Editors’ Blog

Say Their Name

An important note from TPM Reader JR

I worked 40 years in healthcare. I am a Registered Respiratory Therapist. I am retired and live in a rural county with zero Covid-19 at this time. I practiced in the Chicago area. This means that my friends and former co-workers are risking their lives treating patients infected with Covid-19. I think (actually, know for sure) that Doctors are some of the most wonderful people in the world. What they go through in their training and education is superhuman. Their heads are the same size as everyone else, but somehow they carry multi-volume encyclopedias in there. I also absolutely love Nurses (so much so that I have been married to one for 39 years last Saturday) as a group they are intelligent, compassionate and caring – also wonderful. To hear these two groups lauded as the heroes that they are every day in the media lately is great.

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The Looming Cash Crisis Facing Small Businesses

I wrote last week about how the economic relief package known as the CARES Act is severely lacking. One particularly troubling aspect is that the Small Business Administration is tasked with overseeing a $350 billion dollar fund designed to provide cash for small businesses so they can avoid laying people off. This is problematic because it’s something like 10 times the volume of emergency loans they usually deal with on an annual basis. 

The devil is in the details, but the gist of that fund, known as the Paycheck Protection Program, is that businesses with fewer than 500 employees can apply for a loan. At the end of the set period of time, if the employer has not laid anyone off, the loan is completely forgiven. There are of course a host of details about how much money a business can receive and some other things but they are irrelevant for the purposes of this post.

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Where Things Stand: Kushner’s Many Hats
This is your TPM early-afternoon briefing.
White House adviser Jared Kushner attends a teleconference with governors at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters, Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Washington. From left, President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health and Kushner. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

The President’s son-in-law has quietly taken on a crucial role in the White House’s efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S.

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Snapshot of the Crisis in and Out of New York

The national COVID-19 crisis is still dominated by events inside the state of New York. Until a couple days ago roughly comparable numbers of Americans were dying in New York each day as every other state in the country combined. Because of this, one way I find helpful to make sense of the situation is to look at New York state and compare it not to the national numbers but the numbers from the rest of the country outside New York state. This helps understand the dynamics in other parts of the country separate from the situation in New York and see how they compare.

Here are three graphs that give us that snapshot of the situation unfolding in the country.

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Hidden Mortality In Spain

I’ve been working on collecting different bits of information pointing to dramatically higher COVID-19 mortality than is showing up in official statistics. (Josh Kovensky is beginning to report the story in the US.) We discussed the evidence out of Italy suggesting official COVID fatality numbers were only capturing a fraction of the “excess mortality” showing up in particular towns. (This involves comparing the average number of deaths from all causes in a specific town or region during a particular date range to the number of deaths in the same date range during the COVID pandemic.)

Now TPM Reader ND passed along to me this article from the Spanish daily El Pais, which reports a similar study in Spain. The numbers show a discrepancy very similar to those from northern Italy.

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It Will Haunt History
Cruise ships are shown docked at PortMiami, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Something very, very bad is happening today in Florida with the Holland America Zaandam cruise ship. Many terrible things are happening around us now. But here I am talking about a sort of willful malice or abandonment that is a deliberate decision, something that I think may haunt the decision-makers even if the loss of life is only a tiny fraction of what is unfolding across the country.

The Zaandam is approaching Florida and appears to be in the midst of another ship-wide outbreak like ships that came to port in Japan and Oakland, California. The current report is that 190 guests and crew have flu-like symptoms; eight have tested positive for COVID-19; four guests have died since the ship left Buenos Aires on March 7th.

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How Do We Know the True Toll?

In response to that data out of Italy suggesting the official COVID-19 death toll may dramatically understate the loss of life in the country, we’ve begun looking at the same data in the US. One challenge is that this data is collected much more rapidly in Europe than in the United States. I picked that up in my reporting. And what Josh Kovensky has found has confirmed that. A lot of this data won’t be available for a while. In some cases the people you would need to ask to pull data from earlier years are currently swamped dealing with the new data. In this first report we just published, Josh talks to some experts in the field and looks at the how this work will eventually be done. The studies out of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria will be a guide. Check out this piece. Very important part of the story.

