Mar 28, 2020

Axios Deep Dives

By Mike Allen
Mike Allen

Good afternoon, and welcome to our latest Axios Deep Dive on the coronavirus and all the ways it's upending American life.

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  • Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,499 words, < 6 minutes.
1 big thing: What we can learn from other countries
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Note: Cases are shown on a logarithmic scale; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

A handful of Asian countries, including South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, have been able to control their coronavirus outbreaks far more successfully than the U.S., which now has more cases than any other country.

  • The bad news, Axios' Sam Baker writes, is that it’s too late for the U.S. to simply do what worked in those countries. We’ve already made too many mistakes.
  • But there are still lessons for the U.S. to learn for future outbreaks — and, hopefully, there are some pieces of those countries’ larger strategies that we can adapt to our coronavirus response now.

Lesson 1: The playbook works

  • The standard playbook for a new infectious disease is to test the people who might be sick, trace their contacts to figure out who else they may have infected, test those people, and keep repeating that process.
  • South Korea's coronavirus response isn't some radical new innovation: They just followed that playbook especially well.
  • Widespread testing is particularly important with this strain of coronavirus because people can spread it before they start to feel sick. And it's important to do all of this early in the outbreak. The U.S. missed the boat on both of those priorities.

Lesson 2: Technology can help

  • Singapore used an aggressive form of cellphone tracking to pinpoint citizens at risk of infection, and Taiwan quickly made better use of databases it already had — two tech-based interventions that helped make that standard playbook work.
  • Better data would definitely help in the U.S., and though Singapore's location tracking is probably too Big Brother for most Americans, a more localized and more voluntary version could make a difference.

Lesson 3: Messaging matters

  • Public communication is one of the big things Italy — a leading example of what not to do — got wrong. President Trump has sent similarly mixed messages here, initially downplaying the virus and saying it would go away on its own before changing his tone as cases mounted.
  • "Messaging is probably the biggest thing that's important to get right at this stage," said Claire Standley, an infectious-disease expert at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security.

What's next: Because we made so many mistakes at the beginning, our best hope now is to keep up the social distancing so that testing has some time to improve — and to move a whole lot faster the next time a new infection starts to spread.

Go deeper: Sam and Axios' Dan Primack discuss coronavirus responses on the Pro Rata podcast

2. The next tests we need

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Researchers are racing to develop tests that detect whether someone may have developed immunity to the coronavirus, which could help society return to normal faster, Axios' Alison Snyder and Eileen Drage O'Reilly report.

  • Why it matters: These tests could help people who have been infected know whether it's safe to go back to work, as well as aid researchers in tracking the scale and death rate of the disease.

How it works: When the body is exposed to a virus, the immune system begins to produce antibodies to fight the virus and future infections from it.

  • Those antibodies stick around after the virus is cleared from the body, making them an indicator of past infection.
  • Serological tests check the blood for these antibodies — providing confirmation of infection and possible protection.

Where it stands: Researchers at universities, companies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working to develop these serological tests.

The catch: This rests on the belief that catching the coronavirus once makes you immune to new infections. That seems likely to be the case, based on the available research so far, but "the evidence is not ironclad," says Jesse Bloom, a virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Go deeper: Alison joins Pro Rata to explain what serological testing could tell us

3. Trump wants to turn the economy back on

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The $2 trillion stimulus Trump signed yesterday is only the beginning of what will be a long, uneven effort to blunt the coronavirus’ economic damage.

Driving the news: That package will put up to $1,200 in Americans' pockets, plus $500 for each of their children, but that will end up as money to stay afloat in a crisis, not a true stimulus, per Axios' Dion Rabouin.

Trump is clearly eager to restart the country's frozen economy, but some advisers are trying to steer him away from his Easter timeline for doing so.

  • Advisers are worried that if Trump sets a specific date as a turning point, only to see the outbreak continue to worsen — as it's doing every day — that could be worse for markets than acknowledging a long haul ahead.
  • But Trump "feels more convinced than ever that America needs to get back to work,” a top official told Axios’ Jonathan Swan.

