The testing of America

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Journaling the coronavirus, Thursday April 30th: of testing, funerals, meat, and shopping while elderly


In America there have been 1.06 million infections and 61,666 deaths from COVID-19. Globally there are more than 3 million infected and a quarter of a million dead.

The virus is particularly fatal to the elderly. All over the world, nursing homes sprout deadly hot spots; about a quarter to half of the deaths in the US have occurred in long-term care facilities  In Italy, an entire generation of grandparents are gone. I check in on my parents half a country away; there are no cases in the small town with one stop light in the middle of a patchwork of farmland where they live in southern Illinois.  My dad turns 85 this week; I talked to him on the phone and he was the same as always, the pandemic has not made him suddenly hungry for talking on the phone, something he’s always avoided. “Here, let me put your mom on” he says same as always, leaving us to chat while he went out to work in his garden. They are fine, if a little bored; their age and co-morbidities (dad has diabetes, mom has emphysema) place them among the most vulnerable. Neighbors check in on them and offer to shop but mom is adamant that she get out and do for herself.  I understand, though my heart clutches a little at the flimsy cloth mask she wears, especially since the news that scientists have identified genetic markers of the virus in airborne droplets with diameters smaller than one-ten-thousandth of an inch.

Though I hide it, I am genuinely alarmed to hear that mom opts not to shop during the time reserved for elderly. Who wants to get up early and shop with all old people, she complained and how could I not laugh, but I reminded her old people are less likely to be exposed, so shop with them and not the younger people who can be overconfident and careless of their good health, asymptomatically shedding virus all over the Kellogg’s corn flakes. It’s ok honey I wear gloves, mom says. “And I wipe everything down when I get home, your dad helps.” They sound practical and in good spirits, appreciative of having a garden to work in and a neighborhood they can walk around, waving at neighbors. She tells me about the bluebird that took up residence in the decorative bird house, eschewing the bluebird house that was raided by egg-stealing starlings the previous year. They are visited regularly by finches and hummingbirds and the ubiquitous cardinals in their MAGA hats.  She commiserates with the triplets next door, girls who will miss their senior prom and graduation ceremony. 

I don’t mention how my husband’s mentor recently died, along with his elderly girlfriend, in a nursing home in Michigan. There was a brief family-only funeral, but we’re hoping this summer the lockdowns will ease enough to make the journey to a planned memorial. I think of all those people in Brooklyn recently confronted by New York City’s mayor for gathering for a burial. The sight of the mourners, crowded together as the hearse makes its way  down the street, is stunning in its potent reminders of all that we are losing and have lost. As a child I found the social rituals of death reassuring – the way cars drove slowly with their lights on even in the middle of the day, the way people stopped on the street to let the cortege pass. In my childish innocence I thought every human death was accompanied by such pomp and circumstance; if every death was treated with such respect, it felt like a safe world, a place where every life, too, was treated with respect.  Little did I know. Brooklyn

The necessity of cheap meat
There are outbreaks of coronavirus at multiple meatpacking plants. We say “meatpacking plant” but what we really mean is a slaughterhouse, and what we mean by that is a place where animals with the same joy in family and social impulses as you and I, are killed to become food that was in the best of times thrown into the garbage thirty percent of the time.

Despite hundreds of workers testing positive and closing down a number of plants, the president has invoked the Defense Production Act, ordering that animal protein is an essential business. Now reader I am not trying to start any trouble here when I say, it’s really not. You may love you some hamburgers and bratwurst and pork chops, but as a vegan I can tell you they not only are not essential, they are not even that good for you. And after you stop eating them, you don’t miss them nearly like you thought (Read The China Study while you’re on lockdown, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma.) Last night we made a pizza with no meat and no cheese and trust me you would love it.

