The pandemic wake-up call America needs

It's not too late to save thousands of lives from COVID-19

President Trump.
(Image credit: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

President Trump has been hospitalized with COVID-19. It appears that his White House announcement of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court may have been a super-spreader event, as both Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins, who were at the event with Trump and others, have tested positive as well.

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As useful as it is to point out the many ways that Trump could have avoided infecting himself if he had acted responsibly to contain the pandemic instead of mocking public health precautions, or even selfishly taken elementary self-protective steps, it is also worth reminding ourselves that the pandemic is still raging out there. Even if America can't achieve the level of a functional country, a few relatively simple steps that are conceivably within reach could still save tens of thousands of lives.

The latest coronavirus data shows that new virus cases are ticking back up for the third time. The last peak was in mid-July, after which new cases fell considerably, but since roughly mid-September they have been increasing again. Wisconsin, Utah, Montana, and the Dakotas are in particularly dire shape. Clumsily-executed school reopenings, particularly of colleges, are partly to blame. South Dakota and surrounding states are also dealing with the fallout of the Sturgis motorcycle rally back in August, which likely caused substantial outbreaks in several cities.

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It's exhausting to be pointing this out for the umpteenth time since March, but it doesn't have to be this way. Other countries have set up test-trace-isolate systems to find the virus, trace the contacts of anyone who tests positive, and place them in an isolated quarantine facility so they don't spread it to others. This is working well in places like Germany, Italy, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

But even if we grant that America would struggle to set up a functional bureaucracy like this at the best of times, and definitely will not do so as long as Trump is president, there is still a lot that could be done. First, truly mass testing can do a lot of the work of a test-trace-isolate system. For instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been testing every single person at the school at least once a week, and most twice a week. That's a much more brute force method, but it's a lot simpler to implement, and doesn't rely so much on a contact-tracing system. With additional funding from the federal government, all schools at all levels of education could be doing this, or as close to it as possible. Ideally, every city and town in the country should have enough free, fast testing facilities that anyone can go get tested at any time. The more tests we do, the more the spread will be slowed down.

Importantly, this is something schools, states, and cities could do on their own. With the September jobs report showing a clear economic stall-out, it appears that some kind of coronavirus rescue package is again on the table, with a good chunk of money for testing. That would be great to see.

Second, Americans could all wear masks, particularly when people are indoors or in close proximity. A recent analysis suggested that would slow infections enough to save 100,000 lives. And contrary to the initial conventional wisdom that masks mostly prevent you from infecting others, more recent research finds that they also provide some protective effect for wearers as well — you are less likely to be infected, and if you are, the case tends to be milder.

Finally, we can avoid indoor service at bars and restaurants. France, Spain, and the U.K. are facing major second waves of their own, and so far they have not gotten infections back under control. But it appears that most of their cases can be traced to indoor service at bars, restaurants, and nightclubs, just like the Sturgis rally hyper-spreader event. (The French government is reportedly considering closing down these facilities in Paris and other cities.) Frankly, if I were in charge of an American city, I would not allow indoor service at bars or restaurants until the pandemic is over.

Instead, ideally the next rescue package should include a big bailout for businesses reliant on indoor presence in the next rescue package — bars, restaurants, theaters, airlines, and so on. (This appears to be under discussion.) Cities might also work to keep outdoor drinking and dining going even during the winter with heaters, partly-enclosed tables, or other techniques. Just speaking personally as a Philadelphia resident, it has been a godsend to be able to go to a restaurant in a safe fashion (we have had outdoor dining all summer, and not seen any surge of infections), and I will gladly put on a coat to continue doing so.

The conservative movement appears to have developed "pretending the pandemic does not exist" to an article of faith. The consequence of that can be seen in the rapidly mounting number of positive test results coming from the White House. But it's just possible we can salvage a few scraps of decent response in spite of the stupid, rotten president. Every little bit will do its part to save lives.

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