Hello! It’s Friday again and when looking back on the stories from the week I can’t believe some of them happened only days ago — anyone else feel as if we’re living full years in a single day? But I’ll do my best to sum up some of the top news from you.
First, though … if you are having strangely vivid dreams about bugs or lethal injections or tidal waves, you are not alone! A side effect of this pandemic for a lot of people seems to be vivid nightmares. One reason? We’re actually getting more sleep now that we’re not go, go, going. (At least that’s what experts guess.)
At the beginning of the week, there were dire warnings that it was going to be a tough one. The surgeon general went so far as to compare it to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. The warnings have played out with states reporting some of their deadliest days, pushing the country’s death toll nearly to 18,000 and the number of confirmed U.S. cases to more than 473,000. as of 1:30 p.m. ET.
But amid those grim numbers, a glimmer of hope can be found. In New York, the curve seems to be stabilizing, and California even saw a decrease in the number of ICU hospitalizations for the first time. That should not be taken as a sign that the worst of the outbreak is over — D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore are already bracing to become the next hot spots, while the pandemic barrels down on unprepared and financially strained areas of the country. But the glimmers do show that the sweeping shutdown measures appear to be moving the needle in the war against the virus.
Meanwhile, Ohio’s early efforts, partly driven by the influential Cleveland Clinic, seem to be paying off — Ohio has fewer than a third the number of people with the novel coronavirus than in three comparably sized states.
And checkpoints to discourage visitors from traveling across state borders are growing in popularity.
So, when will we be able to reopen? It depends on a few factors, but one thing a lot of people can agree on: widespread, quick-turnaround testing is needed to take that step. And the United States has yet to conquer that particular white whale.
President Donald Trump leaned heavily on familiar strategies (read: deny, deflect and direct blame elsewhere) this week at his daily press briefings, with the World Health Organization being one of his most recent targets. Trump went as far as to say he was going to cut off funding for the global organization because of what he claimed were its early missteps, but he quickly softened the threat.
Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to abruptly fire the head watchdog for the $2.2 trillion stimulus package raised alarm bells on Capitol Hill and throughout the country. Democrats scrambled at the end of the week to try to add a provision to protect the rest of the watchdog panel assigned to overseeing spending. The removal of Glenn Fine is just one of a series of moves against inspectors general in recent days. Trump also publicly scorned HHS watchdog findings about hospital shortages.
And make sure to read The Washington Post’s tour de force of a story that details the 70 days at the beginning of the crisis when the administration knew about the threat (a new report shows that intelligence communities were monitoring a potential outbreak as early as November) and failed to quickly act.
In other news from the administration: a messy rivalry between HHS Secretary Alex Azar and CMS Administrator Seema Verma reignites; CDC Director Robert Redfield has managed to woo over the skeptical MAGA crowd; and Jared Kushner’s push for a national surveillance system brings up unpleasant memories of the Patriot Act.
It was another brutal week for Americans filing for unemployed benefits. Another 6.6 million filed claims, and experts say we haven’t seen this magnitude of layoffs and economic constriction since the Great Depression.
Congress is trying to pass legislation that would help small businesses, which are struggling to get any money from an agency that is working with an aging system and strained resources. But the swift passage of the bipartisan $2.2 trillion stimulus package is appearing more and more like the anomaly we all guessed it was.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to push through a $250 billion bill that was narrowly targeted at small businesses during a procedural session, but Democrats balked at the maneuver they deemed a stunt. (Because it would have required approval of all Democratic senators.) Republicans, on the other hand, balked at Democrats’ push for additional aid for hospitals and health providers.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is pumping billions of dollars of aid back into the economy, but few, if any, of the oversight measures that Democrats fought for are in place to catch fraud, abuse or mistakes. For example, one of the members of a congressional panel to monitor the spending has been appointed. In addition, a little-noticed provision of the stimulus package lets the Federal Reserve set up a $450 billion bailout plan without following key provisions of the federal open-meetings law.
