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Anyone closely following news about the state of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. could be forgiven for feeling a sense of whiplash. The two major storylines dominating coverage seem to directly contradict each other.
One narrative shows America behaving like a country that has contained the virus. Every state has lifted at least some of its lockdown restrictions. More businesses are reopening. The president is scaling down the activities of his coronavirus task force while planning to resume campaign rallies. Protesters have gathered en masse in cities across the country.
That series of events can be hard to reconcile with a troubling trend in many states that suggests the outbreak is far from contained and may actually be getting worse. Dozens of states have seen increases in case numbers over the past two weeks. Texas, Florida and Arizona — states that largely avoided major outbreaks in the early stages of the pandemic — set records for daily case numbers on Tuesday. Some places that were hit the worst in March and April, like New York, are seeing numbers continue to trend downward.
The U.S. has by far the most severe outbreak in the world, with more than 2 million cases and 117,000 deaths. Both those figures are at least double what any other nation has seen. The current trend, in which restrictions are being lifted despite rising case numbers, has raised concerns that the country is essentially abandoning its effort to stamp out the virus and instead deciding that reopening the economy and returning to normal life is the priority.
Why there’s debate
Though the U.S. is not the only country struggling with the virus right now, many nations have managed their outbreaks effectively and are beginning to safely reopen. The road map to successful containment is largely the same in each place: lockdowns to restrict the initial phase of infections, followed by robust programs of testing and contract tracing, and widespread mask usage.
The U.S. did initiate lockdowns, and they appear to have been effective. One study suggests the restrictions prevented up to 60 million coronavirus infections. But the latter steps of testing and contact tracing — which epidemiologists agree are crucial to keeping the virus in check when lockdowns are lifted — are not being carried out at nearly the scale they need to be in the U.S., experts say. Heated partisan debates have also led to mask requirements being lifted in many places.
There was significant attention on the first states to begin reopening in late April and early May, but the pandemic has largely taken a back seat to the ongoing protests against police violence and racism across the country. At the same time, political leaders have also pulled back from their focus on the virus. The Trump administration has largely shifted its efforts to other issues. Congress appears reticent to produce another massive stimulus bill to support the unemployed or bail out struggling states. Public support of social distancing has waned, raising questions about whether there is enough political will to reinstitute lockdowns even if they become necessary.
The next several weeks will provide more clarity about the wisdom of American decision making about the virus. If case numbers continue to rise, it will put pressure on officials to reverse their moves to reopen and on legislators to offer financial relief.
On the other hand, if no major spike occurs, particularly one connected to the protests, it could provide evidence that warm temperatures and masks can help keep infections at manageable levels. These revelations could have a significant impact on reopening plans in the months leading up to a second wave of the virus that experts anticipate will come in the fall.
Leaders knew reopening would lead to more cases, but they did it anyway
“These new infections aren’t a surprise. Epidemiologists warned us that reopening too quickly could backfire. When we let up on precautions without putting new ones in place — like a national test, trace, and isolation effort and universal masking — the virus will find lots of new people to infect.” — Brian Resnick, Vox
The country is too fractured to carry out a unified response
“America in 2020, it seems, is too disunited, with too many people in the grip of ideology and partisanship, to deal effectively with a pandemic. We have the knowledge, we have the resources, but we don’t have the will.” — Paul Krugman, New York Times
The coronavirus is just as dangerous as it was at the start of the pandemic
“The virus does not care that we do not care. It will continue to kill. … It really does not matter though. People will continue to believe what they want to believe and continue to live their lives blindly ignoring social distancing and refusing to wear face coverings because this is what Americans do.” — Reggie Jackson, Milwaukee Independent
Backlash against masks makes containing the outbreak much more difficult
“It should come as no surprise that vast swaths of the public still distrust masks. And it’s a shame because it seems increasingly likely that if we all just wore masks, this whole pandemic shutdown could be over.” — Tiana Lowe, Washington Examiner
The U.S. could get lucky and avoid a catastrophic surge in infections
“Maybe the number of new infections will not grow exponentially. Maybe treatments have sufficiently improved that we will see huge outbreaks, but fewer people will die than we’ve come to expect. If so, it won’t be because the United States made concerted, coordinated decisions about how to balance the horrors of the pandemic and the frustration of pausing everyday life.” — Alexis C. Madrigal and Robinson Meyer, Atlantic
The U.S. never developed a plan for what to do after lockdown
“Flattening the curve has worked. Hospitals have been able to cope with the influx of COVID-19 patients. But once you’ve solved that problem, then what? Officials never offered a coherent and realistic plan for going forward.” — Virginia Postrel, USA Today
We can open safely if we protect the most vulnerable people
“By now it’s clear that people older than 65 are the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, and the age penalty is especially severe for the elderly with underlying health conditions. This is a tragedy in lives cut short, but it also means that states and cities should be able to lift their lockdowns safely if they focus on protecting vulnerable Americans.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal
States won’t lock down again if cases get out of hand
“Governors face political pressure around their stay-at-home orders. I suspect very few will be willing to reverse their phases of reopening and tell people that businesses will have to close again. If I’m right, that means that we’re even more on our own than we were before.” — Beth Skwarecki, Lifehacker
Some states will do enough to contain the virus, others won’t
“The Trump administration has muzzled the federal health leadership and decided that the country will have a limited local testing approach rather than a well-articulated national policy about what surely is an issue best solved and coordinated at the federal level. The nation is instead dependent on governors and mayors whose expertise is limited and whose access to data is governed by a non-communicative federal apparatus.” — Merrill Brown, CNN
Congress is unlikely to offer substantial financial relief
“In resisting calls to help state and local governments crippled by the pandemic and warning of the need for deep cuts in public services, these national leaders are effectively saying essential workers — mostly middle- and lower-wage hourly workers from the black and brown communities that have faced outsized impacts from this pandemic — are now expendable.” — Kathryn Lybarger, Mercury News
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