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A Second Wave of COVID-19 Looms Large—and It’s Not Because of Protests

, fellow | June 11, 2020, 6:22 pm EDT
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This post is a part of a series on COVID-19 and the Coronavirus Pandemic

All over America, protesters have taken to the streets to protest the police murders of African Americans George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville and the white vigilante lynching of African American Ahmed Aubrey in Brunswick, Georgia. Part of the news coverage has dwelled on the speculation that the protests will fuel a second wave of COVID-19. One infectious disease scientist, Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, made the rough calculation that the protests could ultimately lead to between 15,000 and 50,000 overall coronavirus infections and between 50 to 500 deaths.

Of course, any additional death is a sad continuance of a tragedy that has disproportionately devastated the same communities brutalized by police. But it barely compares to the rioting of the virus and the looting of lives incited by the incompetence of the Trump administration and state decisions to prioritize reopening for business over public health. Those policies have seriously worsened a pandemic that has already caused 113,000 deaths in the United States according to the latest New York Times figures and is still racking up 50,000 infections in the nation every two to three days and around 1,000 deaths every day.

And even if one does focus solely on the protesters, it should be noted that while people certainly did not stay at least six feet away from each other in the throngs, most of those pictured in photographs from the marches and rallies wore face coverings.

Police contribute to COVID-19 risk

Those same masks worn by protesters were too often ripped off in agony as police around the nation chose to break up usually peaceful protests with tear gas and pepper spray. Researchers told National Public Radio that the gasping and violent coughing can project the virus of an infected person many feet. Many of those gasping people were then herded into packed vans and sent to crowded jails.

The Army has found that tear gas training exercises make soldiers more susceptible to acute respiratory illnesses, and the increased risk of COVID-19 spread triggered by using tear gas is so high that Duke University researcher Sven Eric Jordt told NPR, “Using it in the current situation with COVID-19 around is completely irresponsible.”

The police also displayed more irresponsibility than the people they were supposed to control by often spurning face coverings for themselves and practicing no social distancing. Several New York City police officers told the media that face coverings are too hot and difficult to breathe through while dealing with protesters. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, local and county policy said they did not wear face coverings because they hampered communication.

That did not wash with the Rev. Alaina Cobb of the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center. She said to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “We see once again the significance of the police’s disregard for the health, safety and even lives of those who they feign they are here to protect.”

The police actions mirrored political disregard around the nation for health, safety, and lives—especially those of black and brown people. Governors in many states ignored pleas not to reopen so quickly from mayors of cities whose populations are significantly of color and hard hit by COVID-19.

One of the most dramatic dismissals of the damage and continuing risk of COVID-19 to black people came a month ago in Mississippi, where Governor Tate Reeves announced an aggressive reopening of close-contact gyms, hair salons, and barbershops on the same day the state hit a record high in new cases. He could reopen with unspoken racial comfort as a white governor. Mississippi is 59 percent white, but 52 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have been suffered by African Americans, who are more vulnerable to the disease through a combination of poor prior health, congested living conditions, and riskier essential jobs.

As my epidemiologist wife Michelle D. Holmes pointed out in her own commentary in Vox Populi, Reeves justified reopening by claiming that the economic damage was becoming as “disastrous” as the virus. Vigorously objecting to this equating of money with life was Chokwe Antar Lumumba, mayor of Mississippi’s heavily black capital of Jackson. He said, “It’s a bad decision to freeze economic progress, but a worse one to sacrifice human lives.”

White privilege unmasked

The rush back to business by Reeves and so many governors who have pursued aggressive openings gives a new expression of white privilege in America. In striking photographs from all over the country, predominately white crowds are packed shoulder to shoulder, with few face coverings, at raceways, at Lake of the Ozarks, West Coast and East Coast beaches, and at the launch of SpaceX.

These photos showcase a kind of jolly version of the angry, all-white, and supremacist-influenced anti-lockdown protests at state capitols. The images amount to an open declaration that the pursuit of white happiness is an unalienable, unalterable right. It offers up a perverted version of America the Beautiful, where alabaster crowds beam, undimmed by COVID-19 tears from black and brown communities.

Shutting up every scientist they can

The nation’s cheerleader for this version of happiness is President Trump, who has overtly shunned mask wearing and social distancing. His administration gave a royal welcome to the coronavirus by shuttering most of the pandemic-warning apparatus built up by prior administrations. Now the White House is helping to assure a second wave by shutting up every scientist they can.