Is Germany a Model for COVID-19 Response?

Most of you reading this probably rightly think that Donald Trump and his top advisors catastrophically mismanaged the country’s COVID-19 response. But we also know that the disease has had a shattering impact on countries around the world. So how do we measure the real world impact of the failure to do early testing or start planning to deploy medical resources in January or February? One potential comparison is Germany – another wealthy, industrialized democracy with a world-class capacity in the sciences. Germany got moving early on testing and they have a lot of ICU beds. They also moved rapidly toward aggressive social distancing, at least compared to countries like Italy. You can read more details about it here.

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We’re Starting To See The Impact Of Supply Chain Disruptions
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For a variety of reasons, I pay close attention to the manufacturing sector. I think it’s partly because I grew up in Cleveland and still have a lot of friends who work in shops and factories — many who are already out of work. Although we’ve more or less transitioned to a services-based economy, making stuff is still a core aspect of the American identity. We all know the service sector is taking a massive blow. We can see the stores closed, we can’t go to our favorite bar. But the manufacturing economy is less visible — except to those in it. The rest of us will feel the impact down the road when this loss of productivity manifests in myriad ways.

This morning the Institute of Supply Management released its March manufacturing report. As expected, it was pretty bad: Reduced demand, a slowing supply chain, reduced employment. But I want to highlight a couple specific data points. Read More

More On the IHME Study

I wanted to add a bit more about that IHME study – some more perspective on what it is and isn’t telling us. Before I do, a quick point. Last night an exasperated TPM Reader FT wrote in saying in so many words all the debate about models is morbid. What are we accomplishing by debating technicalities about why a horrid number of Americans are going to die versus twice a horrid number? And if we’re saying it’s so bad in advance what incentive does anyone have to social distance?

First, this is all overwhelming stuff. I’m sitting here this morning with the news that the number of people who die in this calamity is likely to be counted in the hundreds of thousands. I’m simultaneously numbed and overwhelmed by it. We all have to pace ourselves. And we all have to be gentle with ourselves and others around us. One of those things is taking some breaks from the news when we need to.

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Where Things Stand: Trump Didn’t Take McConnell’s Political Out

The Senate majority leader tried to give him an out.

It’s hardly surprising that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would contort himself into a pretzel to offer President Trump some sort of excuse — especially one dripping in Trump’s favorite flavor of partisanship — for the administration’s botched handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. But the befuddling bit is Trump didn’t bite.

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Another Update on Rosy Scenarios

As I explained to TPM Reader JG, who wrote the email below, when I’m writing about or describing something where my knowledge is very limited I try to keep it vague and refer people to the source. I’m sharing JG’s follow up on the “rosy scenarios” post because he gets into a, probably the key element about why these models have a major uncertainty contained in them.

A comment on your “Rosy Scenarios” post. I read Carl Berstrom’s Twitter threads about the IHME study and think you’re understating just how rosy the estimates from that study are. Outside of the assumptions on the biological side – that there is “Wuhan-style” social distancing for the duration of the epidemic – the main problem is that the study is an exercise in mathematical curve fitting, not biology.

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Rosy Scenarios

Yesterday I shared with you that modeling site from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which is based at the University of Washington School of Medicine. This is the one that models the course and intensity of the COVID-19 pandemic both nationwide and in individual states. It’s clearly getting a lot of attention. Apparently it’s now being cited by the White House and just moments ago I was watching a CNN interview with Dr. Chris Murray, one of the researchers behind the modeling.

