White House Claims Covid-19 Victory as Deaths Rise

As coronavirus cases and deaths climbed across the U.S. this week, the White House had a message for the American people: The pandemic is over. A Tuesday press release from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy praised President Donald J. Trump for “ending the Covid-19 pandemic.” While a White House spokesperson later said the intention of the press release was “to say that it is our goal to end the virus,” the statement echoed Trump’s recent claim that the pandemic is coming to an end.

On the same day the White House released its statement, more than 44,000 people in the U.S. were hospitalized with Covid-19, according to data from the Covid Tracking Project, including some 2,200 people fighting for their lives on ventilators. The pandemic, which has already caused an estimated 228,677 deaths in the U.S., is now killing around 1,000 Americans each day.

The majority of people dying from Covid-19 are elderly, but mortality statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that around 45,000 people under the age of 65 have died from the disease.

The U.S. is not alone in experiencing a Covid-19 resurgence: In Europe, a second wave is now filling hospitals. Policymakers in Spain, France, Italy, and other hard-hit countries have imposed new health restrictions.

The leaders of the U.S. government have not mustered such an urgent response. Instead, nine months after the first documented cases of Covid-19 arrived in the country, signs have continued to appear that some federal policymakers are pivoting toward something closer to a herd-immunity strategy. Under that approach, the virus is allowed to spread, largely unchecked, among low-risk populations, until it has infected some critical mass of people who, in theory, will carry long-lasting immunity to the coronavirus.

Defenders of herd immunity strategies point to Sweden, which has largely eschewed lockdowns, including disruptive school closures. That country, though, now appears to be backing away from its controversial approach. And many public health experts say that a herd immunity strategy makes no sense. It is not yet clear how long immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, lasts, and a few cases of reinfection have been reported. Other countries have managed to control the spread without long-term lockdowns. And outbreaks among younger, healthier people can swiftly jump to more vulnerable populations.

“There’s no magic wand we can use here,” Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute, told Nature. “We have to face reality — never before have we reached herd immunity via natural infection with a novel virus, and SARS-CoV-2 is unfortunately no different.”

Despite such warnings, in October, a group of academics signed a statement, called the Great Barrington Declaration, urging a herd immunity approach in the U.S. Soon after, some signatories admitted to The New York Times that they did not actually know how the U.S. could implement the plan while keeping infections away from the most vulnerable. One Swedish expert, who has been supportive of Sweden’s herd immunity strategy, told The Times he had declined to sign because the declaration did not detail any plans for protecting high-risk people.

Nevertheless, White House officials have continued to tout the Great Barrington Declaration — while putting forth no comprehensive plan to address this latest surge. Whether that approach is morally or politically tenable for the American electorate remains to be seen. Majorities of voters consistently tell pollsters that they are worried about the pandemic and disapprove of the administration’s response. And cases are now spiking in some of the Midwestern states that could be essential for Trump to win reelection. As those cases rise, the president’s poll numbers in the Midwest have also seemed to flag, leading some analysts to speculate about a connection.

“The surge of illness in the region is obviously bad news, first and foremost, for the impact it has on people’s lives,” wrote Nathaniel Rakich, an analyst for the politics and sports site FiveThirtyEight, on Wednesday. “But for an incumbent president widely seen as having failed on the issue of the pandemic and facing reelection in less than one week, it’s also terrible timing politically.”

Also in the News:

• Thousands of people continue to protest in Poland after a court ruling last Thursday outlawed nearly all abortions, making exceptions only for cases of incest, rape, or where the mother’s health is at risk. In a country that already had some of Europe’s strictest abortion laws, the new ruling makes it illegal to terminate pregnancies due to fetal abnormalities. According to Poland’s health ministry, such procedures accounted for 98 percent of legal abortions last year. The court ruling comes after the governing Law and Justice party had repeatedly failed to gain support to tighten the law in Parliament. Opinion polls show a majority of citizens are against further abortion restrictions. In the court ruling, the Constitutional Tribunal’s president, Julia Przylebska, declared that termination based on a fetus’s health was “a directly forbidden form of discrimination.” This week, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, countered the country’s conservative leaders, saying in a radio interview that he believes women should have the right to abortions in such instances, though his statement has no legal bearing. Krystyna Kacpura, head of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, a Polish NGO, told AFP news agency that the ruling is “a disgrace from the Polish state towards half of the population, women. We’ll never forget it.” (The Guardian)

