Amid Continued Covid-19 Risks, States Move Forward on Reopening

Outbreaks of Covid-19 swelled in Arizona, Florida, Texas, and several other states this week, as the national death toll crossed 118,000 people. But the local spikes in new cases and hospitalizations, several months into a global pandemic that has devastated the national economy, have not been accompanied by a rising sense of urgency from many public officials.

Indeed, states across the country continue to reopen. The White House ceased holding daily coronavirus task force briefings in early May, and they have not resumed. President Donald J. Trump plans to hold his first campaign rally of the year on Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as cases rise in the state. For much of the week, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey resisted calls for more public health restrictions in his state, even as hospitals there warned of a possible shortage of beds, and case numbers mounted.

Some of the official indifference, perhaps, reflects the Trump administration’s insistence that an increase in testing, rather than a growth in actual cases, accounted for much of the rise in reported infections. “If we stopped testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any,” Trump said on Monday. That assertion has been rejected by public health experts, including Anthony Fauci, the most prominent scientist on Trump’s coronavirus task force, who told The Wall Street Journal this week that the new wave of cases “cannot be explained by increased testing.”

The lack of urgency may also, some analysts have argued, reflect who is dying from the pandemic — and how those lives are valued. The impact of the pandemic continues to fall disproportionately on Black Americans. Recent outbreaks have devastated the Navajo Nation. And Covid-19 cases are spiking in American prisons. The virus has also swept through many of the country’s nursing homes.

Early in the pandemic, the government of Sweden, led by its chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, took an approach radically different from that of its neighbors. Rather than impose widespread shutdowns, the country’s leaders opted to allow businesses and many schools to stay open, hoping to protect the country’s most vulnerable people from infection while allowing the virus to spread gradually through the rest of the population, buffered by voluntary social distancing. The strategy relied on careful planning and widespread cooperation from the Swedish people. Even then, it has had limited success. The economy slumped, and Covid-19 deaths in Sweden have outpaced those of its neighbors, with major outbreaks in Swedish nursing homes.

The emerging situation in parts of the U.S. now seems, perhaps, like a twist on the Swedish strategy. Like Sweden, the U.S. is experiencing lifted public health restrictions, but without all of the careful planning, communication, or pleas for public buy-in — and after the economy has already been devastated by lengthy shutdowns.

The president, at least, has expressed optimism. The virus, he said this week, is “dying out.”

Also in the News:

• When Amazon announced a year-long moratorium on police use of its facial recognition technology in a four-sentence blog post last week, critics cried foul. In an open letter this week to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, U.S. Representative Jimmy Gomez wrote, “While I am encouraged by the direction Amazon appears to be taking on this issue, the ambiguity of the announcement raises more questions than answers.” In the letter, Gomez pressed Bezos for answers to questions that he says for two years have “largely gone ignored or woefully unaddressed,” including concerns surrounding reports that the tech giant is engaged in surveillance partnerships with more than 1,350 U.S. police departments and that it is marketing the technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Amazon’s moratorium comes amid nationwide protests against police brutality toward Black Americans, and follow years of accusations from civil rights activists and researchers that the technology shows gender and ethnic bias. Microsoft has also vowed not to sell its facial recognition software to police departments until federal regulations of the technology are in place. (The Hill)

• The Republican governor of Nebraska stunned local officials this week by promising to withhold federal Covid-19 relief funds if local courthouses and other municipal buildings across the state required visitors to wear masks. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has publicly encouraged his state’s residents to wear masks when visiting stores or other public places, nonetheless argued that the decision to follow that advice should remain an individual one. With his office in control of disbursing some $100 million in Congressionally-allocated pandemic aid, local officials had little choice but to fall in line. “The governor encourages people to wear a mask,” a spokesperson told the World-Herald, “but does not believe that failure to wear a mask should be the basis for denying taxpayers’ services.” Several local officials bristled at the imposition of what seemed a coercive mandate from the state capital, effectively undermining local decision making — particularly in northern parts of the state where the meatpacking industry has been hard hit by Covid-19, and at a time when public health officials still urge people to wear masks in public. While some social media users embraced Ricketts’ edict — “Love it! Life’s about choices,” extolled one Twitter user — others wondered just how far the governor’s logic might extend. “I’m not going to wear a shirt into public buildings,” quipped another Twitter user, “cuz civil rights.” (Omaha World-Herald)

