As Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations surged in parts of the United States this week, new reporting indicated that the European Union may seek to ban most travel from the U.S. when it reopens its borders on July 1.
If enacted, the E.U. policy, which aims to limit travelers from countries with high Covid-19 case counts, would group the U.S. with Brazil, Russia, and other hard-hit countries that have struggled to control their Covid-19 outbreaks.
The news highlights how far the stock of the U.S.’s once-vaunted public health system has fallen. As recently as last October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security released a report ranking 195 countries by preparedness for a major disease outbreak. While no country, the researchers concluded, was “fully prepared,” the United States ranked number one overall.
Since then, more than 124,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the U.S. — around one-fourth of the world total — and the country has struggled to control the virus, with hospitals in Arizona bracing for a surge in admissions, new Covid-19-related hospitalizations spiking across Texas, and cases climbing in Florida and other states across the South and West.
Some officials have dismissed concerns about the situation. “It’s just hot spots,” White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow told CNBC earlier this week.
Already, plenty of analysts have tried to dissect the lagging U.S. response. Was it the early failure to scale up testing for Covid-19? Was it the inability of the Donald J. Trump administration to rally the country around a clear, unified plan? Was it a breakdown of infection control in nursing homes, which have accounted for a large portion of the toll? New reporting this week contributed to that ongoing reckoning, with a detailed BuzzFeed News report that documents lapses at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing the virus to gain a foothold in the U.S.
This focus on federal responses, global statistics, and international border closures can eclipse the degree to which the actual work of pandemic response falls to state and local leaders. Public health powers in the U.S. mostly fall on officials outside the federal government. And the pandemic itself is a patchwork of outbreaks. “They say all politics is local,” the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers wrote on Twitter earlier this month. “That goes for outbreaks, too.”
Indeed, in addition to the news from Europe, domestic travelers in the U.S. faced new internal restrictions this week, too. On Wednesday, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut — three hard-hit states that have largely tamped down their outbreaks, at least for now — announced that travelers from states with rising infections would be required to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. The advisory applies to eight states, including Alabama, Arizona, Florida, and Texas.
“We worked very hard to get the viral transmission rate down,” New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference. “We don’t want to see it go up.”
Also in the news:
• A new executive order curbing the immigration of skilled foreign workers into the U.S. is prompting widespread backlash in academic and business circles. On Monday, President Trump announced that the U.S. will halt the issue of several types of visas — including H-1B visas commonly given to science, engineering, and health workers — until at least the end of 2020. The order also extends a freeze on green cards through the end of the year. The newest immigration restrictions provide exemptions for some academic workers and spare a popular guest worker program, the Optional Practical Training program, that some feared was on the chopping block. But academic and business leaders are nevertheless unsettled by a policy that some estimate will keep more than 500,000 foreign workers out of the country this year. “Putting up a ‘not welcome’ sign for engineers, executives, IT experts, doctors, nurses, and other workers won’t help our country, it will hold us back,” Thomas J. Donohue, the chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told The New York Times. (Nature)
• With most media outlets disinclined to air the debunked, highly debatable, or downright false views of climate denial organizations, such groups are increasingly finding refuge on Facebook, where — despite the social giant’s promises to combat fake news — policies still appear to make it easy to peddle fringe science. One such example, documented in detail this week by E&E News, and summarized by Newsweek, involved an op-ed published last August in the conservative Washington Examiner and subsequently posted on Facebook. At the time, scientists affiliated with the nonprofit website Climate Feedback, which is one of Facebook’s official fact-checking partners, labeled the article — titled “The Great Failure of the Climate Models” — as false, preventing further sharing on the platform. (The group also provided a detailed and withering critique of the piece at the Climate Feedback website.) After complaints from the pro-carbon-dioxide CO2 Coalition, whose executive director, Caleb Rossiter, and coalition member Patrick Michaels, co-authored the original op-ed, Facebook reversed its decision. Since then, E&E News reports, climate skeptic organizations have been flocking to Facebook — in part, the piece suggests, because Facebook’s leadership has publicly stated a disinclination to police opinion pieces for falsehoods. “We’re kind of like Donald Trump,” Rossiter told E&E News. “We’re not happy with the treatment we’re getting from the mainstream media, [so] we resort to social media. That’s where our action is in larger part.” (E&E News, Newsweek)
• For years, advocates have argued that the use of facial recognition technology by police could lead to unjust and discriminatory outcomes. Those fears gained new traction this week, after reports of what may be the first known account of a person being wrongfully arrested based on a false facial recognition match. In January of this year, police in Detroit arrested and charged a man with stealing nearly $4,000 in watches from a retail shop in the city’s Midtown neighborhood. In the interrogation room, they explained that they had used facial recognition technology to match surveillance video footage to his driver’s license photo. The man, Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, denied the charges, and had an alibi, but was held for 30 hours before he was released on bail. Police eventually dropped the charges. When shown the surveillance photo used to identify him, Williams, who is Black, asked the police: “You think all Black men look alike?” While facial recognition technology has been used in law enforcement for decades, research shows it’s less accurate for people with darker skin than it is for Whites. Following the case, the Detroit Police Department stated that going forward, it will only use facial recognition as a tool to generate leads — and only for violent crimes. (The New York Times)
• Chemical conglomerate Bayer announced this week that it will shell out more than $10 billion to settle around 95,000 claims related to the weedkiller Roundup. The German chemical giant inherited a nascent legal firestorm two years ago when it acquired Roundup’s original producer, embattled agrochemical firm Monsanto, against whom cases were quickly mounting from groundskeepers and gardeners who claimed the herbicide caused their cancer. Although Bayer maintains that Roundup’s key ingredient, glyphosate, is not a human carcinogen — a statement with which the Environmental Protection Agency agrees — the company has lost three high-profile cases in California and faces some 30,000 remaining claims from individuals who refused to join in this week’s settlement. “Every day, new people are diagnosed with Roundup-induced cancer,” Jason Itkin, a Houston-based lawyer, told Bloomberg. “There will be thousands and thousands of future cases because Bayer is currently still selling this dangerous product.” According to Bayer’s statement, around $1.25 billion of the settlement will be set aside to cover future lawsuits, and to fund research on whether glyphosate can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the type of cancer involved in most Roundup suits. (Bloomberg)
• And finally: A massive dust plume carried from the Saharan desert by trade winds reached the southeastern U.S. coastline this week. NASA models projected the plume first edging into Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, while also indicating effects in large parts of Mexico and Central America, as well as other parts of the American South. The enormous plume reached Puerto Rico on Monday, causing particulate pollution in the island’s air to reach its highest level in at least 15 years. Florida was the first U.S. state to experience a drop in air quality linked to the incoming desert dust. While trade winds regularly carry in dust from the Sahara, this year’s plume is notable both for its tremendous scale and its remarkable density. The amount of particulates in the air causes the sky to appear enveloped in a milky haze — and, to the delight of some onlookers, causes light refraction that intensifies the colors of sunsets and sunrises. (CNN)
“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Frankie Schembri, Ashley Smart, and Tom Zeller Jr. contributed to this roundup.