And it could be years and years before a full picture emerges of the economic ramifications of the outbreak and shutdown, but experts agree that it will include devastation and mountains of debt.
Wisconsin’s primary emerged as a grim preview to the general election if mail-in voting isn’t enacted. Voters were forced into a choice between their civic duty and their health, standing in long lines and braving terrible weather to cast ballots. The images that came out of the state created new momentum for the mail-in-voting movement. Trump is a vocal opponent of mail-in voting (despite the fact he cast an absentee ballot last month). But his claims that it benefits Democrats and is fertile ground for fraud are both false.
“Either be in or out, folks”: Governors grew ever-more frustrated with the federal government, which seemed to be intervening in the distribution of ventilators and other medical supplies just enough to create chaos. They started turning to one another and private businesses for help — California even sent 500 ventilators to other states in need. (Some cynics out there couldn’t help but note that Gov. Gavin Newsom seems to have national political ambitions.)
Speaking of politics, Trump made waves when he granted a request from Republican Sen. Cory Gardner to send ventilators to Colorado — after weeks of ignoring similar pleas for help from the state’s Democratic governor.
And although there’s a lot of attention on ventilators, some doctors are starting to wonder if they’re doing more harm than good. Most patients who end up going on them don’t come off. Patients who need ventilators in the first place (for reasons beyond this outbreak) have mid- to poor outcomes — usually about 40%-50% come off them. But for COVID-19, that number plummets to about 20%.
Meanwhile, HHS has announced that its stockpile of personal protective equipment has been depleted by 90%. (Fun fact: The stockpile was created in 1999 to prevent supply-chain disruptions for the predicted Y2K computer problems.) The U.S. has been trying to acquire gear, but in the demand has created a bit of a “Lord of the Flies” scenario, and let’s just say America is making some enemies with its tactics.
Anyway, all the problems with acquiring PPE from federal resources led California’s Newsom to say “enough’s enough” and use the “purchasing power” of his state to secure 200 million masks a month through a deal with suppliers.
It’s not just health providers who are suffering from the lack of protective gear. Medical personnel in New York are reporting that they’re not going into patients’ rooms as often as they would because they aren’t able to take as many safety precautions with their gowns and masks. That means patients are being seen less, which can have fatal consequences.
The battle over protective gear continues to pit providers against hospitals, who don’t want their images hurt if their health workers speak out. One nurse bought $12,000 worth of protective supplies for her colleagues after using GoFundMe, and her hospital suspended her for distributing “unauthorized” gear. Across the country, there’s a growing sense of betrayal and a simmering anger from doctors and other health professionals at the government’s failure to ensure that front-line workers in this battle are equipped with the gear they need.
Experts working to find a scientifically sound treatment for COVID-19 are frustrated by the hype over antimalarial drugs (driven in large part by Trump’s optimistic support of the treatment). When patients take such unproven medications, they’re treating the fear rather than the disease, said Dr. Andre Kalil, a principal investigator in the federal government’s clinical trial of drugs that may treat the coronavirus.
Billionaires jumped to it this week, pumping their considerable resources into cutting down the frustratingly long timeline for a vaccine. Bill Gates announced that he would pick the seven lead contenders and build factories to develop them, even though likely only one or two will emerge as viable. When compared to the economic loss mounting every day that the country remains closed, what’s a couple of billions of wasted dollars?
The coronavirus outbreak is laying bare in terrible detail all the systemic disparities in the health system, and the country in general, that lead to poorer health outcomes among black Americans. Data shows that COVID-19 can be twice as deadly for both black and Latinx Americans. Black Americans have less access to care and more chronic conditions (something that plays a major role in the lethality of the virus) than white Americans do.
“We are watching, in real time, racial disparities and the pandemic of poverty,” said Michael Blake, an assemblyman from the Bronx.
And other stories to keep you occupied this weekend: