Oct 5, 2020 - Health

The coronavirus is in control

Illustration of the American flag as an EKG monitor

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The coronavirus is an unaware little pathogen hurtling aimlessly through the air. We are much smarter than the coronavirus and should be able to control it — and in many parts of the world, we have.

  • But not in America. Not even in the West Wing — the most secure part of America. Here, the virus is in control.

The big picture: The U.S., and the Trump administration specifically, have refused to acknowledge that the virus gets to set the rules for this conflict. It travels how it travels. It infects whoever it can. Yes, we can beat it, but we have to fight it on its terms.

  • “We can’t will the virus to be different than it is. You can’t intimidate the virus, you can’t tweet at the virus, you can’t bully the virus, you can’t be like, ‘I’m just going to ignore the virus and it will go away,'” said Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s school of public health.

Between the lines: The news of President Trump’s infection shook the national consciousness in part because we’re all so used to thinking about the president — any president — as the most protected person in the country. With the coronavirus, though, he wasn’t. And that was by choice.

  • Trump and his inner circle followed very few of the safety protocols we know are most effective against the virus. They gathered indoors, rarely wore masks and abandoned social distancing.
  • And even after he was infected, he took an SUV ride outside Walter Reed hospital on Sunday, putting everyone in the SUV at risk of catching the virus from him.

The White House also relied too heavily on testing, making it the only real intervention against the coronavirus. Testing is essential, but it can’t do the job alone.

  • Testing is a source of information: It tells you who has the virus. But it has gaps. Recently infected people may be able to spread the virus before they test positive for it.
  • Sen. Mike Lee has said he felt comfortable going maskless and ignoring social distancing at the Rose Garden event for Amy Coney Barrett because he had just recently tested negative. He is now infected, as are many other people who attended that event.
  • And if you don’t do anything with the information it gives you, it’s not going to be much help. Sen. Ron Johnson, for example, tested positive and then went to a public event anyway.

The results speak for themselves: Even with abundant testing, the West Wing is very obviously the locus of a significant outbreak.

  • “If you told me that somebody who was only testing, not wearing their mask, not distancing, and not taking every other precautionary measure tested positive, I would say: ‘No s—-, Sherlock,’” University of Arizona epidemiologist Saskia Popescu told STAT.

And it’s not just the West Wing:

  • The U.S. continues to rack up roughly 43,000 new infections every day. Hospitalizations are on the rise in several states.
  • More than 200,000 people have died.
  • We have never managed to keep the virus contained for any sustained period, and have barely made that a priority.

Where it stands: Time and time again, the U.S. has tried to stand on principle or fend off the virus with the kind of show of strength you’d use to deter a strategic, thinking enemy.

  • We saw it in the early reopening debate and the political and legal battles over whether churches should be exempt from bans on large indoor gatherings. The virus doesn't know it’s spreading through a church. It doesn't know what religion is.
  • The political rush to open the economy before controlling the virus itself caused cases and hospitalizations to soar. The virus isn't cowed by economic growth.
  • If you don’t take it seriously and don’t do much to protect yourself, the virus is likely to find you, no matter who you are. It doesn’t know it’s infecting the president.

When large groups of people gather without masks or social distancing — whether that’s on a college campus, at a motorcycle rally, at a wedding, or at the White House — the coronavirus gets a foothold.

The bottom line: We know what it takes to gain control over this virus. But if we continue to to choose not to do them, then the virus will continue to spread the way it wants to.

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