Happy Friday! A quick editor’s note before we dive in: This will be the last edition of The Breeze from yours truly. Never fear, though, it will be in great hands going forward and you’ll continue to get your weekly updates on all things coronavirus (and other health news, if that’s ever a thing again). Thank you for reading these past two years. It’s been an honor and a privilege and I’ve loved hearing from so many of you. You make it all worth it.
Now, enough of that! On to the news.
Nothing drives home the grim U.S. COVID death toll — almost at 86,000 as I write this — like a national shortage of body bags. Funeral directors across the country say they are struggling to give the deceased dignity in death as bodies pile up and morgues are overwhelmed. Sometimes body bags are being used two or three times, and when one is not available, bodies are wrapped in sheets with a mask on their faces.
In the early days of the pandemic, popular models being used to project the expected death toll varied wildly. But they are starting to narrow in on a consensus. That was before states really started lifting their restrictions, though.
Two big hearings on Capitol Hill took center stage this week. In the first, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other top health officials testified — virtually! — in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Fauci painted a fairly grim picture of a nation not ready to reopen yet, and warned that moving too quickly to lift restrictions could trigger a bigger surge that would lead to more suffering and death and set the country back even further. Meanwhile, all the lawmakers there wanted to know about reopening the schools. Again, Fauci preached caution, an answer that President Donald Trump later took issue with.
And the irony of the hearing being called “Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School” while the witnesses and the chairman were all self-quarantining and tuning in virtually was certainly noted by a few people.
The second buzzy hearing of the week was Dr. Rick Bright’s testimony in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s health subcommittee. Bright has become a minor celebrity in the coronavirus world for his claims that he was ousted from his HHS position as retaliation for his objections to the widespread distribution of malaria drugs. Bright said “lives were lost” because the administration didn’t heed early warnings about the outbreak. He also testified that there still isn’t a comprehensive plan and that he foresees “the darkest winter in modern history” ahead if officials don’t get their act together.
HHS struck back and struck back hard. “This is like someone who was in choir trying to say he was a soloist back then,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said. “His allegations do not hold water.” The agency also questioned why Bright, who has been on medical leave with hypertension since his removal, “has not yet shown up for work” and is “using his taxpayer-funded medical leave to work with partisan attorneys.”
In related news: Politico: Colleagues Paint A Mixed Picture Of Ousted Vaccine Chief
During a trip to Pennsylvania this week, Trump lamented that more testing means the U.S. has a higher case count — logic that was both obvious and baffling to many. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden seized on the comments, saying they showed Trump cares more about numbers than safeguarding lives. There’s also been chatter that Trump has been quietly questioning whether the high death toll is due to overcounting, a pernicious myth that has been disproved by data on year-over-year deaths.
Testing has been a big topic at the White House this week: The West Wing was sent scrambling to contain the spread of the virus within its own walls after two advisers became infected. But those efforts were hampered by a preliminary study that found Abbott’s rapid tests — the ones that have been touted as a game changer and used for the White House staff — could potentially miss about 48% of cases.
Trump also touted the fact that the U.S. has ramped up its testing efforts so much that the country is outpacing South Korea, which has been widely praised for its testing efforts. The boast ignores the context behind the numbers, though. South Korea no longer has too test as much because it reined in its outbreak in the early days of the crisis. Its death toll stands at 260.
An emerging trend from the administration’s virus response is contracts awarded to firms that have no experience with the products or tasks. FEMA had to cancel a $55.5 million mask order this week after the company failed to deliver any masks. Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture has awarded multimillion-dollar contracts to organizations to coordinate farmers and food banks. But the roster features companies like an event planning firm that is known for throwing weddings and putting on high-end conferences.
The White House has often held up its “Project Airbridge,” which delivered personal protective gear across the country, as a success story, but a deep dive by The Washington Post shows that the positive messaging has been built on exaggerations. For example, records show that the project helped deliver 2.2 million masks a day. But in April Vice President Mike Pence put that number at 22 million.
At the project’s core are partnerships with private companies. The deal between them and the government means taxpayers have ended up subsidizing the distribution of private resources.
Another great investigation by the Post reveals that government officials turned down an offer from a medical supply company in Texas that had the ability to make millions of masks a month — even as officials and state leaders scrambled to make above- and below-board deals with overseas manufacturers.
