Health & Science

Unsanitized: Oh Yeah, That Other Crisis

The pandemic is burning through America right now.

Unsanitized: Oh Yeah, That Other Crisis

QUEENS, NY- MAY 11: A funeral home in the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic deals with an excess of recent deaths because of the virus by storing bodies in the chapel and loading them up into a truck to ship to crematoriums and cemeteries on May 11, 2020 in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, New York. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

First Response

There’s no way that, a year ago, you could script the scenario where the death of over 4,000 Americans in a day would not be the top news item. But that’s where we are, as yesterday brought us 4,033 deaths from the coronavirus, 4,028 more than in the Capitol Riot. This was the deadliest day of the virus so far, and the seven-day average of 2,750 deaths per day is also a new high, and that still includes the low-reporting New Year’s Day.

I can’t imagine that the death rate will relent in January. Yesterday was the third straight day of record daily deaths. And we’re right at the beginning of the surge within a surge of infections from gatherings around Christmas and New Year’s. I’d expect the case rates to go back up, and with them hospitalizations.

In the context of the top story right now, just think about the superspreader event that was the Capitol Riot. Reportedly, the members of Congress huddled into a secure location featured a great number of Republicans not wearing masks, even after being pleaded with to do so. And that’s before you take into account the thousands of unmasked people from all over the country, now headed back to their respective residences, who were packed in pitched battles with the Capitol Police, in close quarters. I’ve seen videos of masses of humanity all breathing on each other. Think of the impact of the Sturgis rally over the summer, or that initial Biogen conference in Boston. Sturgis had more people than the Capitol Riot but the Biogen conference had just 175 people and it has been linked to 300,000 cases. There were ten times that many people at the Capitol on Wednesday, at least.

On top of the public health crisis—and there’s no other way to describe it—employment fell by 140,000 in December, according to the Labor Department. (Payrolls were revised up in October and November, so it’s more of a wash.) Year-over-year, the economy lost 9.37 million jobs, and that includes the relatively good months of January and February 2020. The world’s scariest job chart looks even scarier, like a bouncing ball that has begun to descend again.

Digging into the report, it looks very much like part-time restaurant work was a major culprit; the combination of cold weather and a ban on outdoor dining in the populous region of southern California meant less need for help at eating and drinking establishments. But government payrolls also dropped by 45,000, a continuation of the slow grind of state and local austerity that was the one thing not really dealt with in the recent COVID relief package.

There’s money in that package for schools and hospitals and transit that you can construe as state and local fiscal aid because all money is fungible, but most of that will have to go to new costs like retrofitting schools to minimize viral spread and hospitals to increase capacity. Ongoing operations costs from the drop in revenue aren’t covered. This is why we’re now starting to hear in Democratic circles that the $2,000 checks should be paired with state and local aid and vaccine funding, although politically that’s probably a mistake since it gives most Republicans a way to oppose the package, frustrating a quick victory. You’d likely have to go the budget reconciliation route, thereby ticking off one of those three silver bullets.

The one bit of good news, as I’ll elaborate on below, is that vaccine distribution is picking up. Perhaps that’s as more funding kicks in, or perhaps that’s because officials are getting up to speed with the system as it rolls out. But we’re quite a long way from vaccination being an effective depressant of the outbreak.

I’ve seen one benchmark as whether we are doing more vaccinations per day than there are infections. We don’t see all the infections pop up on case results, so a good rule of thumb is 2-3 times more infections than cases. That puts us at around 600,000 infections per day. We just hit 700,000 vaccinations yesterday, but that’s not the good comparison to make. You don’t really have protection from the virus in the first week to ten days of getting the shot, and of course without two full doses it’s not entirely clear how much protection you have at all. So you almost have to stagger the numbers. If the infections per day is smaller than the vaccinations from, say, 10 days ago, THEN we’d be making progress on getting more people immunized than infected. And we’re not on pace for that for another 10 days yet, and that’s only if infections don’t continue to climb.

In other words, the secondary story of the moment should really be the top story that it’s been for the last year, and when power transfers, whether orderly or not, it will remain the only story worth talking about, as it’s the primary force affecting all of our lives.

Number of Vaccine Doses Given

6.25 million. So that’s 1.2 million shots in the last two days. We’re still at 29 percent of allocated shots being administered, though. We need to get much closer to exhausting supply. The worst states are now all three in the deep South (Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi). Having people in government who believe in government, it turns out, matters.

Today I Learned

David Dayen

David Dayen is the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. Follow him on Twitter: @ddayen.