woman in teal shirt wearing white mask

U.S. Faces Third Surge as Covid-19 Cases Rise Around the Globe

With Covid-19 cases rising in at least 40 states, analysts warned this week of a new spike in infections in the United States. Following Covid-19 peaks in April and July, the mounting case count appears to represent a “third surge” of the pandemic, which the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 Dashboard estimates has killed more than 217,700 people in the U.S.

In Wisconsin, where more than 1,000 people are now hospitalized with Covid-19, state officials opened a 530-bed field hospital this week, hoping to ease pressure on the state’s overextended hospitals. In North Dakota, where cases have spiked, new hospitalizations threatened to swamp the state’s available intensive care beds. (Victims of the virus in North Dakota include a Republican candidate for state representative; he was buried on Wednesday but will remain on the ballot). And Covid-19 hospitalizations in Indiana are the highest they have been since May.

The U.S. surge comes amid rising case numbers in other parts of the world, with spikes in Europe triggering renewed public health restrictions, and India now poised to surpass the U.S. as the country with the most recorded Covid-19 infections.

As new public health restrictions loom in much of the world, they have been accompanied by fears that many people are growing less willing to comply with public health measures — and by serious questions about how long vulnerable communities can bear restrictions without increased government support.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization held an event about coping with “pandemic fatigue.” In Europe, survey data suggests large sections of the public are feeling exhausted and demotivated, and, in many countries, people report that they are less willing than they were in April to follow basic public health suggestions like handwashing and avoiding crowded places.

Some countries, like South Korea, have managed to largely control the pandemic through testing, contact tracing, and isolating those who become infected. The U.S. has failed to implement any similarly comprehensive strategy. At the same time, policymakers have also struggled to provide sustained support for the people most impacted by continued shutdowns.

The result is predictable: Nearly 900,000 people filed new jobless claims this week. The pandemic is deepening food insecurity and pushing millions of people into poverty. (The global rise in extreme poverty could be even worse.) Meanwhile, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., remain in deadlock over the details of a new federal aid package to help struggling families.

Also in the News:

• An ill-fated outreach effort by the presidents of two historically Black universities in New Orleans illustrates the challenges of recruiting vaccine trial participants in communities scarred by legacies of medical mistreatment, reports Nicholas St. Fleur in STAT. In August, Reynold Verret and Walter Kimbrough — presidents of Xavier University of Louisiana and Dillard University, respectively — wrote a joint letter announcing that they had enrolled in a phase 3 Covid-19 vaccine trial run through the city’s Ochsner Health System. They encouraged other members of their campus communities to do so as well, citing the importance of Black and Hispanic participation in trials in order to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines across diverse populations. But the letter sparked a backlash, with some commenters citing the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis study — in which Black patients with the disease were purposefully left untreated — as cause to distrust the vaccine trials. Others criticized the university presidents for appealing only to New Orleans’ historically Black universities, and not to the city’s predominantly White universities. Speaking to STAT, Kimbrough called it “a good lesson in terms of messaging,” saying that if he were to write the letter again, he would address it to the general public. (STAT)

• A new study tracking the impact of climate change-driven sea level rise on coastal property values suggests that signs of trouble began appearing seven years ago. The paper, published on Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, analyzed data from 1.4 million home sales in Florida. The data indicates that, for years, housing sales in high- and low-risk areas of Florida rose and fell in sync, in keeping with larger market trends. Then something shifted. “The downturn started in 2013, and no one noticed,” said the study’s lead author, Benjamin Keys, a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Keys and a colleague found that sales of oceanfront housing began slumping in 2013, even while sales rose farther inland. A few years later, prices began to diverge, too, with slower growth for homes in areas at high risk of coastal flooding. The NBER report joins other warnings about the effects of climate change on property values: A 2018 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, warned that, at many coastal sites, “the final unlucky homeowners will hold deeds to significantly devalued properties.” And new data from the government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shows that climate change-amplified natural disasters are reshaping housing markets in vulnerable areas. Real estate management companies have begun factoring climate change into their investment strategies. The authors of the new report suggest homeowners should do so as well. (The New York Times)

• As Covid-19 cases surge in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has implemented a tiered system of regional restrictive measures across England. While most areas of the country fall into Tier 1, meaning they will be subject to many of the same restrictions already in effect, people living in Tier 2 areas will not be allowed to meet indoors with anyone outside their household — barring those who may be part of their support bubble. For people living in areas classified as Tier 3, which so far only includes the Liverpool region, gatherings in many outdoor locations, including backyards, are also prohibited. While pubs can remain open until 10 p.m. in Tiers 1 and 2, they may only operate if serving meals in Tier 3. Additional restrictions have been implemented in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Johnson’s focus on local and regional measures comes as the opposition Labour Party calls for a nationwide “circuit breaker” lockdown, which would be put in effect for a few weeks and not impact schools or essential travel. Johnson has so far pushed back against such a move, arguing that the worst of the outbreak is only concentrated in certain areas. As of Friday, the U.K. as a whole has seen more than 676,400 Covid-19 cases, giving it the third-highest total in Europe. (BBC)

• The Covid-19 pandemic has harmed the airline industry and shut down attendance at many stadiums and arenas. But amid that turmoil, the identity verification company Clear — arguably best known for allowing customers to skip long lines at airport security and sports stadiums, at the cost of providing personal biometric data including fingerprints, retinal scans, and facial recognition — may be doing just fine. According to a new report from OneZero, based in part on 3,500 documents and emails obtained through public records requests, Clear is using the pandemic to expand. In particular, the report looks at Health Pass, a new Clear service that would support Covid-19 contact tracing in high-traffic businesses such as hotels, hospitals, and restaurants. According to OneZero, the company also “wants to be a holistic identity verification platform, covering more intimate moments in our everyday lives.” In other words, the company imagines that customers’ unique physical identity could replace everything from a driver’s license to an insurance or credit card. Clear’s data can also be used for marketing, for instance by storing customer preferences like favorite foods and beverages for a specific sporting arena. Clear has already faced concerns over privacy and the potential for a security breach. Any new expansions will likely face similar scrutiny. (OneZero)

• And finally: On Monday, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the site would begin removing content that peddles Holocaust denial. The anti-Semitic conspiracy theory has proliferated freely on the popular social networking site, sometimes with a boost from Facebook’s own algorithms. In a blog post, Facebook’s vice president of content policy, Monika Bickert, wrote that “enforcement of these policies cannot happen overnight” and that it will take the company time to train reviewers to seek out and remove relevant content. Zuckerberg, who had in the past resisted calls to limit Holocaust denial on Facebook, said that his views have “evolved.” Zuckerberg added that he had been weighing the balance between a commitment to free speech on the platform and the “the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust.” The company has also said that, starting later this year, anyone who tries to search for Holocaust-denial content will be redirected to information from reliable third-party sources. (The Verge)

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