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An Economy on Life Support

Yesterday I corresponded with a TPM Reader who referenced the theory that the cataclysmic economic data we are now seeing predicted on quarterly GDP, unemployment and more are categorically different because they are being created deliberately to accomplish a specific purpose. We don’t have a bad economy. We deliberately shut the economy down to save lives and prevent a specific sort of economic and societal chaos caused by mass mortality. There are significant ways in which this is true. But I wanted to explain key ways it is not.

We have intentionally placed what amounts to a pause on broad portions of the national economy. It’s not a mystery why we’re heading into a period of mass unemployment. We specifically told tens of millions of people not to go to work. But this is something like placing a pause on blood flow through your body. When the blood stops flowing it’s not just a matter of starting it up again. When the blood stops flowing a lot of things start to break and they don’t unbreak when the flow resumes. The analogy between the physical body and economic life is a strong one.

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Where Things Stand: 2020 On His Mind
This is your TPM mid-morning briefing.

While President Trump was moved on Sunday by the grim data experts showed him on death projections sans tight social distancing measures, there was another set of numbers that reportedly pushed Trump to abandon his Easter pipe dream.

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A Snapshot

Here’s new data just released from the COVID-19 Tracking Project.

First, here’s the latest data for daily new cases and fatalities across the United States.

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Mindboggling

A new estimate from economists at the St. Louis Fed project total COVID-19 Crisis employment reductions at 47 million people. That would translate into a 32.1% unemployment rate. To give some perspective that is significantly higher than the peak unemployment during the Great Depression (24.9%) and wildly higher than anything seen during the Great Recession (10%).

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Another Information Source

Here is an interesting data source projecting the scope and duration of the epidemic across the United States and within each individual state. I cannot speak to the accuracy or methodology. I am pointing it out to you because it’s the work of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a research center attached to the University of Washington School of Medicine. In other words, these are credentialed, serious people. Whether they’re correct I cannot say. And I pass it on on that basis.

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We’re About To Get A Ton Of New Economic Data
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 06: A New York Labor Department office is viewed in Manhattan

In times of crisis, the kind of economic data that is ordinarily only of interest to economists and finance pros draws more attention from the rest of us as we look for signs of what is going on, and what is to come. Last week’s jobless claims number, the highest in United States history, was a sobering look at what is in store economically.

This week we’ll get another round of jobless claims numbers, along with looks at manufacturing and service jobs that will help us understand the velocity and depth of the economic crisis we are facing. 

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Look Beneath the National Numbers

Let me note one of the known unknowns we should be thinking about as we roll into the coming brutal weeks. We are looking at national statistics – infections, tests, fatalities, hospitalizations. But these are likely illusory. There really is no national outbreak. There’s a big New York outbreak which still dominates the national statistics and will have its own discrete dynamics. It seems very likely you will have a series of other regional and metropolitan area outbreaks unfolding across the country in the coming weeks. So the national numbers will be misleading. In epidemiological terms the US is more like Europe as a whole, rather than any individual country, especially when states are playing such an outsized role combating the disease because of a significantly distracted federal response.

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A World Beyond Imagination
TPM Reader SG wonders aloud who is in charge of planning beyond the immediate reactionary panicked COVID-19 response.

So where is this headed? What is the endgame?

Nobody is talking about it.

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Where Things Stand: DOJ Digs In
This is your TPM early-afternoon briefing.
WASHINGTON, DC -JANUARY 30:Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) talks with reporters as he heads to the Senate Chambers January 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. Senators spend a second day asking both the House prosecutors and President Trump's defense team questions during the Senate impeachment trial.(Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

While it’s in the preliminary stages of it’s investigation, the Justice Department is now looking into sketchy stock market transactions that at least two lawmakers made after receiving private briefings on the COVID-19 outbreak.

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This is War. No Really.

Like many of you I’ve struggled to make sense of the so many ways our world has changed, been upended over the last month. Beyond the personal, the emotional and the professional, a key question is how our society gets through the coming months. I don’t mainly mean the clinical or public health dimensions of the crisis. That’s largely the domain of science and public health. I mean the broader question of how our society maintains itself while we are grappling with that public health crisis.