Chief among the silenced has been whistleblower Rick Bright, who said he was removed from a top post combatting infectious threats because he told the administration it was moving too slowly to stem the spread of the coronavirus. He warned a House hearing last month that, without a coordinated national response based in science, “the pandemic will get far worse.”

It appears that the silencing of science is also now muting one of the few voices America could count on for sane public health advice during the now-evaporated coronavirus task force press briefings in which Trump ranted about dubious virus remedies, personally attacked reporters, and self-congratulated himself on closing borders despite the dead. CNN reported on June 1 that infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said he had not talked with Trump since May 18. In a June 1 interview with STAT News, Fauci expanded on this, saying:

“We used to have task force meetings every single day, including Saturday and Sunday, and about 75 percent of the time after the task force meeting, we’d meet with the president. So, I was meeting with him four times a week back, a month or so ago. But as you probably noticed, the task force meetings have not occurred as often lately. And certainly, my meetings with the president have been dramatically decreased.”

COVID-19 cases increasing in nearly half of all states

In the absence of federal leadership, not to mention science-based leadership, we find ourselves in the midst of a 50-state experiment, weaving a clashing quilt of regulations and timing in opening up shopping malls, restaurants, barbershops, beauty parlors, gyms, churches, and childcare facilities.

Universities—responsible for 20 million young adults—are releasing their plans for fall re-openings that display no consistency, ranging from the Harvard School of Public Health and the California State University System remaining online to aggressive plans for in-person classes at schools such as Notre Dame and Purdue. Top college football teams are opening facilities, AMC Theaters says it will reopen its cineplexes in July. The National Basketball Association, which jumpstarted the closure of mass events in mid-March by suspending the season, says it plans to resume its season at the end of July.

And on what public health evidence? Not much. Consider that:

  • According to the June 11 New York Times coronavirus map, coronavirus cases are increasing in 20 states and Puerto Rico, based on 14-day trajectories;
  • According to the June 11 Johns Hopkins coronavirus map, 21 states and Puerto Rico were seeing an increase, based on a three-day rolling average.
  • A June 8 Washington Post analysis found that 14 states and Puerto Rico saw their highest-ever seven-day average of new cases in the pandemic. The states were: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Carolina, Mississippi, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah;
  • According to the June 10 version of The Atlantic’s COVID-19 Tracking Project, states “trending poorly” toward safe reopenings outnumber those “trending better” by a 3-to-1 margin. Only six states were trending better while 20 were trending poorly. The other states and the District of Columbia were in a muddled middle, making progress in decreasing infections, but still raising concern given their limited intensive care units and low testing levels;
  • And Columbia University infectious disease specialist Wafaa El-Sadr noted to the Wall Street Journal that the national average of cases, which seem to be on a gradual downward trend, might be a dangerous illusion created by the few states that were hit hard early but since have made major progress in curbing COVID-19. “If you take out the impact of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and so on, you’d have a much more worrisome picture of what’s happening in the U.S.,” El-Sadr said.

No matter which tracking map you look at, the list of states most poorly controlling the virus are dominated by those which have aggressively relaxed COVID health protections and been most supportive of the Trump administration’s drive to get back to business regardless of safety. In the Atlantic map, not a single Southern or Southwestern state shows a decreasing trend in the spread of disease. It is equally scary that the largest blue state in the country, California, is seeing new outbreaks as it begins to lift restrictions after being one of the first states to shut down.

Now that every state has reopened in some way, there are new outbreaks from California to the Jersey Shore and from Utah to Florida from family gatherings, beach vacations, churches, people going back to workplaces, resumption of college sports practices, and factory food processing. In the purple swing state of North Carolina, state health secretary Mandy Cohen told the Wall Street Journal on June 8: “These trends moving in the wrong direction are a signal we need to take very seriously.”

A Texas-sized problem

Even though there is plenty of emerging evidence that new outbreaks are spreading out into whiter parts of America, you would not know that from governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas.

Like other governors of states in which COVID-19 deaths of people of color outnumber those of white residents, Abbott is reopening Texas as though he can gerrymander the boundaries of the virus to protect privileged communities. We know that social distancing and face coverings offer the best tools we have to prevent the spread of the coronavirus without a vaccine. Despite how badly the White House botched the beginning of the pandemic, a study released June 8 in the journal Nature found that state lockdowns still averted some 60 million infections.

