Digging Through The Science—And The Noise—On What Is Known About The Origin Of SARS CoV-2

Update: In a new post we find that Shi Zhingli of Wuhan Institute of Virology has provided convincing evidence to Scientific American that SARS CoV-2 is the result of a natural jump to humans from an animal host and was not accidentally released from her lab, which had no isolates of any viruses that match closely enough to be the outbreak virus.

Although it seems that all of this has been going on forever at this point, it’s important to realize that the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak probably began less than six months ago. In the context of how we develop an understanding of a disease like this one, and the virus that causes it, SARS CoV-2, that means that we really have only just begun our analysis. Nevertheless, because of the ongoing disastrous impact on global public health as well as the global economy, it is imperative that we learn as much as we can as fast as we can.

In this post, I want to take a deep dive into what virologists and epidemiologists have pieced together on the emergence of SARS CoV-2. The problem is that what might initially appear to be straightforward scientific and public health questions eventually get muddled by accusations of disinformation, accusations of hiding data and offerings of potential leaks of intelligence that also have a chance to be disinformation. These noisy battles relate to basic facts that have a direct bearing on our understanding of the virus’ origin.

As a result, it needs to be stated from the outset that because some of the needed basic information may be hidden or some of what we think we know might be wrong. Therefore, this analysis will be unable to come to a definite conclusion. With any luck, the discussion will help us to have a framework within which we can proceed as more facts become verified.

Overview Derived From SARS CoV-2 Genetic Sequence

I want to start with the science.  The very helpful graphic below is lifted from this paper in Current Biology. It is in three sections. The section on the left illustrates what we know from the genetic sequence of the virus when that is compared to other known viruses. What it shows is that the closest overall relative to SARS CoV-2, with a sequence identity of 96%, is RaTG13, another coronovirus isolated from a bat:

Let’s move to this Nature Medicine article from March 17 and this Cell article from April 16 for the narrative on diving into the distinguishing features of SARS CoV-2 from its genetic sequence.

From the Nature Medicine article, we get a description of the features of SARS CoV-2 that distinguish it from other known viruses (these features are what the center and right panels of the graphic address):

Our comparison of alpha- and betacoronaviruses identifies two notable genomic features of SARS-CoV-2: (i) on the basis of structural studies and biochemical experiments, SARS-CoV-2 appears to be optimized for binding to the human receptor ACE2; and (ii) the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 has a functional polybasic (furin) cleavage site at the S1–S2 boundary through the insertion of 12 nucleotides, which additionally led to the predicted acquisition of three O-linked glycans around the site.

To translate some of the terms and clarify a bit, there are four genera of coronaviruses, with alpha and beta infecting mammals and delta and gamma infecting birds. The genome is the genetic sequence of the virus. I would usually say the DNA sequence, but coronaviruses are RNA viruses. There has been much discussion of ACE2 on this blog in the comments, so for now let’s just say ACE stands for angiotensin converting enzyme and ACE2 is present on the surface of many cell types found in many different tissues within the body. So what stands out here is that the structure of the virus spike protein, as determined from its genetic sequence and tests in the lab, allows it to bind exceptionally well to ACE2 when compared to other coronaviruses.

The middle panel of the graphic shows us that although the overall sequence of SARS CoV-2 is very closely aligned to the bat virus, when we narrow it down to only compare the region where the spike protein binds to ACE2, it is a perfect match of that part of a pangolin virus, while it is very different from the bat virus. For the important stretch of the spike protein (these amino acids are not next to each other when the gene sequence is read from start to finish, but once the protein is assembled from amino acids, the amino acids are close to each other from the way the protein assumes its three dimensional structure), the gene encodes a string of five amino acids in the protein that matches exactly with the pangolin virus sequence but in only the first of the five positions on the bat virus sequence.

But that final panel and the second half of the Nature Medicine snippet goes further in what is different about this virus. The gene for the spike protein encodes two subunits, S1 and S2. Remarkably, SARS CoV-2 has acquired a site where the two subunits can be separated using a enzyme called furin that is found in mammalian cells. The right panel shows us that neither the bat sequence nor the pangolin sequence has a furin cleavage site.

The Cell paper tells us that a furin cleavage site has not been seen in the betacoronaviruses closely related to SARS CoV-2. It has been seen in other human coronaviruses, though. Of further significance is that a furin cleavage site also appears in the more pathogenic bird flu viruses.

Not A Lab Construct

From the Nature Medicine article, we get one of the most convincing arguments I’ve seen against the virus being created in a lab:

While the analyses above suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may bind human ACE2 with high affinity, computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal and that the RBD sequence is different from those shown in SARS-CoV to be optimal for receptor binding. Thus, the high-affinity binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to human ACE2 is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.

So, in other words, if someone in the lab wanted to set out to make a virus with the best possible ACE2 binding site, this is not the sequence the computer or the literature would have given them. That suggests that this very good binding sequence is a product of natural evolution instead. The Nature Medicine article also further noted that the genetic sequence of SARS CoV-2 differs too much from that of any other known coronavirus sequence for one of the known viruses to have been used as a starting point in engineering this stronger pathogen.

The Species Jump

Perhaps the most important step in the emergence of SARS CoV-2 is the jump from its initial host species to humans. This could have happened directly, or as in the case of MERS CoV, which went from bats to camels to humans, with an intermediate host. Note that MERS still has not adapted to efficient human to human transmission, and so when we see it, it’s usually from multiple camel to human events.

The problem here is that we don’t have proof of the host from which humans were first infected with SARS CoV-2. In other words, no virus isolated from an animal so far is related closely enough at the sequence level to SARS CoV-2 that we can say this is where humans were first infected, as we can tell from the MERS jumps from camels to humans. As we will discuss below, and as you are well aware, early suspicion on the origin of human infection centered on the wet market in Wuhan. Remarkably, authors of the Cell paper visited the market and took these pictures in October 2014 because they were concerned that wet markets in general, and this one in particular, represent a particularly large risk for bringing humans into contact with less commonly encountered hosts of potentially deadly viruses:

The caption properly notes that many early cases are linked to the market, but we don’t yet have proof of where and how the first human infection(s) took place. In discussing the jump and subsequent outbreak, the Cell authors continue:

The emergence and rapid spread of COVID-19 signifies a perfect epidemiological storm. A respiratory pathogen of relatively high virulence from a virus family that has an unusual knack of jumping species boundaries, that emerged in a major population center and travel hub shortly before the biggest travel period of the year: the Chinese Spring Festival.

/snip/

While our past experience with coronaviruses suggests that evolution in animal hosts, both reservoirs and intermediates, is needed to explain the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in humans, it cannot be excluded that the virus acquired some of its key mutations during a period of “cryptic” spread in humans prior to its first detection in December 2019. Specifically, it is possible that the virus emerged earlier in human populations than envisaged (perhaps not even in Wuhan) but was not detected because asymptomatic infections, those with mild respiratory symptoms, and even sporadic cases of pneumonia were not visible to the standard systems used for surveillance and pathogen identification. During this period of cryptic transmission, the virus could have gradually acquired the key mutations, perhaps including the RBD and furin cleavage site insertions, that enabled it to adapt fully to humans. It wasn’t until a cluster of pneumonia cases occurred that we were able to detect COVID-19 via the routine surveillance system. Obviously, retrospective serological or metagenomic studies of respiratory infection will go a long way to determining whether this scenario is correct, although such early cases may never be detected.

So, the sequence information comes to a dead end here until the details of the epidemiology are reconstructed. As the authors note, it likely will prove impossible to sample many of the most important animals and humans that would clarify the route and timing. It is further worth noting that the bat from which the RaTG13 sequence is derived was found in Yunnan province, a very long way from Wuhan.

