May 7, 2020 - Health

The U.S.' coronavirus recovery is way behind Europe's

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Other countries — even some hit hard by the coronavirus — are beating back their outbreaks more successfully than the U.S.

Why it matters: The number of new cases every day is holding steady in the U.S., but it's not going down — a key benchmark many other countries achieved before loosening their lockdowns and social distancing measures.

In some of Europe’s hardest-hit countries, case counts seemed to skyrocket uncontrollably even amid some of the world’s strictest lockdowns.

  • Italy and Spain followed a similar pattern. New cases climbed over about a month from under 100 per day to terrifying peaks of roughly 8,000 per day in Spain and 6,000 per day in Italy.
  • The fall was nearly as sharp. Within two weeks of the peak, the rates of daily recorded cases had been halved. They’ve continued to fall since.
  • Other hard-hit countries like France have followed a similar trajectory, though the U.K. — which now has the highest official death toll in Europe — has yet to do so.

America’s daily rate climbed faster and higher (due in part to its larger population), but appears to have peaked at around 30,000 new cases per day in the first week of April.

  • But rather than falling, the rate stagnated. Outside of New York (which has bent its curve) the rate is actually continuing to climb.
  • The U.S. continues to record several times as many new cases each day as any other country has at any time during the pandemic.

Between the lines: The U.S. didn't lock down as tightly as some of those countries, in addition to a host of mistakes early in the response.

  • Italy and Spain issued strict nationwide lockdowns that forced most people to remain inside except to shop for necessities. Spain didn’t allow children outside at all.
  • “Our economic shutdown...wasn’t as broad as some of the other countries', so there was more opportunity for the virus to spread. Even though we took pretty aggressive measures, they’re not at the same level," said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security.
  • “States in America that went into very restrictive lockdown were able to bend the curve down and reduce cases. We’ve seen that with New York and New Jersey. A lot of states — Florida, Texas — never went into or went into lockdown for very short periods of time,” Harvard's Ashish Jha says.
  • Cases are rising in some states and falling in others, but the overall number of new cases each day has hovered around 30,000 for longer than a month.

Some countries, such as Australia and Vietnam, have avoided widespread outbreaks through some combination of travel restrictions, social distancing, testing and luck.

  • Others, such as South Korea and Germany, managed to contain initial surges through quick action and widespread testing — an approach the U.S. could not replicate.
  • China’s severe (if belated) measures, and the cordon sanitaire around Wuhan, also appear to have brought the epidemic there under control.

Yes, but: The total number of cases is an imperfect metric, especially in the U.S.

  • As we conduct more tests, we'll identify more cases, and so the number of confirmed cases can spike even if the scope of the outbreak isn't getting a lot worse.
  • The U.S. case count could be rising because new cases are rising, or because of better testing, or a combination of the two.
  • No matter what, though, we have not documented a reliable decline in new cases, and that is still the threshold for a responsible reopening.

The big picture: “It seems that this is a controllable pandemic without it having to run its natural course,” says Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs.

  • "About 1.7 billion people live in countries where this is under control at least provisionally,” he notes, mostly in East Asia and the Pacific. That club appears to be growing.

The bottom line: The U.S. is not currently on track to join it, even as states attempt to leave lockdown behind.

— Editors' note: This story has been updated to clarify that increased testing could be part of the reason the number of cases in the U.S. is rising.

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