One plant of more than two thousand employees had a walkout when four dozen workers became infected. The manager said company officials are trying to address worker fears, including reduced work hours while still providing a full day’s wages and putting up barriers on the processing line and in the plant’s cafeteria, places where workers are regularly packed in within a couple of inches of each other. No word from anyone on what happens if the outbreaks continue. Maybe the plants are being forced open because the farmers don’t know what else to do with the animals ready to be slaughtered. If those animals aren’t processed into cuts of meat, they don’t get to live – that would be too expensive. They’re culled, which just means, killed and not processed for sale, a death to save money instead of make money.  

Stimulus
The
Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell made some pronouncements this week, most notably “The ongoing public health crisis will weigh heavily on economic activity, employment, and inflation in the near term, and poses considerable risks to the economic outlook over the medium term.” The US GDP is expected to decline up to 30% in the second quarter; when reporters ask the president to respond he predicts “The third and particularly fourth quarter will be spectacular.”

Though the fed doesn’t make policy, Powell  strongly suggested that Congress get actual money into actual people’s hands. I personally know just three people who have received stimulus checks, which do not cover one month of bills for a single human that I know.

“Our constituents have a lot of questions about where the hell this $3 trillion is going and why it isn’t coming into their pockets.”

~Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.)

Reporters raise the issue in the White House briefings, telling the President that many applicants find the PPE website is not working. “I hadn’t heard, I heard there was a glitch, we’re relying on the banks to go out and do an accurate job.” the president responded. No one stands up and says ARE YOU KIDDING ME, YOU ARE TRUSTING THE SAME BANKS THAT PROFITED FROM THE 2008 COLLAPSE TO NOT DO THAT AGAIN? but no one does. 

The rumbling for universal basic income has become louder and louder, with a lot of politicians – even Nancy Pelosi – saying it might be the right next step.  The people are united in this respect, at least; even among 2016 Trump voters, 36% say the federal government needs to do more to improve the economy, while only 11% say the the government is doing too much. May 1st is Universal Basic Income day, so I expect to see a lot of headlines on the topic.

The White House coronavirus briefings
An analysis by some researchers showed that across all the briefings, the president has spoken for approximately 30 hours, compared with just 8 hours combined for Drs. Fauci and Birx. After the brouhaha over the president’s potentially lethal ruminations on disinfectant and light as treatments for the virus, he said Fine, I won’t do briefings anymore they aren’t worth the trouble. Kayleigh McEnany, the new White House press secretary, says she wants to emphasize Trump’s business background and his focus on reopening the US economy. 

“We’re looking at different ways to showcase this president leading.” ~White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany

But, like the guy in Brokeback Mountain the president can’t quit us and shortly after saying what trouble it all is he was back in front of the press, once during the weekend and then again early in the week with the Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. Whoever is writing Trump’s speeches continues to imagine the president delivering his remarks to an all-new audience just tuning in, kicking off with statements like “We’re bringing to bear the full power and strength of the federal government to help states,  cities, and local government to get this plague over with and over with fast.”  Personally, I’ve come to suspect Stephen Miller is behind the Churchillian statements and the weird locution, like when he made the president say Wal-Mart and other private companies are doing “yeoman’s work”, a phrase the president frowned unfamiliarly over even as he read it aloud from his binder.

We hear how Nancy Pelosi, a dignified grandmother of eighty years of age, was “dancing in the streets in Chinatown in early February” (reader, the streets of Chinatown were already deserted in February and there was no octogenarian dancing to be seen). The president runs through his greatest hits, clearly agitated at the reporters who made such a stink about the dummies calling poison control after the presidential remarks about injecting disinfectant. I type notes as the president speaks, and for maybe the third time I found myself checking the date of the briefing to make sure I didn’t somehow accidentally tune into an old one, that’s how remarkably similar his remarks are from one session to another. It’s an exhausting duty for the reporters to sit through these and write them up and while no one is calling them front line essential workers, in my view they are.

On China: “Nobody is blaming anybody,” the president says at one point, then immediately blames China with his next words “though a group of people should have stopped it at the source and stopped it quickly and we are doing serious investigations.”  There is talk of the virus being developed in a US-backed lab in Wuhan studying coronaviruses.US intelligence agencies haven’t said anything conclusive one way or another. 