Epidemiology

It appears that as of this writing, the earliest known infection may have been a shrimp seller in the wet market who first developed symptoms on November 17. Also, this Lancet article provides further details on some of the early studies showing a high concentration of cases affiliated with the market in December. The Lancet graphic suggests a case on December 1 not affiliated with the market and the start of the market cluster on the tenth, with 27 of the 41 early patients considered here being associated with the wet market. If that were indeed the earliest case, we might think we’ve seen the index case. But if the South China Post article is to be believed, the shrimp seller fell ill on November 17 and, according to the article, one to five people a day from that day forward had the disease. If we believe that information, then the virus appears to have already been circulating before the middle of November.

It is when we start getting into this information that accusations of hiding information are thrown about. Were there earlier cases that China suppressed or that simply went undetected? We have no way of knowing at this point.

A further point that comes from the Cell paper is that SARS CoV-2 has been circulating long enough that minor variations in the gene sequence are arising that don’t affect pathogenicity but allow for tracing of various lineages of the virus in its spread around the globe. They also note that the lineages allow them to go back in time over the evolution of those sequences and the diversity diminishes a lot as they get back to the early isolates from Wuhan. This is further confirmation for Wuhan being essential in the earliest part of the outbreak.

Accidental Release

It is here that the noise gets really loud. If we accept the really strong evidence that SARS CoV-2 was not deliberately made in a laboratory, there remains the possibility that the virus could have escaped from a laboratory that studies potential pandemic agents.

As long ago as 2004, Rutgers scientist Richard Ebright spoke out against the massive amount of funding that was funneled into research on bioweapons after the 2001 anthrax attacks. From the New York Times:

Dr. Ebright disagrees with much of the security community about how best to protect the nation from attacks with biological weapons.

The government and many security experts say one crucial step is to build more high-security laboratories, where scientists can explore the threats posed not only by deadly natural germs, but also by designer pathogens — genetically modified superbugs that could outdo natural viruses and bacteria in their killing power. To this end, the Bush administration has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to erect such laboratories in Boston; Galveston, Tex.; and Frederick, Md., among other places, increasing eightfold the overall space devoted to the high-technology buildings.

Dr. Ebright, on the other hand, views the plans as a recipe for catastrophe. The laboratories, called biosafety level 4, or BSL-4, are costly, unnecessary and dangerous, he says.

”I’m concerned about them from the standpoint of science, safety, security, public health and economics,” he added in an interview. ”They lose on all counts.”

Ebright continues:

The labs, Dr. Ebright says, are a perilous overreaction to an inflated threat and will do more harm than good.

Although the threat of biological warfare is real, the weapons used by terrorists are unlikely to be the next-generation agents that the high-security labs are intended to study, he says. Yet by increasing the availability of such pathogens, Dr. Ebright argues, the labs will ”bring that threat to fruition.”

”It’s arming our opponents,” he said.

In addition, he says, the laboratories could leak. They could put deadly pathogens into irresponsible hands and they will divert money from other worthy endeavors like public health and the frontiers of biology. Moreover, their many hundreds of new employees would become a pool of deadly expertise that could turn malevolent, unleashing lethal germs on an unsuspecting public.

Note the “leak” bit. The article goes on:

But Dr. Ebright noted that the deadly SARS virus recently escaped from BSL-4 and BSL-3 labs in Taiwan, Singapore and Beijing, in each case setting off minor epidemics that killed or sickened people.

This 2014 paper from the Center for Arms Control goes into detail on two separate escapes of SARS from the same laboratory in Beijing,  along with four other documented cases of releases of possibly pandemic pathogens if you care to read further. Suffice it to say that Ebright was right that with the proliferation of these new labs, there would be leaks. So far, they’ve all been accidental instead of the type feared by Ebright where someone from inside a laboratory deliberately releases a pathogen.

