USA reaches 3 mil­lion cases

Ex­perts fear only ul­ti­mate cost – death – will bring about so­ci­etal change

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Marco della Cava and Jorge L. Or­tiz

The USA has 3 mil­lion doc­u­mented cases of COVID- 19, the disease caused by the coro­n­avirus, a vir­u­lent bug that crawled into the na­tional con­scious­ness early in the year and is likely to con­sume the rest of it.

The grim mile­stone reached Wed­nes­day rep­re­sents roughly a quar­ter of the world’s cases and the same per­cent­age of its deaths.

Though many Amer­i­cans may be numb to the grow­ing coro­n­avirus toll, avoid­ing the re­al­ity will prob­a­bly make mat­ters worse.

It took the USA a lit­tle more than three months to hit 1 mil­lion cases on April 28. It took about half that time, 44 days, to get to 2 mil­lion on June 11 and only 26 days to reach 3 mil­lion on July 8. By that gauge, if no new mea­sures are taken, 4 mil­lion cases could be tal­lied as soon as July 22.

The USA leads an un­en­vi­able group. Its 3 mil­lion cases for a na­tion of 330 mil­lion beats out Brazil’s 1.7 mil­lion cases ( 210 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion), In­dia’s 742,000 cases ( 1.4 bil­lion) and Rus­sia’s 699,000 cases ( 145 mil­lion), ac­cord­ing to statis­tics com­piled by Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity.

The U. S. figure dwarfs the 85,000

cases in China, where the virus is thought to have orig­i­nated. Even al­low­ing for po­ten­tial un­der­re­port­ing by Chi­nese author­i­ties, China’s 1.4 bil­lion peo­ple make its per capita in­fec­tion rate one in 16,000. Here, one in ev­ery 110 Amer­i­cans has tested pos­i­tive for the virus.

Af­ter reach­ing the 3 mil­lion mark in record time, a few elected officials seem ready to slow the pace of busi­ness re­open­ings. Oth­ers, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSan­tis, re­main stead­fast in their de­sire to pri­or­i­tize the econ­omy in a po­lit­i­cally charged cli­mate that has turned masks into a di­vi­sive sym­bol.

One rea­son could be that the num­ber of those killed by the virus – 131,000 – hasn’t spiked, con­found­ing sci­en­tists and en­cour­ag­ing those op­posed to re­newed shut­downs, in­clud­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who in­sisted schools fully re­open in the fall de­spite the grow­ing num­ber of cases.

COVID- 19 deaths long ago rock­eted past an­nual sui­cides ( 47,000), com­mon flu ( 55,000), di­a­betes ( 83,000) and Alzheimer’s disease ( 121,000) and is fast com­ing up on strokes ( 146,000). Those are the U. S. figures for an av­er­age year. The virus has done its dam­age in less than half that time.

“Like a run­ner com­ing from be­hind in a macabre race, it has sur­passed the death toll of many diseases so many Amer­i­cans con­sider im­por­tant,” says Steven Woolf, di­rec­tor emer­i­tus of the Cen­ter on So­ci­ety and Health at Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity in Rich­mond. “Peo­ple may get numb to the num­bers, un­til it strikes some­one near them.”

An­other prob­lem, Woolf says, is the de­layed and some­times nonex­is­tent im­pact of the virus.

“Hu­man be­ings are used to learn­ing from their be­hav­iors with the im­me­di­ate re­sponse. You touch a hot stove, and you get the re­sults right away,” he says. “With this, the peo­ple go­ing out and par­ty­ing and go­ing to the beach and so forth all oc­curs weeks be­fore the hos­pi­tal­iza­tions start in­creas­ing, so there’s less op­por­tu­nity for so­ci­ety to learn their les­son from some of these be­hav­iors.”

Death may be the only mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor ca­pa­ble of chang­ing U. S. hy­giene habits and re­open­ing plans, says Carolyn Marvin, emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Pennsylvan­ia in Philadel­phia.

“If peo­ple are truly in­oc­u­lated to the no­tion that this virus is dan­ger­ous, it will take dead peo­ple in their own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence to change their minds,” Marvin says.

Marvin says iso­lated rev­e­la­tions won’t pierce the “echo cham­ber that is con­ser­va­tive ra­dio and TV, which, if you lis­ten to it of­ten as I do, ar­gues that no one is sick, the num­bers are made up and the test­ing is cor­rupt.”

Trump sup­porter Rush Lim­baugh said on his ra­dio talk show last month that “you can’t be­lieve the virus num­bers” and that they are be­ing trum­peted only to harm the pres­i­dent’s chances for re­elec­tion in Novem­ber.

US re­sponse: ‘ It will go away’

Some health ex­perts are un­spar­ing in their views of how the United States mis­han­dled its re­sponse to the coro­n­avirus. Al­though Europe – es­pe­cially Italy – was hit hard by the virus, num­bers in many coun­tries have steadily de­clined thanks to stiff quar­an­tine rules. New Zealand erad­i­cated the virus from its is­land na­tion.

