Hello! I thought I’d shake up the animal news this week and bring you llamas! (You thought I was going to say murder hornets, admit it!)
Will the llamas be the heroes of the coronavirus outbreak? Not really. But they are cute! Why they’re important: They have two different kinds of antibodies, one of which is much smaller than what our bodies produce. The smaller antibodies can do a better job at neutralizing coronaviruses. Which sounds very exciting… until you get to the part where the protection would only last a month or two without another injection.
Once again we have a little bit of non-coronavirus news before we dive into the thick of things. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments — over the phone! — about the Trump administration’s changes to the health law contraception mandate. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has emerged as a crucial vote on the divided court, wondered if the administration was interpreting religious freedom laws “too broadly.”
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump dug in on his stance that the health law should be overturned even in the midst of a dual pandemic and recession.
In a world full of uncertainty, one thing’s clear: the path of a pandemic is tricky to predict. An internal administration memo as well as a popular model adjusted the expected forecasts for total number of U.S. deaths this week. The government memo warned that as states begin to relax social distancing guidelines, the daily death toll could jump to 3,000 a day by June 1. The popular University of Washington model was also adjusted to reflect states’ decision to reopen, with a prediction that 134,475 Americans will die by August.
There seems to be a sense that once the country gets over a certain peak that things will go back to normal, but experts say that’s not the case. The pandemic will likely be a soliton wave: a wave that just keeps rolling and rolling, carrying on under its own power for a great distance. We’re in this for the long haul, folks.
Cumulative U.S. deaths as of Friday, May 8 are 76,101, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers.
In related news: The Hill: Models Under Scrutiny As Coronavirus Gets More Politicized
Lots of news out of the administration this week, so buckle up!
While Trump admitted that there will possibly be more deaths if the country reopens and that people will be affected badly, he urged Americans to think of themselves as “warriors” in this fight and try to return to normalcy. Trump led by example on Tuesday by traveling to Arizona after months at the White house. In Arizona, Trump toured a mask factory — without a mask.
This quote of the week (in Politico) seems to sum up the vibe in the White House: “There’s this mindset that it’s like running a show and you’ve got to keep people tuned in, you’ve got to keep them interested and at some point you’ve got to move on and move on quickly,” said a former senior official at the Health and Human Services Department. “Viewers will get tired of another season of coronavirus.”
The White House also shelved CDC guidelines that it deemed too restrictive even though the CDC has no authority to enforce those suggestions. The move highlighted the fact that an agency that has always been a main player in pandemic responses has been sidelined time and again by the current administration.
Meanwhile, the White House’s early equipment distribution efforts were partly hampered by a group of inexperienced volunteers by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Further complicating matters, those volunteers, who played a key role in vetting and communication leads to FEMA, were also told to prioritize tips from political allies and associates of Trump.
White House-watchers got a bit of whiplash this week when Trump announced he was disbanding the task force headed up in part by Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. Trump swiftly back-peddled, saying he didn’t realize “how popular” the task force was until he mentioned breaking up the band. After getting that feedback, Trump decided to keep the task force around indefinitely, but may add or subtract members as the focus of the group shifts toward vaccine development and reopening the country.
An official complaint from Dr. Rick Bright revealed the dysfunction inside HHS during the outbreak of the crisis. Not only did Bright accuse officials of targeting him over negative remarks about hydroxychloroquine, but his complaint also contains a number of highly detailed accusations of nepotism within the agency.
Although it’s a bit old now, I’m still going to flag a story that came out in a Friday night news dump from last week: The White House announced that the watchdog who raised concerns about medical shortages at hospitals has been replaced in Trump’s latest move against the officials who are supposed to be checking the government’s behavior.
And, finally, the pandemic hit close to home for Trump after a military aide who he’s had contact with tested positive for COVID-19. The news rattled the White House enough that there will now be daily tests on Trump and his staff.
Some Democrats have a message to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: Put up or shut up on claims that the virus escaped from a lab in China. Pompeo has spent the week talking about the “enormous” amount of evidence that shows the virus may have originated in a lab, but most experts who have seen the “evidence” call it circumstantial at best.
So what do we actually know about the claims? Mainly, most experts widely agree that the virus was not man-made, which means if it did originate in a lab, it’s likely the infection was an accident. An example of the circumstantial evidence: The bats that carry the family of coronaviruses linked to the new strain aren’t found within 100 miles of Wuhan — but they were studied in both labs.
But experts still say that it is far more likely that the outbreak originated in the wet market that has always been thought of as the epicenter. Fauci, meanwhile, dismissed the debate as unimportant, saying that even if it was an accident “that means it was in the wild to begin with. … [That’s] why I don’t spend a lot of time going in on this circular argument.”
In a bygone era, could COVID-19 have been thought of as a preexisting condition? Would insurers be able to deny people coverage based on the possibility they were infected? Would getting COVID automatically brand patients as uninsurable? The questions highlight how important the health law’s protections are in the midst of this unpredictable pandemic.