With regard to the SARS CoV-2 outbreak, rumors from nearly the very beginning swirled about a lab in Wuhan. There is in fact a level 4 containment lab in Wuhan and there is also a level 2 lab as well, that I believe is very close to the wet market.

Should there have been an accidental release from either of these labs, at this point we would have to postulate that China has specifically quashed all information relating to this event and kept the laboratory personnel and any close family or other contacts who may have been infected out of the databases of patients.

But that hasn’t stopped the noise. Some aspects of the noise even begin to look to me like an information operation of sorts. Of course, since we don’t know the originator of the operation, we don’t know if it is actual intelligence being leaked or if it is disinformation being sown to add to the chaos.

At any rate, this April 2 column from David Ignatius put the idea of an accidental leak from a Wuhan lab into the Washington Post. Those who follow intelligence community news know that Ignatius is often thought of as a mouthpiece for information the CIA wants disseminated. Are they his source here? Was some other information operative his source?

Then things really heated up on April 15. Here is John Roberts of Fox News asking Trump a question during the April 15 “press conference”:

Wow. That’s an incredibly specific question. It assumes a female intern at the lab who infected a boyfriend and then she (or did he, not clear to me from Roberts’ phrasing) went to the market. Even though this was April 15, I’ve seen no further pushing of this specific version of the story.

But Trump’s response is a bit concerning. Note that he says they’re “hearing that story a lot”, but then makes a really big deal of the word “sources”. Given Trump’s history of spilling classified intelligence, and the constant warnings to him about such leaks compromising “sources and methods”, I almost wonder if that’s a genuine response of his lizard brain to all those warnings. We simply have no way of knowing that or knowing if perhaps those “sources” happen to lie outside the intelligence community and among circle of wingnuts who have the ears of Trump and Fox News and he’s really proud of them but doesn’t want to divulge them.

That same day, Josh Rogin put out a Washington Post column pushing the leak from a lab story, this time tying it directly to the State Department cables in 2018 about lax biosecurity protocols at the level 4 containment lab in Wuhan that Roberts mentioned. But Rogin didn’t include the specifics about the intern.

I’ve heard nothing further on the intern question, but the general idea of an escape from a Wuhan lab still gets tossed around. Ignatius returned to the idea of an accidental release on April 23. He even talked to Ebright:

“Science is not going to shift this from a ‘could have been’ to a ‘probably was,’ ” messaged Richard H. Ebright, a leading biosafety expert at Rutgers. “The question whether the outbreak virus entered humans through an accidental infection of a lab worker . . . can be answered only through a forensic investigation, not through scientific speculation.” Ebright told me the Chinese government should launch a forensic investigation by reviewing “facilities, samples, records, and personnel.”

Given Ebright’s history of predicting just such an accidental release, I find it very reassuring that he isn’t ready to say that’s what happened. As he rightfully points out, we can only know what happened when detailed information is assembled on the epidemiology of the earliest cases. Only Chinese medical investigators can know whether any laboratory personnel, and especially whether any family or other close contacts of them appear on the timeline of the early infections. It is also crucial to know where any such infections, if they exist, fall on the timeline in relation to cases affiliated with the wet market.

My gut feeling is that the evidence still very strongly points to the virus originating through the wet market, but I also think the index case there likely goes back even earlier than the November 17 case discussed above, since there are suggestions there were other cases appearing daily by then. Also, it’s hard to imagine that if the official intelligence community had a story as specific as the intern story and had evidence to back it up, that Trump wouldn’t be trumpeting it on a daily basis to deflect the criticism being heaped on his response to the outbreak.

Stay tuned. I suspect the story will take several more turns before we ever reach any level of certainty.

Lysol and UV Rays: Running a Pandemic Like a Reality TV Show

After news outlets wrote their both-sides stories about the President’s musings about ingesting Lysol, and after they mapped out the four different excuses Trump offered on Friday — he told you to check with a doctor (Kayleigh McEnany); he was just joking (Trump himself); Trump was just thinking out loud (Dr. Birx); it’s the briefer’s fault (anonymous officials), several outlets set out to figure out how it came to be that the President of the most powerful country in the world went on live TV and suggested it might be a good idea to ingest cleaning supplies.