What’s next: The administration has framed the current phase of extreme social distancing as a 15-day project, and the 15 days run out Monday — creating a self-imposed deadline to either keep things locked down or begin to open them up.

What’s after that: More than 3 million people filed for unemployment in one week, and that is not the bottom.

  • The $2 trillion in last week’s “phase three” stimulus/recovery bill is about 10% of the country’s gross domestic product, but there will very likely be a phase four.

Go deeper: Jonathan and Dan go behind the scenes on Trump’s timeline

4. Drone's-eye view

Photo: Prefecture de Police de Paris via AP

This photo, shows the empty streets of Paris around the Arc de Triomphe — a historic landmark normally swarmed with people.

5. Q&A: Minimizing your risk

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Each week, Axios is answering readers' questions about the coronavirus. If you have a question you'd like us to look into, drop us a line at coronavirus@axios.com, and check back here every Saturday for more answers.

Q: I've been a smoker for years. Am I more likely to get the coronavirus?

  • Smoking, vaping and asthma don't make you more likely to catch the virus, but they could make your symptoms worse if you do become infected.

Q: What is the best way to make sure my food deliveries, takeout and packages are all coronavirus-free?

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, after handling a package, making a trip to the grocery store, or having a quick food run.

Q: I'm long overdue for a haircut. Is it safe to get one?

  • Probably not. Many state and local governments have ordered salons, spas, and other grooming places to shut down.

Read more.

Go deeper:

6. The latest: Where it stands in the U.S.
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
7. The race to make more masks and ventilators

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The U.S. is scouring the globe and leaning on non-medical manufacturers to help overcome shortages of ventilators, masks, gloves and gowns, Axios' Joann Muller writes.

Where it stands: Trump said yesterday that the administration is working with about 10 ventilator companies to increase production, and will make or obtain 100,000 of the machines over the next 100 days.

  • He's ordering General Motors and a partner, Ventec Life Systems, to produce them.
  • Other companies, like GE Healthcare, Philips and Hamilton Medical, are also scrambling to increase production.

Masks are another big need.

  • Honeywell is hiring 500 additional workers and gearing up to produce more respirator masks. 3M says it has doubled its output and is now producing 35 million N95 masks a month.
  • Tens of millions of additional N95 masks targeted for construction uses can now be sold to hospitals, thanks to new legislation signed last week.
  • Apple has donated 9 million N95 masks, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday.

Why it matters: Nearly 90% of U.S. mayors who responded to a national survey on coronavirus preparedness said they lack sufficient tests kits, face masks and other protective equipment for their emergency responders and medical workers, the Washington Post reports.

What to watch: The demand for masks could increase dramatically. Some experts say more Americans should wear masks to help reduce the spread of the virus, especially by people who don't have symptoms of the disease, per the NYT.

8. 1 fun thing: Birdsongs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With businesses closed, the streets quiet and neighborhood walks becoming a national pastime, it's a great time to get into birding.

Why it matters: "You can get the joy of being outside and appreciating the most prolific wildlife on the planet," National Audubon Society president and CEO David Yarnold tells Axios' Naomi Shavin.

  • "The sense, at this moment, that there’s life out there feels a little bit like hope."

What's happening: Spring has started and it's migration season for birds. And all you need to do to take advantage of it is go outside (safely, of course) or watch from a window.

What they're saying: "I know that birding is having a moment when nearly 115,000 people go on a Facebook Live feed to hear birds chirping and water running. That happened this week," Yarnold says.

What to watch: Over the next few weeks, the birds you see around will likely change as they migrate throughout the spring.

  • The Audubon society has a free app that shows the birds in your area and plays bird calls. "You can take kids out and listen and watch for them," Yarnold adds.

Go deeper: Audubon has two new resources available online, The Joy of Birds and Audubon for Kids.

Mike Allen