• Physicists reacted with cautious excitement this week to the announcement that an ultra-sensitive particle detector had picked up some unexpected and mysterious signals. For more than a decade, the XENON collaboration has sought to detect particles of dark matter — an invisible ingredient that helps to hold our universe together — by measuring their interactions with xenon atoms in a sensor-lined vat housed beneath a mountain in Italy. In a draft of a study posted Wednesday, XENON researchers reported the detector had picked up 53 unexpected low-energy signals, potentially from previously unobserved particles colliding with xenon atoms. The physicists propose the 53 unexpected events could have been caused by “solar axions,” theoretical particles formed in the sun that have yet to be detected. Or, the signals could have been produced by neutrinos, an already described particle, exhibiting previously unknown properties. The more mundane — and, some physicists say, much more likely — possibility is that the signals were triggered by tritium contamination within the detector. It’s still too early to say if the results herald a new era in physics or are merely the disappointing reality of working with ultra-sensitive equipment, but answers may come with the next iteration of the XENON detector, which is scheduled to start running later this year. (Quanta)

• Researchers at the University of Oxford announced this week that an inexpensive steroid, dexamethasone, appears to offer substantial benefits for many patients seriously ill with Covid-19. In a study of thousands of patients, the researchers reported that among those sick enough to be on ventilators, steroid use reduced deaths by nearly one-third. In less ill patients requiring supplemental oxygen, the reduction was closer to 20 percent. Steroids are known to suppress immune activity and, in this case, doctors speculate that the drug may be countering some of the dangerous immune overresponse seen in the sickest patients. (The drug could be actively harmful to people with milder cases, by suppressing their immune response.) While the results are promising, many researchers expressed dismay that the study was announced by press release, without any actual data, making it nearly impossible to analyze the findings and assess their credibility. “It is unacceptable to tout study results by press release without releasing the paper,” said surgeon and writer Atul Gawande in a tweet. Gawande and other experts point out that a number of studies celebrating drugs to treat Covid-19 — such as hydroxychloroquine, once loudly promoted by President Trump — have turned out to be failures. “I think there’s a good-hearted motivation to try to get helpful findings out as fast as possible,” one such critic told NBC, “but that can certainly backfire.” (NBC)

• Over the past few years, police in China have been collecting blood samples to build a DNA database of the country’s men and boys, according to research published this week by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. While the police say they will use the database to help catch criminals, and that donors provide consent, human rights groups caution that the information could be used to punish family members of those who speak out against the government. “The ability of the authorities to discover who is most intimately related to whom, given the context of the punishment of entire families as a result of one person’s activism, is going to have a chilling effect on society as a whole,” Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The New York Times. According to one man from a rural area in northern China, authorities said that he must provide a sample or risk losing basic rights, like visiting the hospital. According to Chinese state media, the country already holds the largest collection of genetic material in the world. Much of this data comes from the surveillance of minority groups like the Uighurs. Last year, Thermo Fisher, a Massachusetts-based company, came under fire for selling equipment to security forces in Xinjiang, where authorities have reportedly detained as many as one million Uighurs in internment camps. While the company said it would halt the Xinjiang sales, it sold DNA testing kits to used for China’s current database effort. (The New York Times)

• And finally: On Monday, the giant Galápagos tortoise Diego, who helped save his species from extinction, returned home to his native Española Island. In the 1930s, Diego was taken to the San Diego Zoo before being moved in the ‘60s to Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of California, to participate in a captive breeding program. At the time, the species was on the verge of extinction. But the program helped the species rebound to a population of 2,000 giant tortoises today, thanks in large part to Diego, whose reliable sex drive has made him the father of around 40 percent of the population. In January, officials announced that Diego was retiring from breeding work, and he returned home this week along with the program’s other 14 male tortoises, after a brief quarantine to ensure that they were not carrying non-native seeds in their guts. This is the first time Diego, now thought to be 100 years old, has been home since he was taken from Española more than 80 years ago. (BBC News)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Frankie Schembri, Ashley Smart, and Tom Zeller Jr. contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.