American society has been addicted for decades to the metaphor of war to address various public problems – the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on this or that disease. The metaphor has most often abetted all manner of bad policy and brutalizations of our society. But here I mean something more specific and I believe more grounded in concrete and important policy needs.

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Today’s Presser

If you didn’t watch this afternoon’s Trump press conference, the one significant piece of news is that the President is extending his “15 Days to Slow the Spread” guidelines until the end of April. This essentially means he’s dropping the idea of ‘reopening the country’ any time soon. That this was even a question is appalling. And the President doesn’t even have this power. But it’s good that he’s dropped the idea, at least for now because at a minimum these fantasies confuse people about the reality of the danger. It appears that his public health advisors shared with him modeling which suggests that a final death toll in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 is now the optimistic scenario with a death toll ranging to one or two million is possible without aggressive social distancing and lockdown strategies.

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Tories and Society

British PM Boris Johnson, who tested positive for coronavirus last week, has short video here, praising the UK population’s coronavirus response, exhorting them to help protect the NHS and thanking some 20,000 health-care workers for returning to serve in the NHS during the crisis. But there’s an interesting little coda toward the end — something probably British viewers will catch more than Americans. He does a kind of anti-shout out to Margaret Thatcher, saying that what Britons’ response to the crisis has “already proved, is that there really is such a thing as society.”

This is certainly a reference to Thatcher’s claim — an encapsulation of her worldview — that “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

When Did New York City Shut Down?

Let me return to an issue I discussed a few days ago. When did New York City shut down? It’s more than an academic exercise. It gives us a window into understanding when we can expect the spread of the virus in the city to peak or at least stabilize. That gives other cities a view into what they might in turn expect. A key way to do that is to look at the city’s subway system, which is both a key vector for the spread of the contagion and perhaps the best metric for measuring the city’s activity and mobility.

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Ron DeSantis Previews the Trumpist Line on Who’s to Blame for COVID-19
MIAMI, FL - AUGUST 29: Governor Ron DeSantis gives a briefing regarding Hurricane Dorian to the media at National Hurricane Center on August 29, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)

The future is Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) of Florida. Today the governor who resolutely refused to close the state’s beaches or much if any of its commerce while the coronavirus spread like wildfire across the country has now decided to blame New York and New Yorkers. DeSantis was the first to order anyone arriving from New York City-area airports to enter a 14 day quarantine. That was on Monday. He told reporters he was pursuing the travel-ban approach rather than a statewide lockdown because, he claimed, the crisis in New York proved lockdowns don’t work.

DeSantis looks like the spur to the White House’s announcement late last week that New Yorkers traveling to any other parts of the country should be self-quarantining. According to the Post, a conversation with DeSantis this morning was behind the President Trump saying he’s “considering” a quarantine of the New York metro region. (This evening Trump opted instead for a “strong travel advisory”).

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Where Things Stand: Will We Have A Grandstander?

It appears that we will.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) pledged Friday that he will stand in the way of passage of a $2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in the House today, a stimulus package that President Trump himself has vowed to sign once it makes it’s way through Congress. Massie said Friday that he will stop the Senate-approved bill from passing via voice vote in the House, which will force lawmakers to come back to Washington, D.C. for a recorded vote.

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National Leaders Need To Take More Personal Precautions

Boris Johnson is a relatively young man. He should be okay after two or three weeks. And we wish him the best. But I hope Johnson’s testing positive will be a wake up call to senior leaders of the US government.

Congress is still meeting largely business as usual. Yes, I know they’re taking some precautions. But watch the videos. It’s still largely business as usual. The President and key executive branch leaders continue with these daily press briefings in the fairly small confined space of the White House briefing room. There’s already a mini-revolt among reporters over the relative inattention to social distancing going on in those briefings. It’s being driven by the President’s hunger for his new version of political rallies. They could easily be done in the Rose Garden.

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