Throughout the pandemic, Donald Trump never allowed facts to get in the way of his reopening rhetoric. There is absolutely no doubt that Trump’s refusal to promote sound policy resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths through encouraging business to reopen in unsafe conditions, failing to provide for workers who were forced into high-risk environments, and turning such simple actions as wearing a mask into political fodder. What’s unfortunate is that in addition to the virus, such stubborn resistance to facts also seems to be catching.
As The New York Times reports, the situation in New York City and surrounding regions continues to be nothing less than dire. In spite of this, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is insisting that restaurants be allowed to resume indoor dining on Feb 14. This is happening in spite of the fact that hospitalizations in the city are 60% higher than when Cuomo ordered those same restaurants closed. The per capita rate of new COVID-19 cases is 64% of where it was when the restaurants were closed.
Gov. Cuomo’s reasoning appears to be centered on “trajectory,” but the pandemic is not a basketball game. It doesn’t turn on momentum (and honestly, neither do basketball games). A member of the state COVID-19 task force said that “the important metrics are not where the numbers are but where they are headed.” Which is not just wrong, but amazingly so.
The virus is not discouraged by charts or frightened by empty hospital beds. It is utterly ignorant of yesterday’s number of cases and how they fit into any trend. Trends exist only in the analysis. As has been demonstrated again and again over the course of this pandemic, past trends are not predictive. Twice already the level of new cases and percentage of positive tests has fallen only to expand again to levels far higher than the previous peak.
The biggest reason that has happened is because politicians at every level have treated a decline as if it were predictive. Just like in this instance, past declines have been greeted with calls to reopen schools, crank up the dial on businesses, and open those restaurants. And while the numbers on the charts aren’t predictive of what comes next, actions such as those going on in New York are. What will happen when restaurants are opened is that the virus will spread more readily. More people will be infected than necessary. The results of this action will not be visible for weeks, but they will be there in the case count, in the hospitalizations, and in the deaths.
The time when we’re confronted by both falling case numbers and a whole suite of new virus variants promising higher levels of contagion, possibly higher mortality, and greater vaccine resistance is the perfect time to tighten restrictions, not loosen them.
At the far side of the country, California is also looking to lift some restrictions. The outbreak there, which is centered in the southern end of the state, peaked at around 44,000 cases a day and has followed the national trend downward. That caused Gov. Gavin Newsom to announce last week that there would be an easing of the tight restrictions established in early December.
As The Los Angeles Times reports, California—and particularly the area around Los Angeles—was in a very frightening position just a few weeks ago. However, tight restrictions were then put in place by Newsom and local officials. Stay-at-home orders and limits on even outdoor dining caused a sharp decline in people getting together. That caused a sharp decline in opportunities to spread the virus. And with that, cases dropped and hospitalization rates eased.
But on Jan. 24, Newsom lifted the stay-at-home order and allowed outdoor dining to resume. Since then, the number of cases has continued to decline. However, the level of new cases each day is still well above where it was when the pandemic exploded to record levels at the start of December. There is absolutely nothing that will stop it from exploding again. In fact, with the increased level of variants such as B.1.1.7, which is thought to be between 50% and 70% more contagious than the strain seen in the United States for most of the pandemic, case counts could bounce back much more quickly.
Again and again over the course of this pandemic, the same behavior has occurred. Cases go up, restrictions are put in place, cases begin to come down, and then restrictions are removed before cases are below the level at the start of the previous surge. The result is that the next surge always builds on a bigger base than the last.
It’s clear that politicians have tremendous pressure from voters and from businesses to lift restrictions. But on both coasts, holding off just a short time longer would pay huge benefits.
To see how bad it could be, look at Brazil. As Aljazeera reports, Brazil also saw a huge surge of COVID-19 cases over the summer, but after weeks of decline, it seemed that by fall the worst was behind them. Not only had some areas finally put restrictions in place in spite of the efforts of President Jair Bolsonaro to actively block effective action, but some cities were thought to be so infected that herd immunity was responsible for falling cases. After Bolsonaro refused to provide national guidelines, encouraged people to not wear masks, and repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the virus, cities like Manaus were thought to be “safe” because they had already achieved something like a 75% infection rate. Then a new surge began, building off the already massive number of cases, carrying Brazil to even more devastating levels of disease and death.
But it’s not necessary to go to South America to find politicians who downplay the virus, discourage the use of masks, and make false claims about their success in dealing with the pandemic. For example, there is America’s very own Bolsonaro …
As of Wednesday, South Dakota is No. 2 (behind only North Dakota) when it comes to the rate of COVID-19 cases per capita. The state is No. 7 when it comes to the rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita. That puts it in the unique position of having the worst COVID-19 response of any state that wasn’t caught by the surprise fury of the initial outbreak. Even those numbers aren’t as bad as they should be, because when hospitals in Rapid City were full, South Dakota got into a habit of exporting the worst cases to other states. Those patients who died in Colorado or other neighboring states were not included in South Dakota’s tally of deaths.
But of course, Noem doesn’t worry about this. She’s on Fox News, where no one is bothering to fact check her statements any more than Brazilian media puts a check on Bolsonaro.
Noem is being treated as a hero for her absolute failure. If it seems like the people of her state—1 in 500 of whom is now dead from COVID-19—might object, first they would have to believe the virus was real.
Newsom and Cuomo could do the right thing, because they’ve already illustrated that they can react to save the people of their states. In fact, despite the widespread reporting on the enormous numbers coming out of Los Angeles, the rate of COVID-19 deaths in California is only about half that of South Dakota. Unfortunately both are only likely to turn restrictions up again in response to a rise in cases. Which will then mean another new peak that puts the last one in the shade. The way people have reacted constantly to where the virus was weeks ago has been one of the defining mistakes of the whole pandemic, and we’re still making it.
But Kristi Noem is going to go right on killing her citizens with confidence that it won’t stop her from being a top-ranked GOP candidate for president in 2024.
Of course, there is something that could be done. Republicans (and Joe Manchin) are complaining that the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill now before the Senate carries too a high a price tag. There’s a quick way to reduce it: Deny funds, including the $1,400 individual payments, to states that refuse to enforce social distancing guidelines and a mask mandate. South Dakota citizens might not believe in the coronavirus, but Noem might find that they have a genuine belief in checks.