On Fourth of July Weekend, Concerns for Covid-19 Spread

Cases of Covid-19 increased across much of the country this week, raising fears that the virus that causes it could spread further during gatherings over the Fourth of July weekend. The holiday arrives as the national death toll from Covid-19 passes 128,000 — roughly one quarter of the world total — and as major outbreaks develop in Texas, Arizona, Florida, and other states, putting strain on some hospitals.

The first months of the pandemic have already demonstrated that parties, parades, and other gatherings — all popular activities on Independence Day — can become settings for the rapid spread of Covid-19. “We encourage you to stay home,” the public health director in hard-hit Austin, Texas, said in a videoconference this week, and to “think of new traditions within your home with the people that you live with.” That sentiment has been echoed by public health officials across the country.

While parades, firework shows, and other festivities have been canceled, some gatherings are proceeding. On Friday, President Donald J. Trump plans to hold an event at Mount Rushmore, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where new cases have been relatively low in recent weeks. The gathering, which is expected to attract thousands of people, will feature fireworks. In a television appearance defending the event plan, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said this week that “we won’t be social distancing.”

This year’s Independence Day comes at a time of renewed public debate over the exercise of state power — and over what, exactly, the abuse of that power looks like in the 21st century United States. Across the country, people outraged by the recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among many others, have protested against police brutality, and against a criminal justice system that disproportionately locks up Black people and other people of color.

Meanwhile, the public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked a small but vigorous opposition to a different category of police powers — those exercised by public health officials. Indeed, while a majority of Americans tell pollsters they support policies that require people to wear protective masks in crowded areas, a vocal minority has opposed such measures. Many Republican officials have been hesitant to issue mask requirements, despite abundant and growing evidence that mask use slows the spread of Covid-19.

Those dynamics may be changing as Covid-19 continues to spread. And, on Independence Day, it’s worth remembering that the brunt of the pandemic has fallen on those who have fewer options to avoid it: essential low-wage workers, who may have few ways to avoid exposure to the disease; staff and residents in nursing homes, who often end up in facilities against their wishes; and incarcerated people, who can do little to distance in the nation’s crowded prisons and jails.

Also in the News:

• An investigation by the Associated Press, published on Tuesday, documented the Chinese government’s efforts to reduce the birthrate among Uighurs and other ethnic minorities through forced birth control, sterilization, and abortion. The AP reports that government officials have been conducting routine pregnancy checks and ordering mandatory sterilization, insertion of intrauterine devices, and, in some cases, abortions in an effort to curb the growth of Uighurs, a Muslim minority group concentrated in the country’s remote northwest. In the majority-Uighur Kashgar and Hotan regions of the state of Xinjiang, the birth rate fell 60 percent over the past three years, including a 24 percent drop last year. Meanwhile, state spending on sterilization procedures surged in Xinjiang, according to budget documents. The Chinese government’s population reduction efforts are backed up by the threat of detention: The country runs a vast system of internment camps, where analysts estimate that more than one million ethnic minorities have been detained. “They want to destroy us as a people,” a Chinese-born ethnic Kazakh woman told the AP, after she was pressured to get an IUD because she had more than two children. (The Associated Press)

• As parents and children across the U.S. anxiously await to hear from officials about whether or not schools will reopen this fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics has made its official stance clear: Kids need to get back in the classroom. In a statement this week, the physicians’ group cited the importance of in-person learning and highlighted the negative impacts of isolation and food insecurity, along with other issues that arise as children miss out on critical support services. Given that children appear to be less likely to become infected and spread Covid-19, the AAP guidelines note, policies “must be balanced with the known harms to children, adolescents, families, and the community by keeping children at home.” While the guidelines do include protocols for staff — many of whom are over the age of 50, and so at higher risk for complications from the virus — teachers have voiced concerns about returning. After Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia announced its plans for fall, including some in-person classes, teachers’ unions pushed back. “Our educators are overwhelmingly not comfortable returning to schools,” Tina Williams, president of Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, told NPR. “They fear for their lives, the lives of their students, and the lives of their families.” (NPR)

• In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers warned that the spread of a strain of swine flu seems to be accelerating across China’s massive hog farms. The virus is closely related to the H1N1 flu that killed more than 280,000 people globally in 2009, and it contains genes from avian flu strains as well. According to the researchers, the strain — belonging to a variant known as G4 viruses — has been increasing among pigs in Chinese farms since 2011. Around 10 percent of hog farm workers show signs of exposure to the swine flu, apparently from contact with the animals. So far, no serious illnesses have been noted, and there is no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. The research team, led by scientists at the China Agricultural University in Beijing, expressed concern that the G4 strain has potential to mutate into something more dangerous, and they strongly recommend more intensive monitoring of the country’s pork industry and its workers in case such mutations occur. The strain, biologist Carl Bergstrom wrote on Twitter this week, is “worth watching” for experts but “no immediate threat to public health.” (Science)

• Gilead Sciences announced this week that remdesivir, the first drug shown to be effective against Covid-19, will sell for $520 per dose in the U.S., or an average of $3,200 per treatment course. In clinical trials, the drug reduced median recovery times from 15 days to 11 days, though it didn’t significantly reduce mortality rates. Some critics say the price point is excessive, in light of government investments that went into the drug’s development and the recent emergence of a cheaper Covid-19 therapy, dexamethasone. House Democrat Lloyd Doggett called it “an outrageous price for a very modest drug, which taxpayer funding saved from a scrapheap of failures,” and an analysis by the nonprofit Institute for Clinical and Economic Review concluded that a retail price between $1 and $160 per dose would suffice for Gilead to recoup its costs. Other countries will be able to purchase remdesivir at a discount — $390 per dose for developed nations and “a substantially lower cost” for developing countries, the company said. But accessing the drug may prove difficult: The U.S. government has already secured nearly the entire first three months’ production stock, leaving little supply for the rest of the world. (STAT)

• And finally: A federal watchdog seemed to confirm this week what was already widely known: Officials at the Commerce Department, which oversees, among other agencies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its National Weather Service (NWS), ignored its own scientists in deference to President Trump in a mini-scandal known as “Sharpiegate.” The moniker refers to a September 2019 statement issued by Trump that incorrectly included Alabama among states likely to be impacted by then-approaching Hurricane Dorian. The flub worried Alabama residents and prompted local NWS employees to issue a statement contradicting Trump’s assertion. Controversy ensued. The president insisted that he had not been wrong, showing reporters a NOAA map depicting the hurricane’s likely path; it included an extension reaching into Alabama — one that appeared hastily drawn with a black marker. (Trump is known to favor the Sharpie brand.) The Commerce Department came to Trump’s defense, issuing an unsigned rebuke, ostensibly from NOAA, of the Birmingham National Weather Service — in direct contradiction, critics argued, to what NOAA’s own researchers knew to be true. Was politics eclipsing science? That question launched numerous probes, including one by the Commerce Department’s own Office of the Inspector General (OIG). In a three-page summary of its findings, published Monday, the OIG’s answer seemed unequivocal: Yes, the Commerce Department engaged in a “flawed process” in chastising NWS staff — one that failed to properly engage NOAA scientific input. The full details, however, remain murky. In a memo to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, posted online Wednesday, the OIG complains that department functionaries are still blocking the full report from public release. (The Washington Post, Commerce Department OIG)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Lucas Haugen, Deborah Blum, Jane Roberts, 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.