Nonetheless, despite Texas seeing a 53 percent increase in its rolling 14-day average number of virus cases as of June 10, Abbott has announced plans to allow Fourth of July celebrations, to let sports stadiums and retailers operate at 50 percent capacity, and to let restaurants serve meals at 75 percent capacity.

Abbott was quite clear in his statements that he has not taken in any of the science about potential superspreading of the virus from large gatherings. He also seems to take perverse comfort in his reopening based on his perception of where the virus hits hardest, citing jails, nursing homes, and meatpacking plants.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting says that as of June 9, at least 24,000 meatpacking workers and family members have been infected with COIVD-19, with at least 86 worker deaths. “We have the ability to contain those hot spots while opening up Texas for business,” Abbott said. Translated, Abbott’s statement amounts to a plan to contain the virus to communities that are disproportionally made up of people of color. While he didn’t bother to say it, the fact is that inmates, meatpackers, and nursing home staff all tend to be disproportionately black and brown.

Failing to prioritize justice and public health

The major question now is what will come of an America that is smoldering in the photographed displays of white privilege, the pillaging of science by the Trump administration, and an uprising of black grievance.

The uprisings started with police killings but have also reminded us that racism itself is a fatal virus that has been with us far longer than COVID-19. Back in 2005, former Surgeon General David Satcher estimated that 83,500 black lives a year could be saved by eliminating health disparities. In the COVID-19 crisis, the APM Research Lab estimates that at least 14,400 African Americans would still be alive if they died from the virus at the same rate as white Americans.

One source of those disparities—one tied to the COVID-19 crisis—is environmental injustice. Even as protesters marched in the streets, President Trump signed an executive order last week waiving environmental reviews for fossil fuel facilities and pipelines, mining, and other toxic industries. People of color live disproportionately close to lung-penetrating particles and poisonous fumes from industrial plants, increasing their vulnerability to the worst effects of COVID-19.

At a June 9 House hearing, Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation and former senior adviser for environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency, tied the protests and environmental justice together. According to The Hill, he said, “Black communities are dealing with the systemic racism that has infected the policing in our communities that is literally choking us to death. The rolling back of environmental rules and regulations has us gasping for air due to the cumulative public health impacts from the burning of fossil fuels,” he said, according to The Hill. “When we say, ‘I Can’t Breathe,’ we literally can’t breathe.”

The looming second wave

A lot more people will not be breathing if we get a second wave of disease anything like the fall resurgence of the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed most of the 675,000 Americans who perished from the virus. If we do, this country will have no one to blame but itself. The widespread abandonment of state lockdowns began a month ago even though just one-quarter of all states were reporting a decline in COVID-19 caseloads and even fewer had robust virus testing programs in place.

The US reopenings are proceeding even though the Imperial College of London has found “little evidence that the epidemic is under control in the majority of states.” They are proceeding even though Harvard University global health expert Ashish Jha told National Public Radio on June 10, “It’s stunning to me that we have just decided it’s OK for tens of thousands of Americans to die. And we aren’t going to do what we know we can do to prevent those deaths. And that is, to me, unconscionable.”

They are proceeding even though Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, recently told MSNBC that without strong testing and tracing, it is a “disaster for the country to have these various states opening. We should be reconsidering this right now. If it was up to me, I’d put a halt to this reopening.”

That makes it ludicrous to spend a whole lot of time speculating about the spread of COVID-19 from protesters. The far greater concern is the rampage on science and public health now underway by governors and the White House.

To effectively combat the pandemic, we need a just response guided by science and accurate data. But in this terrible moment when Americans have taken to the streets in droves because a police officer put a fatal knee to the neck of a black man, tens of thousands more Americans now risk of dying because the states and the White House have applied a figurative knee to the neck of our public health.

Photo: lunamarina/Shutterstock

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  • Lets Just Pray it doesnt get worse than thus

    Kabza De Small

  • mjm2092

    It never fails to amaze and horrify that so many people who were capable of recognizing the danger of the anti-lockdown protests could delude themselves into actually believing that the much larger, much more numerous, day-after-day consecutive protests over police brutality do not present a far greater threat. Is it really just because more of them had mostly homemade masks?

