WASHINGTON — Here are three numbers to bear in mind on the eve of this election:
The first — 31 — is the number of states that set a new one-day record for Covid-19 infections at some point during the month of October.
The second — 99,000 — is the number of new Covid-19 infections recorded nationwide on Friday, October 30th, a new single-day record for new cases in the U.S.
The third — 2.1 million — is the high-end estimate for how many Americans would die if the country embraced herd immunity to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a September 2020 analysis by two French experts in epidemiology and infectious disease modeling. The low-end mortality estimate, those researchers say, is 500,000.
With these three figures you can see the story of the utter failure by President Trump and his administration to implement a coherent, consistent national plan to stop Covid-19. We are now almost nine months into the worst pandemic since the 1918-19 Spanish flu. New cases are soaring, not diminishing. The second wave that Vice President Mike Pence assured us in May wasn’t real has in fact come and gone, and the country has now entered a third wave — or depending how you look at it, the first wave has yet to recede. The pandemic is worsening, not improving, and in the northern states, as winter arrives, the cold weather will make it that much harder to socially distance and slow the virus’s spread.
And how has the Trump administration responded? Apart from fast-tracking a vaccine, Trump has given up. There is no concerted federal response to slow and eventually stop the pandemic; there never really was in the first place. Even Trump’s own chief of staff, Mark Meadows, concedes that the White House has all but given up. “We are not going to control the pandemic,” he recently told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics, and other mitigation areas.”
Even more worrisome, recent news reports suggest Trump has warmed up to the idea of herd immunity as a way to deal with the virus. If you’re unfamiliar with herd immunity, here’s the basic idea: If you stop trying to contain the virus and instead let it run rampant through a population, enough people will get infected and develop an immunity that the virus will eventually spread more slowly and peter out.
To call this a risky strategy would be an understatement. Wide-scale herd immunity is an untested method that, according to projections, could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. Many public-health experts say it is tantamount to surrendering to the virus, a collective throwing up of the hands, a grim wave of the white flag. “We have never successfully been able to do it before, and it will lead to unacceptable and unnecessary untold human death and suffering,” Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, told Nature in October.
Still, the Financial Times and Daily Beast have recently reported that Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no background in epidemiology who Trump appointed to the White House Coronavirus Task Force while marginalizing actual experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci or Dr. Deborah Birx, has consulted with experts about herd immunity and promoted the idea within the administration. (Atlas and a White House spokeswoman denied this to the Beast.) And Trump himself appeared to acknowledge, if not endorse, herd immunity during an ABC News town hall last month when he said the virus would go away without a vaccine “over a period of time” with a “herd mentality,” apparently meaning herd immunity.
But you don’t have to speculate about Trump’s support for herd immunity to see his disregard for the severity of the pandemic. Look no further than his insistence on holding rallies attended by tens of thousands of densely packed supporters, many of whom, taking a cue from the president, declined to wear masks. A team of researchers out of Stanford University published a working paper last week that estimated that 18 of the president’s rallies held this year led to an additional 30,000 coronavirus cases and 700 deaths. And on the campaign trail, Trump gives a few scant mentions of the pandemic in his stump, mostly to dismiss it citing his own infection and that of his family. “It’s ending anyway,” he claimed at a rally in Pennsylvania last weekend.
This is the Trump administration’s approach to a public-health calamity that has claimed the lives of a quarter-million Americans and counting. An approach of betting it all on rapidly developing a vaccine while flirting with unproven ideas like herd immunity. A blithe dismissal of the disproportionate effect of the virus on black and brown communities, and a magical thinking that it will simply go away on its own. “Somehow, [the Republican Party] decided that #COVID19 was a non-issue,” Gregg Gonsalves, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health and an expert in infectious disease, put it. “Easiest way to re-election was to succeed in containing the epidemic. They made an explicit choice not to, to sit on their hands while people died in the tens of thousands. If this election is about anything it’s about this.”
An old cliché gets passed around every two or four years: “Vote like your life depends on it.” But it’s never rang more true and felt more real than it does right now.
At the top of the ballot are two visions for combating this pandemic that couldn’t be more different. On one side is a president who still believes the virus will melt away on its own, who refuses to take blame and insists this is all China’s fault, who sneers at science and evidence and expertise unless it makes him look good and brings news he wants to hear. And on the other side is a candidate who vows to “listen to the scientists,” who along with some of our nation’s top scientists supports a national mask mandate, and who claims he would double the number of tests conducted weekly, establish a Pandemic Testing Board to manage the scaled-up test production, and launch a 100,000-person national contact-tracing corps.
Joe Biden’s Covid-19 plan is just that, a plan. Words on paper. If he wins, he’ll need to be held accountable to all of it. But he is the only presidential candidate with a plan to get us out of a public-health nightmare that only seems to be getting worse. That fact alone is worth remembering in this election. Vote like your life depends on it indeed.
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