In further evidence that health insurers are weathering this pandemic storm fairly well, UnitedHealth announced that it would offer premium credits to some customers.
States, meanwhile, are buckling under the financial burden of the outbreak and are eyeing their expensive Medicaid programs for cuts that could provide a bit of relief. The problem is that with millions of Americans losing coverage through their jobs, those programs have never been needed more than they are now.
The Great Reopening Debate of 2020 continues to play out across the country (and will continue to play out in the months and weeks to come). So far, the main players have been the governors and the federal government. But with state legislatures gaveling back in, state lawmakers are entering the fray.
Many of the areas that are rushing to reopen are more rural places that on first glance have avoided devastation the likes of New York City. A deeper dive into per capita data shows that rural America has not emerged unscathed. And cases are continuing to climb. “It’s just gone haywire,” said a funeral home director in rural Georgia. “People dying left and right.”
Even as protesters grab the national spotlight, poll after poll shows that Americans are anxious about reopening too early, and favor restrictions that are based on public health. The weariness could complicate some conservative leaders’ desire to jump-start the economy.
In this politically fraught era, masks are becoming a visual symbol to signal what side of the divide the wearer is on a la Trump’s red MAGA hats. Tensions over the scraps of cloth boiled over this week leading to violent — and in one case fatal — confrontations.
With all eyes on Gilead after the successful remdesivir study, many wonder if the drugmaker will emerge a hero or a villain. The company has a reputation for charging through the nose for its breakthrough drugs. But if it listens to its better angels, there’s a chance the company could actually help alter the price-gouging narrative that has hounded pharma for the past few years.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is in control of distributing the current supply of the drug, but doctors and hospitals say chaos and confusion have dominated the process. Even hospitals that have seen a surge of COVID patients say they’re being denied the drug without explanation.
The global vaccine race is the modern day hunt for a Holy Grail, and with that comes geopolitical intrigue, safety concerns and… a dash of hope. The rewards are potentially great, but so is the potential disappointment of billions of wasted dollars. What’s more, many are worried what will happen to poorer countries if the United States is the first to develop a successful vaccine.
Scientists also worry that chatter about compressing the vaccine development timeline are fueling false hope for Americans. Even if one is proven safe and effective by the fall, that doesn’t mean people will be rolling up their sleeves anytime soon.
How can you not click on a story that posits: “Could the porn industry offer a model for reopening?” But it’s more than just a click-bait headline: Since the late-1990s, the porn industry has been implementing policies to keep its workers safe in environments that could lead to dangerous infections. Among other things, workers have to be tested every 14 days before they can be cleared to work. The industry has also had decades to work through the growing pains of large-scale testing and enforcement that could offer lessons as businesses face the daunting task of bringing employees safely back to work.
Speaking of testing, the FDA just approved a process that relies on CRISPR technology and could provide results within an hour. And the agency is also trying to cut red tape for companies who are developing at-home tests that consumers could then send off to a lab.
The jobless rate hit 14.7% in April — the highest since the Great Depression — meaning that nearly all the job growth achieved during the 11-year recovery from the Great Recession has now been lost in one month. That news came on Friday following Thursday’s unemployment data which found a total of 33 million Americans have sought aid since the pandemic began. Many experts say that even though those numbers are eye-popping in and of themselves, they don’t fully capture the economic devastation the outbreak has wrought.
Democrats are swinging for the fences as they put the finishing touches on their next relief package that is expected to focus on individuals, localities and testing access. Some lawmakers say this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to offer a counter point to then-President Bill Clinton’s declaration that the “era for Big Government is over.”
The Navajo Nation has been struggling to contain the growing outbreak on their reservation that reaches into three different states. On Wednesday, the Navajo Nation reported nearly 2,500 confirmed cases and at least 75 deaths — more than in all of Utah. The tribe, and others, have been struggling to get help from the federal government, but after a meeting with Trump this week the Navajo Nation announced it would receive about $600 million in federal funds.
And a 170-year old act of kindness is getting repaid (in a story that, no kidding, left me a little teary). During the potato famine nearly two centuries ago, the Choctaw Nation sent $170 to starving Irish families despite their own hardships. Now, Irish residents are getting a chance to return the favor.
As I’ve said, some of my favorite news from the week is always the scientific developments, so here’s a quick glance at what came out this week: studies find the virus was in France as of December; the lungs may be the battlefield, but the virus attacks the body like it’s a world war; UV lights could help stores reopen safely; yes the virus has mutated, no that doesn’t mean it’s more dangerous; children are being hospitalized with an inflammatory syndrome believed to be linked to Covid; and scientists are befuddled by the geographical riddle that is the spread of Covid.
And here are some good reads for your weekend:
That’s it from me! Have a safe weekend.