In his press conference last Tuesday evening, President Trump struck a markedly different tone as he updated his country on the coronavirus pandemic. He expressed sorrow for those killed by the virus and dismally noted that the nation’s predicament would get worse before ‘it gets better.’ He also advocated mask wearing and brandished his own mask, though didn’t put it on, citing that he was socially distanced from the journalists in the room thus rendering it unnecessary. His cancelling of the Republican National Convention (RNC) on Thursday, after having originally moved it in order for it to take place without social distancing, is a further sign of his more serious acknowledgment of the spread of the virus.
This is a sharply more sombre tone to the more upbeat denialism that Trump has expressed in recent weeks where he criticised his Presidential rival Joe Biden for wearing a mask and appeared to want to ignore the escalating crisis. The speech marked an attempt from the administration to try and reset the American public’s perception of the White House’s chaotic handling of the outbreak. President Trump’s poll numbers have slumped ahead of the November election. It’s notable that this new approach coincides with the spread of virus in Republican states and key election swing states, such as Florida. He will hope that this new, calmer approach can change the minds of those who seem on the brink of abandoning him.
Despite this attempt at a reset from the President he carried on with some of the same lines he has been trotting out for months. He stated that the USA has ‘done much better than most’. This is markedly untrue by many national indicators. In many ways it is unimportant if the country is first, third, or eighth on some statistical league table, things are bad. These comparisons are all deeply political and a way for leaders to try and either save face or shower praise on themselves. Trump has repeatedly said that things are getting worse in all Western countries, which is evidently false. Carrying on the political manoeuvres he also appears to have permanently christened the disease the ‘China virus’.
The President also attempted to bolster the things that he believes his administration has done well. The provision of ventilators and testing are two of the things he has repeatedly boasted about. Whilst testing has massively increased over the past few months (as it has in many countries), many Americans are not receiving their results in a prompt manner. Delays of up to ten days have been reported in some States. This effectively halts any attempt at a track and trace system, resulting in unchecked community spread.
One of the President’s most infamous claims around testing has been that the increased numbers of cases were only due to increased testing, rather than an accelerating outbreak. There is of course the obvious rebuttal that the cases would still be there, but not in the official statistics if people weren’t tested. It was interesting that Trump didn’t repeat this claim directly at his press conference, yet his constant reference to the number of tests the US has completed being above other nations shows his desire to continue to propagate this idea. Whilst America’s testing performance has improved, there are many other indicators that the pandemic is accelerating.
So are more tests really leading to the increased confirmed caseload or are things actually getting worse? I think you know the answer. But I’ve checked the data of two states. All the data below is sourced from individual states health department websites and was accurate at the time of writing.
The remote State of Idaho has only recently began to see a sharp uptick in infections. Perhaps this is the scariest thing for the United States. The country is so vast that many states have not yet proceeded through a first wave of the virus.
Between the 3rd of March and the 18th of June cases remained below 4000. However, this has now soared to over 16,000 infections with 3,601 of these having came in the last seven days. Idaho did have a stay-at-home order but this was partially lifted on May 1st and decisions to do with reopening have now been delegated to a local level. In so many states it appears there was mass panic and stay-at-home orders were widely instituted in March as New York was battered by the virus. Whilst these orders may have limited infections in the first instance, in many places the lifting of them was done with a lack of care and a sizeable minority in the US seemed to show little regard to the rules that were still in place.
Returning to Idaho, there has been a sizeable increase in the number of tests that have been completed, from 5,691 in the first week of April to 17,149 in the week commencing the 12th of July. However, the number of those tests which came out with a positive result has also sharply increased – from 7% to 13% thus indicating an accelerating outbreak. Even on weeks which had a comparable number of tests, the positive rate has still increased as time went on. The week beginning the 24th of May had 10,575 tests with a positive rate of 3.7%. Compare that to three weeks later where only 2000 more tests were completed but the positive rate had nearly doubled to 7.2%.
Many other key indicators also demonstrate an accelerating outbreak. On the 1st of July there were 76 residents taking up beds in Idaho’s hospitals who had been confirmed as having Covid-19. In less than a month (as of the 20th of July) this has increased to 204 Idahoans.
These indicators all show a spiralling outbreak, rather than increased numbers due to a more rigorous testing regime.
Florida’s testing regime has been subject to both scorn and praise. Whilst they have massively increased their testing capacity, results have been coming back at a snail’s pace in too many instances. Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis said that slow results were not ‘very helpful’ in tackling the virus and promised to stop using private labs which were repeatedly unable to turn tests around in 48 hours.
To an insider looking in, it seems as if Florida is existing in a bizarre parallel universe. The Sunshine State’s average daily caseload over the past week has been 10,585. This is an increase of 16% on two weeks ago when the state started to be regarded as a global epicentre of the virus. Yet, the state is effectively open for business. Its famous theme parks are back open (with strict social distancing), beaches have been packed but nurses are working eighteen hour shifts and intensive care units are either full or filling fast. DeSantis has came under fire for refusing to issue a statewide mask mandate (though some individual counties have done so) and for loosening restrictions in a reckless fashion.
As an avid Disneyphile, I’m in no mood to see Mickey locked up in Cinderella’s castle but there does seem to be two different realities here. Nobody wants to see jobs lost and the economy trashed but the situation is dire. As I said earlier Donald Trump’s cancelling of the RNC, after having moved it to Florida from North Carolina, demonstrates the graveness of the state’s plight alongside Trump’s own attempts to show a more realistic tone.
Florida provides less data than many other states in regards to testing and hospital admissions. However, the positive rate on all of their tests has been over the state’s target rate of 10% for five consecutive weeks. The target itself is odd. The majority opinion is that communities should aim to keep their positive percentage below 5% if they are going to successfully control the spread of the virus. The high positive percentage indicates the severe nature of the outbreak. The state has tested over three million people but the lack of fast turnaround is significantly inhibiting any attempts to stop these people spreading the virus further.
The President now seems to be singing from a different hymn sheet in regards to his response to the coronavirus pandemic, however, his previous lax attitude and denialism (encapsulated by his ridiculous testing claims) means that he will be fighting an uphill battle to restore his political credibility in the eyes of many American voters.
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