The US recently passed a million deaths from COVID-19. There have been a lot of articles marking this dubious milestone, notably in the NY Times as in this Briefing by Jonathan Wolfe, and this Daily podcast. The Wolfe piece includes two important graphics, one showing the number of new cases by day. It also contains shows hospitalizations and deaths, and makes the several “waves” very clear. And that this Spring’s wave is huge. The second graphic shows deaths, by time and by race/ethnicity in the key non-child, not old, age range of 25-54. A lot of deaths, and while the particular minority group that is most affected varies among the different surges, Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately dying.A million people is a lot of deaths. It is, as Wolfe points out, more Americans than have died in all the wars in our nation’s history. It is more people than have died in any other country. It remains about 20% of the world’s deaths. I have often written about how the US healthcare system is far inferior to that of many other countries, particularly the wealthy ones that are our appropriate comparison group. It is unfortunate that this area, where we are but certainly should not want to be #1, demonstrates our lack of an effective public health system and the inadequate coverage for healthcare of so much of our population.
It demonstrates more than that, as anyone can tell you, regardless of the group that their political position demands be blamed. People are getting out more, mingling more, interacting more, going to physical workplaces more – and getting infected more. Not a day has gone by recently where I have not heard from a friend or relative about something that they did for the first time in a long time – go to a concert, or to an indoor restaurant, or get together with a group of people in someone’s home. And every single one of these stories has ended with someone, the friend or relative or one of the people that they interacted with, getting sick and testing positive (and possibly, likely, others to follow). I have learned more than I ever expected to about the unreliability of home test kits, which have sometimes been falsely negative two or three times in a sick person before the result of a more definitive test came back a couple of days later. The amount of virus (“antigen” if you want to be cool) that you need to make you sick is less than that required to generate sufficient antibody (what your body makes to fight the virus) to turn these tests positive.
It is tempting to say people are behaving badly or stupidly, but what is true is that people’s behaviors – tentative or full-throttle efforts to move back to a “normal” pre-pandemic life – have increased the number of infections. And that the increase in the number of infections leads to an increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths. These are sometimes, but not always, in the people adopting the “risky” behavior. Sometimes they are in the people (often older, sicker, more vulnerable) that they live with.
Both my wife and I have traveled abroad recently, and it makes us nervous. She went to India, and we both are now in Europe. We tried to be as safe as we could on an airplane where the pilot and staff announce regularly that “you are not required to wear a mask, but please respect the decision of other people to mask or not mask”. I guess that means that there have been at least arguments, and likely fights, on planes over this issue. A federal judge in the US, in the middle of this current surge in infections, ruled that the government could not require people to wear masks on planes, and the administration did not appeal it. Thus, in traveling from India, through Dubai, everyone was masked until my wife got off at O’Hare – and most people were not. There are legal scholars who disagree with this judge’s ruling, but the key point, whether you agree with it or not, is that she ruled that the Constitution does not give the federal government the right to require people to wear masks on planes. She did not rule (and of course, could not rule!) that not wearing a mask was safe. This distinction seems to be lost on many people.
Including judges, of course. We just learned that 70 New York State judges went to a retreat in Montauk, NY, and that (as of May 19) 20 of them have tested positive for COVID, and many are sick. And there will likely be more. The fun of that retreat included a big karaoke party, a really effective way to spread the droplets that cause the infection. And these are the people who issue the rulings about what is allowed and what is not. Makes me feel really secure; how about you?
On a more chilling note, a close relative just told me about a longtime friend who has not been vaccinated, won’t do it, and refuses to wear a mask. But he does not refuse to travel or to go out and interact with others, even in settings where evidence of vaccination is required. He lies and says he is vaccinated. “Luckily” for him (and, of course, unluckily for the rest of us!) he shares his father’s name, so he uses his father’s evidence of vaccination to access these venues. Think about that. Think about how reassured you are when you are with a group of acquaintances and “everyone” is vaccinated or tested negative. Or are on a plane where “everyone” has had to present proof of vaccination. Do you feel secure? You should, actually, at least feel more secure. The odds are very much lower in these settings. And in private groups, of course you trust your friends and relatives. On the other hand, it might not be everyone. One of them might be this guy. Or one of the thousands, probably millions, like him.
Recently, a ruling by a federal judge has blocked the federal government from ending Title 42, a public health regulation invoked by Trump to keep migrants coming from Mexico out of the US based upon the possibility of their bringing in COVID, which has been continued until now. But it is not migrants who are spreading COVID; it is infected Americans who have not been vaccinated, will not wear masks, and openly mingle in public (and private) places.
In small villages in India everyone is wearing a mask. At O’Hare, or your local restaurant, or even on an airplane or in a convocation of judges, people are not. Luckily they are vaccinated. Unless, of course, they’re not. Since people’s desire to “open up more” began, early in the pandemic, I have been saying “opening = death”. Vaccines have helped a lot, and there area lot fewer deaths and hospitalizations when folks are vaccinated even when they are infected.
Sadly, there are too many people who are doing their best to try to make it worse.