Both college and professional basketball have been canceled. Disneyland is canceled. Broadway is canceled. Cruises are canceled. Harvard, MIT — and a growing roster of schools across the nation — have been canceled (or at least moved online).
As the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread across the United States this week, officials scrambled to keep up with new cases, markets plunged, and universities moved to virtual classes. Washington governor Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people in the Seattle-area counties hardest hit by Covid-19, the official name of the illness caused by the virus. School systems in many cities shut down, and layoffs began mounting, as companies faced the prospect of declining business, fractured supply chains, and looming shutdowns.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially declared the global outbreak, which had infected at least 125,000 people as of Thursday, a pandemic. Meanwhile, researchers rushed to develop treatments and a vaccine — still a year off by most estimates — and used sophisticated genetic tools to track the virus’ mutation and spread. More and more public health experts urged people to voluntarily adopt social distancing measures, which include staying home whenever possible, maintaining 6 feet of distance between others when not at home, and avoiding large gatherings altogether.
Amid the flood of information, updates, and recommendations, the experience on the ground could offer moments of surreal disjunct. In New York City, which has experienced a surge of cases in the past week, restaurants, museums, and bars stayed open, school stayed in session, and officials urged calm, even as the governor deployed National Guard troops to help bring aid to the city’s northern suburbs, where an outbreak has infected more than 120 people.
The prevailing fear is that while more than 1,600 cases of Covid-19 have been reported in the U.S. thus far, many more infections are likely going undetected — in part because the administration of President Donald J. Trump had, by almost every account, failed to respond early, and effectively, to the looming crisis. The concern now is a rapid spike in cases, which could overwhelm the nation’s health care facilities. That looming threat has social media resounding with calls for ordinary citizens to help “flatten the curve,” a reference to making the sort of personal, self-distancing decisions — or issuing official orders to compel them — that might slow the spread of the virus and ease the inevitable burden on hospitals, which, many health experts say, is currently the best and only way to save lives.
In this week’s Abstracts, we offer a bit more on flattening that curve, as well as a roundup of other coronavirus themes that have defined the news this week, and that are likely to stay relevant in the days ahead.
• There are ongoing shortages of SARS-CoV-2 tests — as well as respirators, lab rats, and other critical supplies.
As consumers encounter shortages of disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and other products, researchers and health care workers are also finding themselves unable to obtain much-needed supplies. A severe, ongoing shortage of tests for the new coronavirus has made it difficult to map the extent of the outbreak, leaving officials effectively flying blind and forcing sick people to wait for days, unsure of whether they have actually contracted the virus. Scientists scrambling to develop a vaccine are also facing issues, as the mouse models required for testing aren’t currently available. Regular mice exhibit little clinical disease in response to Covid-19; transgenic mice with a humanized gene called ACE2 are what’s needed. Vendors say they’ll take weeks or months to develop. And while some people suggest bypassing animal trials and going right to human studies, Nikolai Petrovsky, a medical professor at Flinders University in Australia, told Bloomberg such an idea is “fraught with difficulty and danger.” Even those involved in basic research are feeling the effects of shortages, as the public buys up supplies of N95 respirators, essential to keeping scientists protected from infectious diseases including tuberculosis and even SARS-CoV-2 itself. “We have so many people who use N95s on a daily basis,” Kim West, who runs UMass Medical’s Biosafety Level 3 research facility, told Undark. “If all of a sudden we can’t get in there to do our work, we will lose the ability to do research.”
• Western democracies are turning to unprecedented new restrictions in an attempt to “flatten the curve.”
As cases of Covid-19 continue to rise around the world, public health experts have increasingly called for actions that would “flatten the curve,” essentially slowing viral transmission by reducing contact between human hosts. China, where the outbreak originated, is thought to have so far successfully contained it through a rigorous quarantine of people in affected provinces. For the first time in modern history, longstanding democracies like Italy are also adopting stringent measures. On Monday, officials in Italy — where, as of Thursday, more than 15,000 people had been infected and more than 1,000 had died — essentially put the whole country under quarantine, restricting travel and gatherings and demanding social distancing of its citizens. Although the virus is still spreading, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the rate has slowed dramatically in some of the early affected towns, a trend he predicts will continue. Other countries are starting to follow suit. India has suspended all travel visas except those held by diplomats, effectively quarantining the country for a month. Countries in Europe are closing schools on a nationwide basis. And in the United States, President Trump has ordered a 30-day block on most incoming air travel from the European Union on Wednesday, and told reporters on Thursday that domestic travel restrictions are “a possibility…if an area gets too hot.”
• The spread of misinformation continues — amplified by the President.
