Happy Friday the 13th! Which feels extra appropriate this week. One of the very few silver linings of our current situation is the 368% increase in social media pictures of people’s pets as they work from home. (Shoutout to Brianna Ehley, a health reporter at Politico, whose pup made me gasp out loud from cuteness overload.)
On to my best attempt to get you the most important and interesting news about the COVID-19 outbreak. This is one of those stories that’s changing by the minute, however, so I would highly recommend checking out KHN for our coverage and also signing up for the Morning Briefings to get a comprehensive look at what’s going on.
But here we go:
— As of this morning, the House was barreling toward a coronavirus deal after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (and the lawmakers she tapped to help her) spent yesterday working through partisan complaints together with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has been acting as the administration’s point person on the plan. But I’m still seeing rumblings about House Republicans not warming up to the legislation. If President Donald Trump doesn’t embrace the bill, it’s likely to get passed along partisan lines — not a good sign for it getting through the Senate. The president will discuss the coronavirus crisis at a 3 p.m. news conference.
— What’s in the legislation? Provisions include unemployment insurance to furloughed workers and hundreds of millions of dollars toward nutrition programs; an additional $500 million to help feed low-income pregnant women or mothers with young children who lose their jobs or are laid off because of the virus outbreak; $400 million to help local food banks meet increased demand; and free coronavirus testing for anyone who requires it, including uninsured people.
— One of the sticking points between the two parties has been paid sick leave. The issue has been thrust into the spotlight as public health experts and doctors say that workers should stay home if they have flu-like symptoms. But because the U.S. has no mandatory sick leave, some employees just can’t afford to do that.
— Trump is mulling an emergency declaration, which he has been hesitant to announce — despite his propensity of using presidential power in less urgent crises — because it would likely contradict the rosy messaging he’s put forth since the start of the outbreak.
— Meanwhile, the action that the president did take — instituting a travel ban — was panned by public health experts as a useless distraction. As one said, “This virus is everywhere.” The stock markets seemed to agree with that assessment following Trump’s Oval Office address as they tumbled more sharply than they had previously. It was the worst trading day since 1987, which, for those of us who were paying attention during the 2008 crash, is not exactly reassuring.
— Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had a grim reality check for Congress (and the administration) when he agreed that the worst is yet to come with the outbreak. He also criticized the government for not providing quick and easy testing, saying that the “failing” system “is not really geared to what we need right now.” “The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it — we’re not set up for that,” he said. “Do I think we should be? Yes. But we’re not.”
— On that note, there’s still a slew of anecdotes of people who have symptoms that match the coronavirus, have tested negative for the flu and yet still aren’t receiving tests. A startling graphic from Vox shows just how far behind other developed countries the U.S. is in testing. (Read that whole story for an in-depth look at everything that’s gone wrong, including how a shortage of chemicals used in the kits is hampering scientists’ efforts.)
— So, we know we don’t currently have an accurate snapshot of how many Americans are infected (because of above testing stumbles), but what’s the worst-case scenario in terms of outbreak totals? CDC experts have projected that between 160 million and 214 million people in the U.S. could be infected, while as many as 200,000 to 1.7 million could die. Also, 2.4 million to 21 million people in the U.S. could require hospitalization.
— Which leads to what experts say is the scariest part of the outbreak: Hospitals already stretched thin from a bad flu season and ever-increasing budget cuts are simply not equipped to handle the surge in patients we’re likely to see. There aren’t enough ventilators or ICU beds, and if the United States follows in Italy’s footsteps, health care providers might have to start making tough choices about who gets treated and who gets left behind.
— What can Americans do to help mitigate this? (Or “flatten the curve,” as the cool kids say.) Public health officials and experts are recommending social distancing when possible, which includes working from home and avoiding large social gatherings. Even if the total number of cases were to plateau, taking nationwide measures to slow down the speed of the outbreak could help keep hospitals from being overwhelmed (see above).
— A slew of closures, cancellations and post-postponements this week helped toward that end (and possibly helped drive home the seriousness of the threat). Those include, but are not limited to: basketball, soccer, hockey and baseball games; concerts; Disneyland; colleges (which mostly moved to online classes) and schools; Broadway; any gatherings over 250 people in some states; the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian museums, including the National Zoo; St. Patrick’s Day parades across the country; and more. The unified message from private and government organizations alike: America, it’s time to shut down.
— Beyond the astronomical economic toll this crisis will take, some observers are also worried it’s going to deepen our loneliness crisis. As trivial as it might seem, chronic loneliness, especially in the elderly (the population most in danger of a critical reaction to the coronavirus), can produce severe negative health outcomes.
— Speaking of both closures and vulnerable populations, the U.S. Capitol put the kibosh on public tours following an announcement that a Senate staffer tested positive for the virus. Considering the demographics of Congress, and given how often lawmakers travel and interact with strangers, politicians are particularly susceptible to getting sick during this outbreak.
— In other news from the administration’s response: CMS denied states’ requests to use Medicaid funding more freely to help contain the outbreak. In previous emergencies, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the H1N1 flu outbreak, both Republican and Democratic administrations loosened Medicaid rules to empower states to meet surging needs.
— And it turns out that a day-long email crash, traced to CMS, created a snafu for health officials right as the crisis was heating up.
— Oh, you might have noticed that we’ve started calling this thing a pandemic. That’s because WHO finally officially deemed it one, after weeks and weeks of hesitating to make that call. “We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
So, those are the bigger highlights you need to know. But here are some interesting and compelling stories that also appeared this week:
— What will it cost you if you get sick? Many insurers have waived testing fees, but they haven’t gone as far as to make promises about treatment costs.
— Trump and other Republicans continue to frame the coronavirus using racist and xenophobic language, despite public health experts saying that’s dangerous and irresponsible. Take a look at the history of the strategy.
— One area in which scientists are hoping the coronavirus mirrors the flu is that it tends to slow down in warmer months. But we simply do not know enough about the virus to say hot temperatures are its kryptonite — yet.
— A series of high-profile people (including Tom Hanks and the Canadian prime minister’s wife) have tested positive for the virus, driving home how seriously people should be taking the threat. As an aside on the Tom Hanks story, his case highlights how easy Australia has made it to get testing.
— The pandemic highlights how little authority WHO actually has. It has supposed to act as a global coordinator, but when no one is trying to work together, the organization’s efforts can fall flat.
— A devastating tale of two health care providers in China shows just how cruelly random this virus can be.
— A look at the underlying conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and more, that can often exacerbate the virus’s toll on the body. And an explainer on how the coronavirus actually infiltrates your cells.
— And immigration groups call on the government to release high-risk detainees from facilities where they’re worried the virus will spread like wildfire.
I think other things happened in the world, but I’ve already forgotten them. Remember, wash your hands, don’t create mask shortages for health care workers who actually need them, practice social distancing when you can to flatten the curve and realize that anxiety is inevitable, but you don’t let it have to consume you.
Please have a safe, healthy weekend. See you next week!