Many Americans are behaving as if the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. Memorial Day saw numerous public gatherings of unmasked people disregarding safe social distancing. They seemed oblivious to the fact that the rate of COVID-19 deaths has not abated.
A distinctive pattern in death rates emerged in the month of May. About 18 states have rising, and even spiking death rates. Another 22 states remain stuck at plateaus, and only ten states have consistently falling rates. All of the latter have attempted to strictly adhere to the guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control.
Infectious COVID -19 droplets do not remain airborne beyond a distance of approximately six feet. This makes social distancing an effective defense. When it is not practiced, the consequences may be multiple infections and deaths. There are numerous examples where this occurred involving events such as corporate meetings, graduation day parties, and singing in a church choir.
President Trump has tried to escape being held responsible for dealing with the pandemic by passing on that responsibility to governors. An exception to that practice is his recent demand that governors open up places of religious worship despite the reality that most are too small to accommodate effective social distancing. The services themselves often involve hands-on activities and many are followed by social gatherings. To date, the major leaders of all faiths have accepted these realities and have discouraged unrestricted reopening of their places of worship.
Trump also supports the reopening of public beaches, casinos, and similar venues that put people at close quarters. He does not speak of the needed restrictions or warn that another round of shut-downs would be necessary if the public behaves irresponsibly.
The wearing of face makes combined with social distancing dramatically drops the risk of infections. For frontline medical workers, this involves a special mask. For the public, regular masks and even scarves suffice. Face covers are a simple but effective means to block the spread of the disease carried by infected people with no symptoms.
In formal presentations, the president supports wearing face masks when others are nearby. But he does not practice what he preaches. At press conferences, fellow presenters are not social distanced and most, including the vice-president, do not wear masks. At meetings of Trump’s cabinet, even though everyone is sitting side by side, no masks are worn.
Trump says that since he’s tested negatively for COVID-19, he feels safe. More candidly, he admits he is not personally comfortable being seen in public wearing a mask. He is also under the illusion that just being out-of-doors on a sunny day makes masking unnecessary. Numerous Republicans do not share these views. The governors of North Dakota and Ohio, for example, have gone on national television to strongly advocate wearing masks.
Wearing or not wearing a mask was transformed into a political rather than a health issue when Trump mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask at a Memorial Day event held on a sunny afternoon. Biden shot back that Trump was “a fool” who didn’t understand that wearing a mask showed leadership.
Scientists were appalled when Trump announced he was taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive defense against COVID-19. Research has demonstrated that drugs such as hydroxychloroquine while effective in treating lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are more harmful than beneficial in treating COVID-19.
An authoritative study of 96,000 people in three continents was published in the prestigious Lancet medical journal. The study found that patients treated with the drugs had a 4% higher death rate. Just as alarming, the study showed a 500% increase in serious heart arrhythmia, which can trigger fatal heart attacks and strokes. Dozens of other studies done by major institutions have reached the same conclusions.
Last February, Trump said many of the claims about the disease were a hoax. Later he asserted that COVID-19 was just another form of flu and would likely miraculously disappear by the end of April. In May, the public was told the death toll would be held to 65,000 due to the administration’s vigorous actions. Now, with the death toll already over 100,000, the president brags his policies kept the total from being far higher.
Any reopening of the economy accelerates the risk of infections. The only unknown is if the rise will be a minor uptick or a new major wave. For the best results, we need to be guided by medical realities. Only a handful of governors, Democrats and Republicans, have had the political courage to follow those guidelines and speak candidly of the challenges we face. Trump, on the other hand, has consistently failed to do so and is not likely to change course.