After weeks of minimizing the threat, falsely suggesting that the flu was more deadly than Covid-19, and even calling the fast-spreading virus a Democratic hoax, Trump was forced by increasingly dire circumstance to confront the pandemic more seriously this week, issuing a prime-time address to the nation on Wednesday evening. But even here, according to public health experts — and even some unnamed administration officials — the President did more to confuse and confound than to illuminate and lead. The Associated Press provided a rundown of the errors and misstatements, which included claims that antiviral medications now in development would “significantly reduce the impact and reach of the virus,” (there’s no evidence to date that this will be the case); that a travel ban from Europe to the United States would also forbid movement of goods and cargo (precisely the opposite); and that all people entering the U.S. are being quarantined and tested (not even remotely accurate). For weeks, the sheer volume of prevaricating and deflection on the part of the president — and on a matter where lives literally hang in the balance — has outraged scientists, baffled public health officials, and dismayed journalists the world over. H. Holden Thorp, editor in chief of Science journals, summed up the growing frustration in a stinging editorial late last week: “Do us a favor, Mr. President,” Thorp wrote. “If you want something, start treating science and its principles with respect.”
• Covid-19 cases are putting new strain on health care workers.
The pandemic is proving a formidable test for health care systems, as facilities strain to balance providing adequate care for a ballooning number of Covid-19 cases and preventing their own workers from contracting the virus. Sixty-seven employees of the nursing home linked to 26 deaths in Kirkland, Washington, are showing symptoms and are in quarantine awaiting test results, a facility representative said Wednesday. Several other senior care facilities and one medical center in Washington have quarantined workers potentially exposed to the virus, as have hospitals in Florida, Ohio, Colorado, California, and nearly all of the 45 states with reported Covid-19 cases as of Thursday afternoon. Compounding the matter, uncertainties about SARS-CoV-2 have left providers to navigate a patchwork of changing recommendations about treatment, screening, and protective measures. Providers have expressed anger, frustration, and fear about the lack of clarity from government agencies, saying poor guidelines have put them and their patients in unnecessary danger. Unions of nurses and health care workers in several states have organized to demand better protective standards and equipment. Some experts have cautioned that without immediate, drastic measures to reduce transmission, the number of cases could overwhelm the U.S.’s health care system as it has in Italy, where doctors must decide which patients receive lifesaving care — and which do not.
• The outbreak could affect the 2020 presidential election.
“It’s the coronavirus election now,” declared Ross Douthat in a New York Times op-ed on Wednesday, a day after Joe Biden cemented himself as the Democratic frontrunner with wins in four contests, including the prized Michigan primary. Indeed, Covid-19 has already begun to alter the election landscape: Both Biden and Sanders canceled large rallies this week due to public health concerns, and this Sunday’s Democratic debate, originally planned for Arizona, will instead take place in Washington, D.C., with no studio audience. Looking ahead to the general election, some political strategists speculate that Trump’s perceived mishandling of the outbreak could tilt the election in Biden’s favor. “If [Trump] and his government doesn’t get a handle on this thing and start to show some competence, yeah, there could absolutely be electoral fallout in November,” said Reed Galen, John McCain’s former deputy campaign manager, to Time. Trump, for his part, has indicated that he won’t let the coronavirus threat slow down his campaigning. During a tour of the CDC last week, he said he’d continue to hold large rallies, despite the contagion risks. He’s expected to speak to thousands of supporters at a “Catholics for Trump” campaign event in Wisconsin next week.
• There’s a lot of excellent reporting and analysis out there.
Below is a list — updated and expanded from last week’s Abstracts — of some of the journalists, experts, and publications that Undark is following.
- Helen Branswell (@HelenBranswell), senior writer, infectious diseases, STAT
- Peter Sandman and Jody Lanard, risk communication experts
- Kai Kupferschmidt (@kakape), molecular biologist and science journalist, Science Magazine
- Trevor Bedford (@trvrb), computational biologist, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle
- Lawrence Gostin (@lawrencegostin), professor of global health law, Georgetown University
- Wendy Mariner (@wendymariner), health law professor, Boston University
- Julia Belluz (@juliaoftoronto), health correspondent, Vox
- Kaiser Health News, full coronavirus coverage
- ProPublica, full coronavirus coverage
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, latest coronavirus news
- World Health Organization, rolling coronavirus updates
- Global Covid-19 Case Tracker, Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering
- The Covid-19 Tracking Project
- Virus Academics Twitter list
Undark will continue to provide weekly roundups of Covid-19 news each Friday for as long as the pandemic continues.
Deborah Blum, Jane Roberts, Ashley Smart, Frankie Schembri, and Tom Zeller Jr. contributed to this roundup.