Axios Vitals

A briefcase with a red cross on the front.
July 30, 2020

Good morning.

Today's word count is 1,145, or a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: College reopening plans challenged by the virus

Illustration of a graduation cap with the tassel on fire
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Many colleges' plans to bring students back to campus this fall are almost certain to crash and burn, Axios' Marisa Fernandez and I report.

Why it matters: Many families may not be willing to pay full tuition for a semester they know will only involve online classes. But there's no reason to doubt that bringing college kids back to campus will result in thousands of coronavirus cases, infecting both students and staff.

Where it stands: Nearly half of schools plan to bring students back for in-person classes, 13% will offer only online instruction and 35% will offer a mixture of both, according to the most recent analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Reality check: Before the fall semester has even begun at most schools, colleges' reopening plans are already crumbling. Some schools are seeing cases spike among sports teams and fraternities, while others are scrambling to lure students back to campus safely with last-minute infrastructure and curriculum changes.

  • More than 6,300 cases have already been linked to colleges in the U.S., the New York Times reported yesterday.
  • And the nation's coronavirus testing capacity is already deeply strained, with results taking longer than a week to return in many places.

What we're watching: Among those colleges that do attempt to begin the semester with in-person classes, even the best-laid plans could fall apart once the virus starts spreading. But it's a risk they may decide is worth taking.

  • "Resources are really scarce, so I think everybody's looking at how can they get their students to come back and [be] willing to enroll," Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute said.
  • And for universities' bank accounts, at least, the best-case scenario may be that classes switch to online after students' tuition has been paid in full.

Go deeper.

2. Arizona and Texas are getting better

Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Danielle Alberti, Sara Wise/Axios
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Danielle Alberti, Sara Wise/Axios

Coronavirus infections in the U.S. are beginning to decline, after a summer of sharp increases, and some of the hardest-hit states are improving significantly.

Yes, but: We're at the stage of this most recent outbreak in which deaths begin to spike. They're closing in on 150,000 and still rising, Axios' Sam Baker and Andrew Witherspoon report.

By the numbers: This week, the U.S. overall saw a 2.8% drop in new infections — within the range we classify as "holding steady."

  • An average of 64,448 people were officially diagnosed with COVID-19 infections every day last week.

Two of the worst hotspots in the country, Arizona and Texas, experienced more significant declines in their caseloads: 16% and 21%, respectively.

  • Arizona has been getting better for a few weeks now, and though Texas still has a long way to go to make up for the spikes it saw in June and early July, it may be beginning to turn things around.
  • But California and Florida — the other major summer hotspots — have shown little improvement after weeks of deterioration.

What's next: With deaths still on the rise, cases holding steady at close to 65,000 per day and testing unable to keep up with demand, the U.S. is still in a bad place, and still lacks a coherent strategy to contain the virus.

  • But, for now at least, the virus' spread is holding steady overall, rather than continuing to accelerate.

3. The latest in the U.S.

Data: The COVID Tracking Project; Note: Does not include probable deaths from New York City; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: The COVID Tracking Project; Note: Does not include probable deaths from New York City; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The Florida Division of Emergency Management announced Wednesday all state-supported coronavirus testing sites will temporarily close this week ahead of the anticipated arrival of a weather system that's expected to become a tropical storm.

NIAID director Anthony Fauci told ABC News in an Instagram live interview discussing the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday evening, "If you have goggles or an eye shield, you should use it."

Speaker Nancy Pelosi told House Democrats on a call Wednesday evening that she will require masks to be worn on the floor of the House. The announcement comes after Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas), who has rarely been seen wearing a mask in the halls of Congress, tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday.

Florida on Wednesday reported 216 coronavirus-related deaths over a 24-hour stretch — a new record for the state.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters after meeting with Democratic leaders on Wednesday that the two sides are "nowhere close to a deal" on a coronavirus stimulus bill, acknowledging that extra unemployment benefits will expire on Friday.

4. The deep decline in vaccine sales

Global stay-at-home orders stemming from the coronavirus pandemic — especially those in the U.S. — have led to steep sales declines in routine vaccinations, Axios' Bob Herman reports.

The big picture: Although more people are getting their vaccines now, "there remains some way to go to get back to pre-COVID levels for adult vaccinations," GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley said on an investor call Wednesday.

By the numbers:

  • Sales of GlaxoSmithKline's vaccines in the second quarter plummeted 29% from the same period in 2019, totaling £1.13 billion ($1.47 billion).
  • Pfizer's vaccine sales fell 9% to $1.25 billion. The drop was especially severe in the U.S. for Pfizer's main vaccine, Prevnar 13, due to the "unfavorable impact of disruptions to wellness visits," the company said.
  • Sanofi said its vaccine sales slumped 7% to €927 million ($1.09 billion) because of the "global confinements."
  • Merck will report its second-quarter results on Friday. Wall Street expects Merck's vaccine sales dropped 26% year over year.

Yes, but: The major vaccine manufacturers said uptake was rising a lot in Europe and developing countries.

  • But global sales dragged because of the shutdowns in the U.S., where drug companies charge the highest prices in the world.

Go deeper: The pandemic has put a lot of children behind the curve on routine vaccinations

5. Trump launches "Embers Strategy" in hotspots

The Trump administration is sending increased personal protective equipment, coronavirus test kits and top health officials like Fauci and Deborah Birx to coronavirus hotspots across the U.S. as part of a campaign called the "Embers Strategy," White House officials tell Axios.

Why it matters: The push is part of a larger effort to show that President Trump is taking the pandemic seriously, something White House officials describe as a "renewed focus," Axios' Alayna Treene and Jacob Knutson write.

  • The new campaign comes as top Trump advisers have told the president to concentrate his coronavirus messaging on progress with vaccines and therapeutics in an effort to shift the focus of the election conversation to who would be better at reviving the economy.
  • Its name, the "Embers Strategy," is meant "to highlight the risk level of 'embers' to decrease the likelihood of 'fires,'" a senior White House official said.

Details: Public health surrogates will appear on local and regional television and radio to educate the public on mitigation tactics, including wearing masks, practicing social distancing, frequent hand washing and staying home when ill.

  • They will focus on areas reporting positive rates between 5% and 10% to prevent them from slipping into a "hot zone" category of above 10% positive rates.
  • The Trump administration is expecting to land around 200 media segments over the next two weeks, as Axios reported on Sunday.

The big picture: Multiple cities are already receiving the messaging, including Los Angeles, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Denver, Portland and Milwaukee.