On the economy: “Look, I built the greatest economy in the history of the world,” we are reminded,  and “One day, because of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we had to close our economy. I built it. we had the best stock market numbers, the best employment numbers, the best unemployment numbers. I think it will be a tremendous comeback. We’re going to do it again and it’s not going to be that long.”

On the dead:  “We’ll never forget these great people and their sacrifice.”

On travel restrictions: “It depends on how long it takes to heal.”

On ventilators: “The press doesn’t want to talk about ventilators anymore. That’s ok. We’re in the same position on testing. I think we’ve done a great job. One person is too many.”

 On Flynn being rehired: “He is a wonderful man and had a wonderful career and what happened to General Flynn should never happen again in our country, what happened to your President of the United States should never again be allowed to happen. We’ll see what happens.”

Florida Governor DeSantis appeared in a presser with the president, alternately praising hm and outlining the plan to re-opening Florida, and I for one appreciated this chance to hear what the plans are for a state so full of old people, including my mother-in-law and father-in-law.  The governor has assembled 50 mobile strike teams to fan out and test a sample or all residents of nursing homes, part of the sentinel testing strategy put forth by Dr. Birx.

The state of Florida has seven drive thru testing sites and are working on walk-up testing. “Our ability to test exceeds the demand,” says the governor. A reporter clarifies and the governor repeats himself  “Yes, anyone can get a test but no one seems to be asking.  We have more testing than we have demand.” I wish a reporter would ask how people are informed they can get a test, or when all people over 70 can be prioritized for testing, but no one does. If you’re reading this and you’re from Florida, go get a test, they’re waiting for you.

The governor throws out some stats – they’ve completed six thousand tests, doled out 7 million masks, 1 million gloves and half a million face shields, but doesn’t say what percent of healthchare workers needs are covered. Not knowing what the needs are, it’s hard to know what to make of these big-sounding numbers.  Meanwhile not all industries are suffering. By not closing the state and continuing roadworks projects, the state of Florida has been able to accelerate construction projects by two months “which will reduce congestion”, the governor says. I wonder how long it will be before we have traffic congestion again, when so many of the things driving congestion – sports, concerts, shopping, eating at restaurants – is likely to be vastly reduced for some time.

The election
This is a presidential election this year, a fact I keep stumbling over like a pair of socks on the floor – oh, there you are! It looks like Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee. What will become of the conventions, no one knows. The Democrats have planned to go virtual and the Republicans have planned to go full steam ahead but the situation, as they say, is volatile. It’s hard to know where we’ll be, come July and August – slowly continuing the re-open, or battening down against a second outbreak? Likely some of both.

The projected US death toll, once 50,000, has been increased by the models the White House references to more than 74,000 “with an estimate range of 56,563 to 130,666”. A reporter asks, If an American President loses more Americans over the course of six weeks than died in the entirety of the Vietnam War, does he deserve to be re-elected? A reporter sitting in front of the reporter who asks this question is so surprised she involuntarily touches her face.

 

 

I expect presidential fireworks at the framing of this question, but the president remains surprisingly calm. “Yeah, we’ve lost a lot,” he say, “But if you look at original projections 2.2 million —  we’re heading to sixty thousand, seventy thousand.”  After hastening to add “one is too many” he wraps up his answer with the statement  “We made a lot of good decisions.”  

 

Testing
A reporter asks why South Korea has done more testing per capita than the US. The president says he doesn’t believe that, and Dr. Birx does some Googling on her laptop and tells the reporter that every single state that has had an outbreak has tested more per capita than South Korea, which is not exactly a refutation of the reporter’s original premise. The president tells the reporter to apologize to Dr. Birx, which the reporter says he’s happy to do if Dr. Birx’s numbers are correct.  As they bicker the Vice President is visiting the Mayo Clinic, where he scandalizes everyone by declining to wear a mask.

pence maskThe photo op depicts Mayo officials, doctors and patients, each masked, with the Vice President standing among them with his bare face hanging out. Don’t pay attention to him, mom, I say. Wear a mask. What is that man thinking, says mom in disapproving tones though in general she supports this administration. He’s not, I tell her. That’s the whole point. I let it go, but in my heart I rejoice to hear my parents, firm Fox News watchers, refuse to embrace the message of the unmasked man.