    It seems nobody actually pay attention to health experts, as they have emphasized repeatedly that social distancing is the MOST important defense. Even a genuine N95 only filters 95% of virions. Masks mainly protect others from catching -your- infection, but barely protect you from others. If even one TENTH of protestors were not wearing N95 or better, then that’s enough to infect the 90% when packed so densely. And each day they continue, the number infected does not increase linearly but geometrically. This is the most dangerous aspect of all. No isolated gathering is even a fraction as deadly as one that repeats daily.

    Also just try wearing an N95 in 90 degree heat for more than hour. It isn’t just the police who are at risk of heat exhaustion here. It also isn’t just tear gas that makes it worse. Chanting, singing, and yelling all do the same thing. Yet no condemnation of this behavior, or responsibility at all for being there in these mass gatherings in the first place. There are less deadly ways to affect change which are more effective, but they just don’t signal virtue quite as well. They could donate blood which would save so many more lives instead of ending them, but the media and irresponsible authorities would have us believe that people dying from being unable to get surgery (in addition to the hundred-fold higher number of people who will die from them spreading disease) are simply less important than the small handful of victims of police brutality.

    Let’s look at the numbers like an actual scientist. From the CDC, the latest American toll from COVID-19 is **112,967** deaths, of which 21.9% are black (nearly the same proportion to police killings) which is **24,740** black lives lost to COVID-19, *so far*. For comparison, according to BLM themselves, only 104 unarmed black suspects were killed by police in 2015 (and this includes justifiable killings, so “unwarranted brutality” is an even smaller figure). It is a categorical falsehood that the risks of “systemic racism” are even 1% as significant as the risk of spreading COVID-19. The protests will kill thousands of black people to save a small handful. Call me crazy, but I oppose that.

    Furthermore, the plan to reopen parts of society is not just for “rich businesses to make money at the cost of health”. Even health experts agreed it needed to happen after months of society learning how to be careful. Record numbers of people were out of work and did not have enough savings to survive much longer (including the poor black community), and the government stimulus was simply not enough. Even grocery stores were having trouble keeping food in stock, while food that is mostly purchased by the mostly closed down restaurants was going rotten. There wasn’t enough storage to handle the severe overstock from lack of sales as the manufacture of storage was “non-essential”, and these crops and livestock that were planted or acquired before the quarantine can’t be expected to just “wait for us”, nor can new crops better suited for grocery stores be suddenly planted and harvested in time to make up for this change. Record numbers of people took up gardening while stuck at home, and hardware stores have not been able to restock much of anything that has run out. The same happened with home improvement. Hard to call a plumber during quarantine so you need to fix it yourself, but the supplies are all sold out, all “non-essential”. These were just a few shortages that I saw personally. Warehouses of products weren’t the only things that “run out” without replenishment.

    In addition, medical suppliers themselves were considered essential, but not always the suppliers of input materials. I’m sure this author would utterly condemn “selfish” people working on building a cracker plant which processes “evil” fossil fuels, and then wonder why hospitals were facing an isopropyl alcohol shortage. Guess where the materials for that come from? Propene, produced almost exclusively by cracker plants. There’s also medical plastics, gloves and other PPE, fuel for their backup generators which patient’s lives literally depended upon, and more just from fossil fuels alone. There are countless other examples of products that were becoming increasingly essential just for the most basic functions of medical facilities and other parts of society. Car broken down? Oh tough luck, can’t buy a new one during the lock down, so you can’t get to work making materials for medical supplies, and fewer patients survive. The shortages all start to add up and ultimately start costing more and more lives. Poverty, malnutrition, destruction of mental health, and other ultimately deadly problems were also increasing in severity, yet no mention of these valid reasons that suffering poor people had to want society to reopen. Arguing a point instead of engaging a measured cost-benefits analysis is what a politician does, not what a scientist does.

    Global emissions have been halved by the pandemic so this really isn’t the time to be worrying climate change when hundreds of thousands of people are dying. Anybody protesting about that (or anything) right now should be roundly condemned, if not charged with manslaughter. No cause is ever noble enough to justify causing wanton death of the innocent.

    I know these things because I’ve researched them from objective sources of data, not to “prove a point”, but because I have a genuine interest in knowing the truth. This is what actual scientists do. So between their climate science denial of long rejecting safe nuclear power, and their denial of common medical knowledge, writing a purely political diatribe of arguments instead of measured reason, it is clear that there are no actual scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

  • k. marx

    capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society