• A new study from Imperial College London raised fears that immunity after a coronavirus infection may be short-lived, with implications for reinfection and vaccination. But, according to experts interviewed by The New York Times, the worries are overblown. The study examined the presence of coronavirus antibodies — proteins that help the body recognize and ward off a repeat infection — in more than 365,000 adults in Britain. The researchers found that in this group, the presence of coronavirus antibodies decreased by about 27 percent over three months. But this doesn’t mean a person who had the coronavirus once will be infected again. As The Times notes, it is normal for antibodies to fall after an infection. Fewer antibodies also don’t suggest that a person is no longer immune, since the body has other immune defenses, such as T cells, which can target a virus, as well as cells that can ramp up production of new antibodies in the face of a reinfection. Nor does the study’s result necessarily foreshadow a problem for vaccines. “The vaccine doesn’t have to mimic or mirror the natural infection,” Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, told The Times. “Certainly I wouldn’t be alarmist about these data.” (The New York Times)

• A recent environmental assessment for the Federal Aviation Administration finds that Virgin Orbit’s proposed LauncherOne rocket operations would drop debris into the Pacific Ocean that could potentially be harmful to marine life. Virgin Orbit, the private space-launch company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, plans to use a modified 747 aircraft carrier to carry a rocket that can then be launched into space — even as it sends debris hurtling back towards earth. Andersen Air Force Base, located in Guam, would be the site of LauncherOne operations, which, if approved, could last into 2025 and include as many 25 launches. The new report cautioned that the debris could harm marine mammals and sea turtles living in waters east of Guam. However, because the company is proposing no more than 10 launches each year, the authors of the report concluded that it is not very probable that any endangered marine mammals would be struck. But, they said, they do not have enough data to assess the risk posed to fish. (Pacific Daily News)

• New reporting this week details recent changes at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that have elevated climate deniers and sidelined senior scientists. Some of the turmoil began last month, when the agency’s new chief of staff, Erik Noble, removed NOAA’s acting chief scientist. The move came, according to new reporting in The New York Times, after the researcher requested assurances that Noble and other incoming Trump administration appointees would respect the organization’s long-standing scientific integrity policies. That action, plus other aggressive positions taken by new appointees, led InsideClimate News to ask this week whether there was now a “war on NOAA.” Their reporting focuses on one of the new agency leaders, David Legates of the University of Delaware, who has drawn attention for his close work with advocacy groups that oppose action on climate change. Last year, Legates, who has questioned the overwhelming scientific consensus that human actions are causing the climate to change, told Pennsylvania state legislators that “climate is changing because it always has and always will.” Experts say the changes at the agency may come as the Trump administration seeks greater control over the upcoming National Climate Assessment, a major environmental report on which NOAA traditionally takes a lead role. (The New York Times, InsideClimate News)

• Researchers based in California and China published evidence this week that the fossilized jaw and foot bone of a long-extinct species may belong to the largest flying bird ever documented, with a wingspan approaching 20 feet. (The largest flying bird alive today, the albatross, has a wingspan of up to 11 feet.) The remains of the pelagornithid — or bony-toothed bird — were first discovered in Antarctica more than a generation ago, and the species is known to have occupied much of the globe roughly 56 to 34 million years ago during the Eocene epoch. But UC-Berkeley doctoral candidate Peter Kloess, alongside colleagues from the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, described the fossil evidence, which had been housed at the University of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley and was scrutinized anew in the published paper, as representing “not only the largest flying birds of the Eocene, but also some of the largest volant birds” — or birds capable of flight — “that ever lived.” According to Smithsonian Magazine, previous research has suggested that known pelagornithid specimens, with their massive bodies, approached the very boundaries of physics and potential for flight. But the new research raises the question of whether still bigger flying birds may have existed. “It’s hard to know,” a senior scientist at the museum told Smithsonian, “if we have yet found the largest pelagornithids.” (Scientific Reports, Smithsonian Magazine)

• And finally: Are dead people voting by mail? In Washington state, which has long used a vote-by-mail system, the answer appears to be no. So reports a team of political scientists at Stanford University’s Democracy and Polarization Lab, who analyzed voter turnout data for more than 4.5 million Washingtonians, looking for ballots that had potentially been cast after a voter died. The study was prompted by widespread efforts, including by President Trump, to discredit mail-in voting in the lead up to the U.S. presidential election. The Stanford group estimates that between 2011 and 2018, there were only 14 instances in which a ballot belonging to a dead person was seemingly cast after the person’s death, representing just 0.0003 percent of all votes cast. The findings, which have yet to be peer reviewed, are in line with an earlier Washington Post analysis that estimated that just 0.0025 percent of mail-in votes in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington were potential cases of double voting or voting on behalf of the deceased. The Stanford team’s conclusion is clear: “The dead are, generally speaking, not voting by mail in Washington.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

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