Nov 19, 2020

Axios Vitals

Good morning.

Join Axios' Alison Snyder and Bryan Walsh tomorrow at 12:30pm ET for a virtual event on the future of STEM education featuring "Mission Unstoppable" host and producer Miranda Cosgrove, Girls Who Code founder and CEO Reshma Saujani and Lyda Hill Philanthropies CEO Nicole Small.

Today's word count is 1,038, or a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: The pandemic is as bad as it's ever been
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Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Sara Wise/Axios

No state in America could clear the threshold right now to safely allow indoor gatherings, Axios' Sam Baker and Andrew Witherspoon report.

The big picture: This is bad as the pandemic has ever been — the most cases, the most explosive growth and the greatest strain on hospitals.

  • If businesses were closed right now, it would not be safe to reopen them. And holiday travel will be risky no matter where you're coming from or where you're going.

By the numbers: Over the past week, the U.S. averaged more than 154,000 new cases per day, the highest rate of the entire pandemic.

  • The number of new infections rose in 46 states, held steady in three, and declined in only one — Hawaii.
  • This week's nationwide totals are a 30% increase over last week, which was a 40% increase over the week before that. Daily infections have been rising by at least 15% for the past six weeks.
  • Testing was up about 11% over the past week. The U.S. is now conducting about 1.5 million tests per day. That's a lot, but cases clearly are still rising faster than testing.

Between the lines: Whatever metric you might use to decide whether it's safe to have a large Thanksgiving get-together, or to sit inside a bar or restaurant, the answer is probably no.

  • Experts recently told The Atlantic that they wouldn't feel comfortable attending an indoor dinner party at all, but that it would be least risky in areas with only about 10–25 new cases per day, per 100,000 people.
  • At most, only about 27% of American counties meet that standard.

The bottom line: Eating and drinking indoors with large groups of people, at a time when 150,000 people are contracting the virus every day, is about as risky as it gets.

2. Coronavirus vaccines' surprising effectiveness
Data: CDC, Moderna and Pfizer; Note: Flu vaccine based on yearly average from 2009-2019. Moderna and Pfizer coronavirus vaccine efficacy based on early clinical trial data. Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

The leading coronavirus vaccines are shaping up to be on par with some of the most effective vaccines in medicine, Axios' Marisa Fernandez reports.

Why it matters: Vaccines with efficacy rates of about 95% — which both Pfizer and Moderna say they've achieved — will be more powerful weapons against the coronavirus than many experts had anticipated.

Flashback: The Food and Drug Administration initially set the bar for a COVID-19 vaccine at 50% efficacy, roughly in line with the seasonal flu vaccine.

  • Some scientists had hoped, in a best-case scenario, it might be as much as 70% effective.
  • "We don't know yet what the efficacy might be. We don't know if it will be 50% or 60%. I'd like it to be 75% or more," the NIH's Anthony Fauci said in August.

But coming in closer to 95% would put Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines more in line with the highly effective inoculations against measles, mumps and rubella.

  • Like the MMR and polio vaccines, both prospective COVID-19 products would require two shots to reach that level of efficacy.
  • The third leading contender, being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, would also require two shots. Johnson & Johnson is testing both a single-dose and a two-dose vaccine in simultaneous phase 3 trials.

Yes, but: There's still a lot we don't know about these vaccines, including how well they're likely to work among various demographic groups, and how long the immunity they confer will last.

3. America mortgages future on school closures

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The decision by many U.S. states and cities to keep kids out of school because of COVID-19 will have crippling economic and health effects that could last for decades, Axios' Bryan Walsh reports.

Why it matters: Evidence shows that children, especially younger kids, present a low risk for COVID-19 transmission and that remote education is no replacement for in-person schooling. By keeping schools closed — even as more risky activities are allowed to continue — the U.S. is kneecapping the next generation.

Driving the news: New York City Schools chancellor Richard Carranza told principals Wednesday afternoon that public schools will close for in-person education on Thursday, as the city has passed the 3% positivity threshold for COVID-19 established by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Bryan's thought bubble: This is a maddening decision carried out in a typically maddening fashion, albeit one that is fully in keeping with the backward way the U.S. has approached schools and COVID-19.

Of note: Even as they've experienced major coronavirus surges this fall and have instituted lockdowns of varying severity, European countries like Ireland, France and Germany have all committed to keeping schools open.

The big picture: America, on the other hand, seems less concerned with its own young people's future — and by extension, our own.

4. Testing is becoming overwhelmed again

Stop me if you've heard this before: Americans are waiting in long lines for coronavirus tests — sometimes being turned away — and then waiting several days for their test results, the Washington Post reports.

Why it matters: This makes it much harder to know who has the virus and thus stop its spread, especially as the holidays approach.

  • The longer someone has to wait for test results, the less likely it is that they'll remain in isolation until they receive them.

The big picture: Demand for tests has risen along with the spike in cases around the country, and many communities are struggling to keep up.

  • "The demand is exploding across the board," Kevin Jaques, spokesperson for the Illinois State COVID-19 Testing Project, told the Post. "The labs we're working with have asked us to cap the number we do because they can't process them quickly enough anymore to meet the 72-hour turnaround."

The bottom line: Testing is an important tool, but only if it influences human behavior. That tool is becoming less useful just as the country seems to have reached new levels of pandemic fatigue.

  • That's a bad combo.
5. Catch up quick

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The U.S. topped 250,000 coronavirus-related deaths on Wednesday as infections soar in nearly every pocket of every state in the country, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

The NFL announced Wednesday that all 32 teams must follow the league's "intensive" coronavirus restrictions for the rest of the season starting this Saturday.

Reps. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) and Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) have tested positive for COVID-19, adding to the tally of lawmakers across the U.S. who have contracted the virus.

While startups and their investors were being bashed on social media, at least a few of them were laying the building blocks for technologies that could help let humanity recover its ability to work, play and spend time with loved ones, Axios' Dan Primack writes.