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Columnists

COVID-19: Alive and Still Killing

September 25, 2020

At the Republican National Convention, several speakers blithely referred to the COVID-19 pandemic in the past tense. The reality is significantly different. Deaths are again rising to over a thousand a day with several states hitting new highs. Total American deaths have passed 200,000 and scientific authorities indicate the situation will soon worsen.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), whose projections are frequently cited by both the Trump administration and Democrats, estimates deaths will top 400,000 by January 1. This is a best-case scenario based on near-universal mask-wearing, social distancing, limited public events, and testing. That scenario is unlikely.

Virus infections will increase with the advent of the flu season and colder weather when more people will be indoors at close quarters. This trend will accelerate as the nation reopens cinemas, casinos, sports venues, restaurants, and similar entertainment enterprises. A further risk is the opening of schools and colleges with in-person learning. The IHME believes this could lead to a horrific-case scenario with a projected loss of 620,000 lives by the end of the year.

Among many models on how to avert such a disaster is that of Taiwan, a nation of twenty-five million which has had 449 total COVID-19 cases and only 7 deaths, the last being four months ago. In a CNN interview, Chen Chien-Jen, the Vice-President of Taiwan, who happens to be an epidemiologist, outlined the reasons why the program he directed has been so successful. Since Chen was trained at Johns Hopkins, his responses are mainstream science as taught at American universities.

Chen noted that Taiwan had suffered terribly in previous flu pandemics and had consequently put programs in place to deal with new emergencies likely to emerge. In contrast, two years ago, President Trump defunded a similar agency set up by Obama. Such lack of planning largely accounts for the shortage of medical supplies in America once COVID-19 developed.

The Taiwanese immediately clamped down on international visitors and provided face masks for children, front line workers, and then the entire public. Masking, social distancing, and testing became mandatory. These swift responses meant no lockdowns or school closings were needed. Damage to the economy was minimal.

A central factor in containing the virus was testing. Those who tested positive were placed in mandatory 14-day quarantines with electronic bracelets to monitor compliance. At one time or another, over 250,000 individuals were quarantined. They continued to receive their normal wages and employers held their jobs open for their return. Violators of the quarantine were fined and rehoused in public facilities.

The Trump administration has gone in the opposite direction. His taped interviews with Bob Woodard reveal that Trump knew as early as last January that the epidemic would be catastrophic. Rather than alert the public to the dangers at hand and shaping a national response, he misled Americans by telling them the virus would likely be curbed by Easter. If not, warm weather would see the virus disappearing.

Trump informed Woodward that instead of leading the struggle against COVID-19, he decided to act as a cheerleader for others. He passed responsibility for COVID-19 containment to the fifty state governors, but he consistently delayed and minimized federal aid to the states. His inaction was compounded by his mockery of wearing face masks, ignoring social distancing, and discouraging testing for fear that would only show more infections. The result has been that the economic consequences of the pandemic have been prolonged.

After constantly advocating various ineffective and often harmful treatments, Trump now speculates that a curative vaccine may be available before November. He treats the development of a vaccine as a “magic bullet” that will end the crisis without need for any significant federal actions. Epidemiologists, however, have stated a properly tested vaccine will not be available to the public until next summer at the earliest.

Trump insists on opening as much of the economy as quickly as possible as he is convinced that will please and mobilize his staunchest supporters. Dead Americans that accumulate along the way seemed to be considered little more than electoral collateral damage.

A detailed national plan for ending the COVID-19 crisis has been developed ty the Rockefeller Foundation. After meeting with governors of both parties, business executives, and health experts, the Foundation envisions gradually increasing weekly testing from 1 million to 30 million. Rather than the current variety of tests, the Rockefeller plan involves a standardized test that reports in a day and is able to identify infected persons who are asymptomatic. Details are available at the Rockefeller Covid website. A decided economic plus to curtailing the crisis with this approach is that implementing it and follow-up treatment would create 100,000-300,000 new jobs. Adopting such a plan requires electing a new president.

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