Disappointing U.S. coronavirus numbers

Early in June, the number of new reported coronavirus cases in the U.S. was running at around 23,000 per day, down from a peak of around 35,000. There were around 1,000 deaths per day from the virus, down from a peak of around 2,500.

I thought that, as with major European nations at comparable stages in their pandemics, our daily death would drop by one-half to around 500 at mid-month, and that, accordingly, we would reach the end of the month with around 125,000 reported deaths from the virus. The number of new cases per day seemed harder to predict, inasmuch as it’s partly a function of the amount of tests administered. However, Europe’s experience suggested that the number of reported new cases would decline pretty significantly this month, as well.

Unfortunately, at mid-month the U.S. numbers are worse than I expected. The number of new reported cases per day has ticked slightly up, not down. The number of daily deaths attributed to the virus has decreased a bit, but isn’t at 500. Instead, deaths are averaging closer to 750 per day. (All figures used in this post are from Worldometer.)

Was it inevitable that the number of new cases would rise once states reopened their economies? The European experience suggests it was not.

Italy and Spain were hit harder by the virus than the U.S., per capita. They reopened their economies and have seen both new cases and new deaths continue to plummet.

In Italy, new cases per day are down to around 300. A month ago, they were averaging around 800, down from around 2,000 at the beginning of May and a peak of around 6,000. Deaths per day are averaging less than 50, about one-third of what they were a month ago and down from a peak of nearly 1,000.

The story in Spain is similar — around 250 new cases per day and very few new reported deaths. A month ago, there were around 2,000 new cases per day and 200 deaths. ( New York, by the way, shows almost the same pattern.)

Why were Italy and Spain, but not the U.S, able to see continuous major improvement in their numbers, post lockdown? I’m not sure, but two possibilities come quickly to mind.

One possibility, perhaps the main one, is that, as a nation, we reopened before we had the virus under as much control (and potential control, via contact tracing) as Italy and Spain did. This doesn’t mean the U.S made a mistake in easing our lockdowns when we did. Economic considerations might well have justified the easing. Arguably, they militated in favor easing lockdowns much earlier than we did.

Moreover, we don’t know how Italy and Spain will fare if there’s a second wave of the virus. Perhaps in a second wave, their rates of infection and death will exceed ours and offset the fact that we’re struggling to end the first wave.

Still, from a health standpoint I’d rather be more or less done with the first wave than still struggling with it, as the U.S. is. And it might turn out that nations with the first wave in the rear-view mirror will see their economies rev up faster for that reason.

Another factor that might explain why infections in the U.S. seem, if anything, to be rising is the wave of protests that followed the killing of George Floyd. It’s too early to say for sure that the protests are to blame. However, if they don’t spark a wave of infections, then much of what “science” told us about the need for social distancing was rubbish.

The vast majority of protesters, and the law enforcement officials who responded to their activities, are fairly young. Thus, even if they become infected, their chances of survival are quite good. Similarly, a disproportionate number of those who take advantage of the eased lockdowns will likely be members of age and health categories with excellent survival rates.

These realities, coupled with what seem to be improvements in treating infections, make me cautiously optimistic that U.S. deaths per day, will steadily decline. So far, though, they aren’t declining as quickly as one might reasonably have hoped.

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