It’s little surprise that, in a politically divided country, the debate over reopening is fiercest in three battleground states crucial to the 2020 presidential election. Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin went for Trump in 2016, but they swing in that ever-narrowing purple section of the political spectrum — and all three have Democratic governors. The battle came to a head in Wisconsin this week when the state’s high court threw out Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order, ruling that his emergency powers are real but certainly not indefinite. The problem was that the decision has created chaos and confusion, with bars, restaurants and other businesses unsure what’s legal now.
On that note, how much do stay-at-home orders really matter in Americans’ decision to leave their houses? People are venturing out by the millions, and they aren’t always following their leaders’ guidance.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi swung for the fences with her latest relief bill — probably in a sign that she never expected bipartisan negotiations to be smooth. The $3 trillion package builds on the $2.2 trillion CARES Act and contains billions for health care providers, the creation of nursing home strike teams, hazard pay for heroes on the front lines, and money for testing. The ambitious legislation (which is expected to pass the House any hour now) is dead on arrival in the Senate.
In a startling development, the FBI seized Sen. Richard Burr’s (R-N.C.) cellphone as part of an investigation into his sale of stocks right before the market was walloped by the coronavirus. Burr has temporarily stepped down as chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
And the first hearing of the special coronavirus committee devolved quickly — and not surprisingly — into partisan bickering with little accomplished. As Politico reports: “The parties started the day miles apart and ended it even further away.”
Before the pandemic, hospitals had been following a dependable playbook for turning a profit that relied on procedures for patients with private insurers instead of ones with Medicaid or Medicare. When the outbreak turned the world upside down, it upended that model. (See also reporter Sarah Kliff’s Twitter thread for an addendum to the story.)
Meanwhile, a lot of the talk around ICU bed and equipment shortages sometimes made it seem like we have one national hospital system that’s going to be overwhelmed. In reality, the hospitals operate like miniature fiefdoms unto themselves, completely siloed from rivals that are sometimes only blocks away. The vulnerabilities of that model were laid bare in the differences between New York City hospitals during the pandemic.
Everyone knows hospitals are losing billions a month now on procedures that have been put off because of the outbreak. But it’s not a given that they’re rushing to reopen, either. That’s because many are nervous they’ll face a barrage of malpractice lawsuits without protections from Congress.
In a number that only continues to grow more staggering, 36 million Americans have now sought unemployment aid since the virus struck. Economists say there aren’t signs that the market has bottomed out, either, so prepare for that total to keep ticking up.
And while the economic devastation created by the shutdown measures has been the main argument behind conservatives’ drive to reopen, some economists say a second wave would be worse in the long run than staying closed.
Threaded throughout all these conversations is the need to put a dollar value on human life. While the idea seems callous, it’s actually common practice within the government when it comes to drafting regulations. From a New York Times piece: “One of the earliest values of life used in regulation came from a 1978 calculation by the Canisius College economics professor Warren Prunella. He estimated the value of a life saved by proposed furniture fabric flammability standards at $1 million.”
World leaders are already worried that Trump’s “America First” mentality will mean other countries will be left out in the cold when it comes to a vaccine. The fear prompted more than 140 world leaders to sign an open letter to all governments demanding that COVID-19 vaccines be considered a “global good” to be shared equitably. And experts warned that any attempt by the U.S. to hoard a vaccine could lead to other countries refusing to share materials needed to distribute it. (Considering we’re months, if not years, away from a vaccine, this seems like it’s going to get messy.)
Deliberately injecting trial participants with the virus seems like an idea out of a bygone era in which scientists played fast and loose with ethics. But it could also greatly speed up the development time. Should it be done? Would you volunteer for the duty?
In related news: NPR: Trump Names Leaders Of ‘Operation Warp Speed’ Vaccine Effort
Nationally, conservatives are staunchly against mail-in voting. But state officials, reading the room, are quietly ignoring that stance. In Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota and West Virginia, GOP officials are expanding vote by mail. One Kentucky official even lamented his previous role in stoking fears about voter fraud. “It’s partly on me because I talked about it in my campaign,” said Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, who says he’s now frustrated by the myth that absentee voting is not secure.
Worried about eating alone in this era of social distancing? Don’t worry — some places have you covered. In D.C. you can dine with mannequins so as not to feel lonely; in Thailand, stuffed pandas will keep you company.
And in other stories to read during this (hopefully) gorgeous weekend:
And that is officially it from me! I’m off to write some books, and if you like psychological thrillers — or just want to stay in touch — you can find me on Twitter and Instagram at @brilabuskes.
Be safe, be happy, be kind to yourselves and others in these trying times, wash your hands, watch out for superbugs, and don’t forget to look at cute pictures of doggos if the news gets you down.