May 6, 2020

Axios Vitals

By Caitlin Owens
Caitlin Owens

Good morning.

Today's word count is 1,276, or a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The next phase of America's coronavirus failure

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The evidence is mounting that America is steamrolling toward a nightmarish failure to control the coronavirus.

Where it stands: We made a lot of mistakes at the beginning, and despite a month of extreme social distancing to try to hit "reset," a hurried reopening now raises the risk that we'll soon be right back where we started.

Driving the news: The Trump administration is in "preliminary discussions" to wind down its coronavirus task force, possibly in early June, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters yesterday.

  • The formal existence of a task force isn't necessarily going to make or break the coronavirus response, but its dissolution is yet another sign that the administration is ready to move on — despite all of the indications that we're not prepared.

What we're watching: The U.S. is still seeing around 30,000 new coronavirus cases a day — and those are just the ones that we're catching, because we are still not testing enough people.

  • Even with a robust contact tracing workforce, which we don't have, tracking down the interactions of 30,000 people a day would be an impossible task.
  • And even if it weren't, we have no system in place for isolating those people to prevent them from infecting their family members, coworkers or other contacts.
  • Once we lift social distancing measures and people start interacting with one another again, the number of cases will inevitably spike, making containment even more impossible.

We don't have a treatment or a vaccine, and we're about to loosen the reins on a virus whose reach, symptoms and long-term effects we are still learning.

Yes, but: Some cities and states have been more proactive in building up their public health infrastructure, and have said they'll continue with social distancing until their caseloads indicate it's safe to begin returning to normal.

2. Whistleblower claims virus warnings ignored

Rick Bright, the former director of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), filed a whistleblower complaint Tuesday alleging that the Department of Health and Human Services failed to take early action to mitigate the threat of the novel coronavirus.

Flashback: Bright said last month he believes he was ousted after clashing with HHS leadership over his attempts to limit the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus, Axios' Orion Rummler reports.

What's new: In his complaint, Bright alleges it "became increasingly clear" in late January that "HHS leadership was doing nothing to prepare for the imminent mask shortage."

  • Bright claims he "resisted efforts to fall into line with the administration's directive to promote the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine and to award lucrative contracts for these and other drugs even though they lacked scientific merit and had not received prior scientific vetting."

What they're saying: "Dr. Bright was transferred to NIH to work on diagnostics testing — critical to combatting COVID-19 — where he has been entrusted to spend upwards of $1 billion to advance that effort. We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor," Caitlin Oakley, an HHS spokesperson, said in a statement.

Read the complaint.

3. The latest in the U.S.
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Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. This graphic includes "probable deaths" that New York City began reporting on April 14.

New York state's Democratic presidential primary will again be held on June 23, after a federal district judge reinstated the contest on Tuesday.

President Trump said Tuesday it's "possible" that some lives will be lost as states reopen their economies amid the coronavirus pandemic, in an interview with ABC's David Muir.

The economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic will likely make the U.S. space industry even more focused on government money and funding —and potentially set back advancements toward commercializing the industry, Axios' Miriam Kramer reports.

New York state yesterday reported more than 1,700 previously undisclosed coronavirus deaths at nursing homes and adult care facilities, AP reports.

Former President Obama and Michelle Obama announced Tuesday that they will participate in a set of virtual graduation ceremonies amid the coronavirus crisis.

Of all the conspiracy theories floating around the internet related to the coronavirus, the disinfectant one has by far gone the most viral, Axios' Sara Fischer writes.

4. The latest worldwide
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Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

The U.K. surpassed Italy on Tuesday to report the most coronavirus deaths in Europe, according to Johns Hopkins data and its own tracker.

Neil Ferguson, one of the U.K.'s most prominent epidemiologists working on coronavirus response, resigned Tuesday after breaking lockdown rules to have a woman visit him at home, the Telegraph first reported.

Governments in Western democracies are being pressured by the news industry to come up with relief plans to support local media companies upended by the coronavirus pandemic — and some have already begun implementing small aid programs, Sara writes.

5. Where the virus is spreading
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Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, U.S. Census Bureau; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The Trump administration's reopening guidelines detail that in order to start lifting restrictions and reopening the economy, a state needs to report 14-day trends of fewer cases or fewer positive tests (though local officials do get some leeway in adjusting the metrics).

  • Not a lot of states meet that criteria, Axios editor-in-chief Nick Johnston writes.

Our chart compares each state's seven-day average of new cases from Monday and the seven-day average from a week prior, April 27.

  • By this metric, Minnesota, Nebraska and Puerto Rico have the most worrisome trends, while Arkansas and Wyoming have the most positive trends. Twelve states are moving in the right direction.
  • But more than a third of the nation still has growing numbers of cases. And that includes states such as Texas and Virginia, where Republican and Democratic governors are beginning to unveil re-opening plans.

Yes, but: These trends only tell us so much.

  • Some states may see their case counts rise not necessarily because their outbreaks are getting dramatically worse, but because their testing is getting better, so they're catching more cases.
  • That's why health officials are also pulling in other metrics — including the number of deaths, the number of hospitalizations and the percentage of tested patients who test positive. A higher percentage means you're probably missing people.
  • Still, public-health guidance calls for a steady decrease in cases before opening up, and few states have achieved that.

The bottom line: The virus isn't just some other states' problem. It's everyone's problem.

6. The coronavirus is outlasting the stimulus

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic is lasting longer than Congress and the White House anticipated when it committed hundreds of billions of dollars to individuals and small businesses, Axios' Dan Primack and Alayna Treene report.

Why it matters: These bailouts were meant to stop the bleeding, to buy time while the wound cauterizes. Unfortunately, the injury was more severe than originally diagnosed.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told CBS that "the entire package provides economic relief overall for about 10 weeks."

  • The CARES Act was signed by President Trump on March 27.
  • Mnuchin's 10-week window expires on June 5.
  • No one expects to see a Phase 4 stimulus by that date, nor a full-scale economic reopening.

Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans require that small businesses maintain staffing levels for eight weeks. For early recipients, that means their payroll obligations could run out by month's end.

  • Direct checks of up to $1,200 to individuals were only expected to help cover expenses for one month, even though many states already are well into their second month of locking down.

All of this makes economic reopening even more complicated.

  • The federal government has effectively created a "back to normal" deadline for small businesses, even though such decisions are supposed to be made by the states.

The bottom line: The small business loans and individual checks were designed as bridges to reopening, but if they only delayed layoffs and economic pain by a couple of months, then they may end up being remembered as bridges to nowhere.

7. When doctors think patient visits will rebound

Roughly three out of four doctors believe patient appointments will resume to normal, pre-coronavirus levels no earlier than July, and 45% expect a rebound to occur sometime between July and September, according to a survey of 163 doctors conducted by SVB Leerink.

Why it matters: States are reopening businesses now, but people may not want to trek to their doctor and sit in a waiting room with other potentially sick patients, Axios' Bob Herman writes.

Caitlin Owens