our decision will be based on hard facts as to the opening” and might involve only the Farm Belt, parts of Texas and other areas that seem to be nearly free of the virus. “There are sections of our country that you didn’t talk about that are doing unbelievably well. They have very little incidence or problem, very small numbers,” Trump told a reporter.

Among those hard facts, medical experts were predicting in the interviews through the afternoon, will be the revelation that the virus has been relentlessly infecting thousands more people far beyond New York, Washington State and California. Areas now free of the virus, they say, haven’t dodged the bullet. It just hasn’t arrived yet.

Not highlighted nearly as much were Trump’s accompanying comments, which he reinforced late in the day, that he will very likely extend the current “15-day stay-at-home guidelines” beyond Sunday for an unspecified time, a relief to the same medical experts alarmed by talk of an Easter relaxation of mitigation.

Democratic governors, like Connecticut’s Ned Lamont, were quick to dismiss the possibility of allowing crowds to congregate again as soon as Easter. He and other governors, not the president, will have the last word, since they are the ones who can order businesses to close and people to remain separated. There were reports of law enforcers forcing businesses to shut in some of the 17 states that have banned non-essential commerce.

The battle of narratives – precautions vs the relaxation of precautions – became a battle of networks about how some of Trump’s declarations are treated. For instance, when he again said Tuesday of virus deaths, “We lose much more than that to automobile accidents…we didn’t order the auto companies to stop making cars,” that provoked both social media criticism and a blast from CNN.

That network’s media reporter Brian Stelter accused Fox News of a “failure of journalism” for not challenging Trump. Auto fatalities, he said, are not doubling on a predictable schedule as are virus infections.

Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, at a past virus briefing called such comparisons, whether to auto fatalities or deaths because of ordinary influenza, a “false equivalency”. Fauci’s reappearance at the latest Task Force briefing reassured his fans that, contrary to some stories, he is not being squeezed out of the public eye because of occasional diplomatically expressed departures from Trump’s enthusiasm for chloroquine.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier in the day told his daily audience, now grown far beyond his state, that with virus cases in New York doubling every three days and confirmed cases topping 25,000, his region is a “test case” that will likely soon be duplicated in more and more areas of the country.

Cuomo voiced harsh criticism of FEMA for not sending him more than 400 ventilators when he needs 30,000. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said ventilators being supplied will be sufficient for only another few days. Vice President Mike Pence later said more than 4,000 ventilators are being shipped by FEMA and another source within two days.

Although he has said he gets along with Cuomo, Trump was not about to let the governor’s strident criticism Tuesday pass unanswered. “He’s supposed to be buying his own ventilators,” Trump counter attacked on Fox. He said Cuomo had a chance to buy 16,000 ventilators several years ago but didn’t. Of governors depending on federal help, Trump said, “It’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well also.”

Task Force coordinator Birx said, in the Fox News Town Hall, that most counties in the country have not reported a single case of the virus. That triggered an explosion of social media responses saying that the biggest reason is that no one has been tested in most counties.

As recounted in Monday’s White House Watch, last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal editorial that said the shutdown of the economy is not sustainable, which planted the seed for the reverberating debate over whether restarting the economy is worth accepting a potentially higher death rate.

Elsewhere, Japan and the International Olympic Committee agreed, as widely believed inevitable, that this year’s games will be put off for a year, the first postponement for any reason other than war, and “Ragtime” playwright Terrence McNally succumbed to the virus at age 81. India entered a 21-day shutdown for the country’s 1.4 billion citizens. In China, travel restrictions in Hubei province were lifted except in the capital of Wuhan, where the novel virus is thought to have originated.

In Washington, on Capitol Hill, negotiations over the $2 trillion Phase 3 package continued. On Wall Street, stocks were cheered by all the talk of reopening commerce. The Dow industrials Tuesday closed up a record 2112.98 points, a giant 11.4% rebound. The S&P 500 was up 209.93 points, a 9.3% increase for the day, but still 24% down for the year. In Asia, early Wednesday trading saw the Nikkei up nearly 5%.

The US had 163 more virus deaths in the latest 24-hour period, bringing the total dead to 704. In Italy, the day’s death toll was 743, the second worst day in that country, dampening hopes fatalities there had peaked.

Colin Lambert

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