The reporter declining to trust what he’s hearing is definitely a sign of our times. Just a few briefings ago, the secretary for the Department of Agriculture told us the food supply chain was in good shape, but Sunday the chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, John H. Tyson, wrote in a full page ad in the New York Times that “the food supply chain is breaking.”  Who to believe?  

Back on the subject of testing, the president tells the assembled reporters that the White House has provided the names and addresses and phone numbers of the labs with the equipment we’ve repeatedly been told will double any state’s testing capacity the moment it is activated.   The president confirms that after the contact information was shared, “Forty-eight hours later there was a huge jump in testing, we’ve doubled it and will double again.”  We’re told states should unlock their full testing capacity by using these labs and also making use of multiple testing platforms and getting pharmacies involved. They will also  establish monitoring systems and  contact tracing, the president tells us, and I wonder why anyone bothers to show up to these briefings anymore — with all of the work being foisted onto the states it seems the administration is poised only to answer questions about what if anything the states have asked it for.

Mike Pence expresses his hope that “the American people looking on today are as proud as the president and I are at the public and private partnerships” and I’m thinking his task force needs to do a better job updating the vice president on the state of American joblessness, lack of savings, and lack of cash – does anyone care about partnerships when they can’t pay their rent?

“Now, Mr. President,” he says, turning to President Trump at the side of the podium “We have 5.4 million tests, and more than 200,000 in a single day. I sense enthusiasm among governors at the way testing is scaling all across the country.”

We hear from the Vice President that on testing “We’re almost there” and “We have a sufficient amount of testing today for every state that qualifies to begin reopening their economies.”  This framing is a bit confusing, as it leaves out how many states are qualified to being re-opening their economies. Is it five states? Twenty? More or less? We are assured that next month we will easily double our testing, an assurance we’ve heard a month ago. A reporter actually says this, and the Vice President hastens to assure the reporter that he misunderstood.

There is a difference between giving a test, and processing a test, he tells us, and I cannot possibly be the only person watching reminded of the Seinfeld episode, when Jerry reserves a car, only to find the reservation was made, but not held. “I know what a reservation is,” says the woman behind the counter to Jerry, who snarkily tells her, “I don’t think you do; see, there are two steps, to make, and to hold.” That seems to be the situation with the 5.4 million tests – they are available, they exist, but they are not processed tests. At least not all of them, or maybe not any of them. It’s hard to know, they didn’t really say. Maybe it is all of them in which case I can see why they wouldn’t want to say – but that seems unlikely. See how not knowing sparks conjecture? whispers the social scientist in me.  It’s a good example of the kind of data that would be good to track in an updated slide. I wonder if the White House has a pool of power point pros; it appears not, and they really should.  

“We’ve met this moment with American ingenuity, we couldn’t be more proud.” ~Vice President Mike Pence

It doesn’t matter, though, because not only do we have the most testing by far, but we have by far the best testing, according to the president. How do we know? Because he told us!  I have some optimism regarding testing, knowing my daughter is in Los Angeles with a team that is running a drive-through test operation, scaling to 10,000 tests a day. American ingenuity IS at work, behind the pomp and circumstance of the briefings there are people who are deep into execution mode.  As each state re-opens and suffers a resurgence of infections, or not, we’ll learn what we need to know – that will have to be good enough for now.

Good News: The Navy has decided to reinstate Captain Brett Crozier, who was fired and derided to his crew as naive and stupid over a loudspeaker by a guy who spent more than $200,000 in taxpayer money to do so. You may recall Capt. Crozier was relieved of command of the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt after complaining the Navy was not doing enough to help his crew, which was stricken with the coronavirus. A twist to the story though – Defense Secretary Mark Esper has yet to sign off on this reinstatement.

See past entries in Coronavirus Event

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