The U. S. re­sponse, de­spite warn­ings from the spike in Wuhan, China, in Jan­uary, was “al­most like a delu­sional level of un­pre­pared­ness, that we were some­how su­pe­rior, and we’re dra­mat­i­cally pay­ing the price for that,” says Jonathan Metzl, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Medicine, Health and So­ci­ety at Van­der­bilt Univer­sity in Nashville, Ten­nessee.

On Jan. 22, Trump said things in the USA were “go­ing to be just fine.” On March 10, he told a meet­ing of Repub­li­can gov­er­nors, “Just stay calm, it will go away.” A month later, most states started putting their cit­i­zens in self­quar­an­tine.

De­spite the na­tion’s surg­ing virus cases, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues to pull away from the world on the topic of once and fu­ture pan­demics.

Tues­day, Trump an­nounced the United States would pull out of fund­ing the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, strip­ping away a large source of the group’s fund­ing.

“Our govern­ment has dou­bled down on the mis­trust of science, the mis­trust of pub­lic health that got us in trou­ble in the first place,” Metzl says.

Few states have been im­mune to the mount­ing coro­n­avirus case toll. Some have been harder hit than oth­ers, in­clud­ing Florida, Texas, Ge­or­gia and Ari­zona – where state lead­ers pressed for early re­open­ings.

The spike in virus cases is prob­a­bly the re­sult of a va­ri­ety of fac­tors. These in­clude the ar­rival of sum­mer’s heat and a de­sire to re­sume nor­mal ac­tiv­i­ties and a gen­eral mis­con­cep­tion by younger Amer­i­cans that they were not at risk of con­tract­ing COVID- 19.

A grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple in their 20s and 30s are end­ing up in in­ten­sive care units and on ventilator­s, caus­ing officials from Ohio to Cal­i­for­nia to shut­ter bars and other busi­nesses that draw large num­bers of of­ten- un­masked rev­el­ers.

Get­ting this seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion to take the virus threat se­ri­ously will be a crit­i­cal part of driv­ing the num­bers down in time for the fall se­mes­ter to be­gin at cam­puses across the na­tion. Many uni­ver­si­ties cut back on the num­ber of stu­dents al­lowed on cam­pus for the com­ing aca­demic year, and in some cases, pro­fes­sors will teach only on­line.

An­thony Fauci, who serves as the pres­i­dent’s em­bat­tled point man on the virus, notes that the av­er­age age of those get­ting in­fected with the coro­n­avirus is about 15 years younger than a few months ago.

“The more we learn about this disease, the more we re­al­ize that many young peo­ple may not nec­es­sar­ily get sick enough to go to the hos­pi­tal, but they can get very sick, put them out of ac­tion for weeks at a time,” Fauci says.

In­vin­ci­bil­ity of youth

Af­ter states eased stay- at- home re­stric­tions sev­eral weeks ago, re­ports abounded of high school and col­legeage rev­el­ers par­ty­ing in bars, on boats and in lakes, of­ten with no masks or so­cial dis­tanc­ing.

There have even been tales of “COVID- par­ties” where young peo­ple tried to get in­fected.

Some­one who has the virus but isn’t sick and doesn’t show symp­toms can trans­mit it to more vul­ner­a­ble groups.

“It’s harder to put your so­cial life on hold when you’re a young adult,” says Elissa Epel, pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia- San Fran­cisco.

Epel says be­hav­ioral change comes only when the per­cep­tion of per­sonal risk grows. “If the case can be made to this group that ‘ your risk is my risk,’ then that may help them see the grav­ity of their be­hav­ior,” she says.

That dawn­ing re­al­iza­tion of co- de­pen­dence faces a bat­tle from cen­turies of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, the no­tion that the rules that ap­ply to other na­tions don’t ap­ply here.

Mother Na­ture knows only one set of rules, ex­perts say, and those fly in the face of a be­lief that some­how the na­tion’s coro­n­avirus num­bers will de­cline with­out any mea­sured sac­rifice by its cit­i­zens.

“When you have a pan­demic and you need to have a science- based re­sponse to it by ev­ery­body in the so­ci­ety, and you have a pop­u­la­tion that cul­tur­ally doesn’t trust science and doesn’t trust author­ity, you get prob­lems like we’re see­ing now, peo­ple ar­gu­ing over masks,” says John Swartzberg, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia- Berke­ley who spe­cial­izes in in­fec­tious diseases.

“From out­side the coun­try, peo­ple would look and say, ‘ Are they crazy? Why are they fight­ing about this?’ ” he says.

To slow the race to 4 mil­lion cases, Swartzberg says, peo­ple must ac­cept that life may no longer be the same and un­der­stand that re­cov­er­ing what we can of that past life de­pends on how we meet this mo­ment.

“This ( virus) is some­thing unique to our gen­er­a­tion, and we don’t know how to re­spond to this, be­cause we’ve never been told that our world has changed and we can’t con­tinue to live the way we were liv­ing,” he says. “That’s a big pill to take.”

“If peo­ple are truly in­oc­u­lated to the no­tion that this virus is dan­ger­ous, it will take dead peo­ple in their own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence to change their minds.” Carolyn Marvin,

Univer­sity of Pennsylvan­ia


Driv­ers wait to be tested for COVID- 19 at the Hard Rock Sta­dium park­ing lot July 6 in Mi­ami Gar­dens, Fla.

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