Back in July scientists predicted there would be 250,000 deaths in the US from Covid-19 by year’s end. That terrible landmark has now been passed, earlier than projected, and amid a storm far more daunting than anyone could have anticipated.
A quarter of a million dead Americans. More than 11m confirmed cases. Coronavirus is out of control in America.
It is romping freely across the vast landmass of the US. Infection rates are surging in 44 of the 50 states, as the country enters the cold, dark winter which will force people back indoors and at the mercy of the virus.
All this is happening at a time when the president is so distracted by the electoral coup he is vainly attempting to pull off that he no longer even pretends to care about containing the disease.
With the number of infections soaring, the inevitable dance of death that has been performed on a loop in the US through the pandemic has started up once again. The first step is that hospitalizations start to rise – they have increased across the country by almost 48% in the past two weeks, according to the New York Times tracker, and now stand at almost 77,000 patients.
Next, hospitals begin to report that they are being overrun and that their ICUs are full to overflowing. When staffing levels become critically stretched, that’s when we’re in the danger zone.
At the end of the dance come the deaths. The level of fatalities has remained mercifully low compared with the April highs, a result of improved medical understanding of the virus, more effective treatments and hospitals that having been through the initial trauma are now better prepared.
But with states including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana, the Dakotas, Colorado and Georgia all reporting that their hospital systems are entering crisis mode – meaning that they will struggle to provide patients with the intensive care they need – it is only a matter of time before the death rate creeps up too.
As indeed it already is. About 1,500 Americans are currently dying each day from coronavirus-related causes, with the rate rising steadily in 30 states.
Within that daily toll of death and bereavement, there are specific tragedies that stem from America’s racial disparities. Recent research by APM Research Lab has found that African Americans, Latinos and indigenous people continue to die at three times the rate of white people. At least 1,375 deaths are US healthcare workers who died while treating or caring for Covid patients, according to Lost on the Frontline, a project launched by the Guardian and KHN to track healthcare worker deaths during the pandemic.
Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in San Diego, summed up the mood among scientists at this grim landmark is crossed: “These metrics are off-the-chart horrendous,” he wrote. “Jumps like we’ve never seen in each category of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.”
Over the past 10 months the world has become familiar with the negligence and disdain for science with which Donald Trump has approached the pandemic. His initial response was stuttering and mendacious, and instead of focusing on spearheading a federal push to control the contagion he weaponized the debate about masks as a political tool to be wielded as part of his re-election bid.
What we are seeing unfolding now is potentially far more serious than even the disaster over which he has presided thus far. While the country is being engulfed in crisis, Trump has gone awol, the equivalent in a pandemic of Franklin Roosevelt disappearing shortly before D-Day.
An analysis by Factbase of Trump’s tweets for the week following the election found that out of 202 posts, more than 80% related to his defeat to Joe Biden and the lie Trump is propagating that the election was stolen from him. Only 10 of the tweets referred to Covid, and of those none talked about the surge in cases, the enormous human suffering that entails, or what the American people can and should do about it.
In the same seven-day period, about 900,000 Americans contracted the disease and 7,500 died from it. Yet Trump remained completely oblivious to their plight.
The disconnect between Trump’s personal obsessions and the tumult facing the country he purportedly leads has never been as stark as it is today. All his energies are currently being expended on hanging on to the presidency, so that he can continue to do nothing to protect the American people from a microbe.
As CNN’s Jake Tapper put it, Trump “appears to be desperately, even pathetically, fighting to keep a job that he has no apparent interest in responsibly performing”.
It all bodes extremely badly for the next two months of the lame duck Trump presidency.
But at least there are signs of hope amid the gloom. Two vaccines under development in the US – by Pfizer and Moderna – have been found to be 95% effective in protecting against the disease, and could be rolled out to vulnerable populations as early as next month.
Some Republican politicians continue to follow Trump in his refusal to engage with the pandemic – notably Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, which is ground zero in the current surge in infections. She has clung closely to the Trump playbook, brazenly insisting that her state is “doing good” even while it self-implodes, resisting mask mandates and pooh-poohing any talk of lockdowns.
Yet other Republicans though have finally begun to wake up to the need to act to contain the virus. Mike DeWine, governor of Ohio, announced a spate of new measures to enforce masks and social distancing, joining Democratic leaders in Chicago, New York and elsewhere who have similarly begun to batten down the hatches.
That will give the president-elect some bipartisan room for maneuver as he prepares to hit the ground running with his pandemic plan following his inauguration on 20 January. He will come into the White House armed with a mandate from voters to put tackling coronavirus as top priority of his new administration, having made it the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.
Early indications are that he fully intends to follow through on that electoral promise. His first act following his victory was to convene a 12-person coronavirus taskforce to advise him through the transition, drawn from a range of scientific specialisms including infectious diseases, public health and emergency medicine.
Biden also underlined the centrality of fighting coronavirus to his nascent presidency by appointing Ron Klain as his White House chief of staff. Klain is no stranger to the challenges of dealing with health emergencies – he was Barack Obama’s “Ebola tsar” in 2014.
Klain has studied closely the Trump administration’s mishandling of the pandemic, and can be expected to have learned the lessons. He has called the effort so far “a fiasco of incredible proportions”.
The US undoubtedly faces difficult times ahead, with the worst of the pandemic still to come. But the first green shoots are finally emerging of a strategic national and science-led offensive to wrestle the virus under control.