The NYT discovered that some of Trump’s advisors claim (anonymously in the NYT version, but named as Mark Meadows and Kayleigh McEnany by CNN) to have realized that allowing acting DHS Undersecretary for Science at William Bryan was going to be a mistake even before it happened. But Mike Pence liked the pretty pictures and good news he offered, so it went into the briefing.

Others inside the administration raised questions about why Mr. Bryan, whose background is not in health or science, had been invited to deliver a presentation. Mr. Bryan, whose expertise is in energy infrastructure and security, is serving in an acting capacity as the head of the department’s science and technology directorate.

Mr. Bryan served 17 years in the Army, followed by yearslong stints as a civil servant at the Defense and Energy Departments. The latter role led to a whistle-blower complaint accusing him, in part, of manipulating government policy to further his personal financial interests, and then lying to Congress about those interests.

The United States Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates whistle-blower complaints, asked the Energy Department last year to investigate the accusations against Mr. Bryan. In January, the Senate returned his nomination to the White House.

Mr. Bryan was invited by the vice president’s office to coronavirus task force meetings on Wednesday and Thursday to talk about a study that his department had done relating to heat and the conditions in which the coronavirus can thrive or be dampened. On Thursday, Mr. Bryan presented a graphic to the room, according to four people briefed on the events.

Mr. Pence’s advisers wanted Mr. Bryan to brief the news media on his findings, but several West Wing staff members objected, partly because they were concerned the information had not been verified.

Before Mr. Bryan took the lectern in the White House Briefing Room, Dr. Birx and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a member of the coronavirus task force, made a few revisions to his presentation, officials said.

As he listened to Mr. Bryan, the president became increasingly excited, and also felt the need to demonstrate his own understanding of science, according to three of the advisers. So Mr. Trump went ahead with his theories about the chemicals.

CNN described how Trump didn’t attend either of the task force meetings where Bryan presented his findings, but nevertheless ad-libbed a response after Bryan delivered his presentation.

President Donald Trump was absent from the Situation Room on Wednesday when William Bryan, the acting head of science at the Department of Homeland Security, presented the findings of a new study to the White House coronavirus task force.

[snip]

When Bryan arrived Thursday with a camera-ready presentation, Trump again wasn’t at the 3 p.m. ET coronavirus task force meeting, the sources said. But in the minutes before Trump’s planned early evening news conference, Bryan quickly explained his findings to the President in the Oval Office.

Moments later, Bryan was standing at the White House podium explaining how sunlight, ultraviolet rays and disinfectants — such as bleach and alcohol — could shorten the half-life of coronavirus.

But when Bryan’s explanation ended, things went sideways. As his health advisers looked on expressionless, the President started lobbing questions about whether light or disinfectants could be used inside the human body to cure coronavirus.

Trump and the White House spent the next 24 hours trying to rationalize the comments while health departments reminded Americans that ingesting bleach is lethal.

The really important detail from the CNN article, however, is that Trump doesn’t actually attend many of the Task Force meetings, which are held in the Situation Room. He attends maybe one a week, and doesn’t always warn members he’s going to drop in.

While he almost always attends the daily press briefings, Trump rarely attends the coronavirus task force meetings that precede them. The task force doesn’t seem to mind.

According to one person close to the task force, the meetings become more prolonged if Trump attends and often go off script. When Pence is at the helm, aides say, they usually tick through the agenda rapidly. Trump comes to roughly one briefing a week. At times, 10 days or more have passed without him attending.

[snip]

Trump often turns up when he’s not expected. His presence often throws the meeting well off its assigned agenda and frequently centers on how his performance is being viewed in the media or in polling.

That means Trump has been spending upwards of 10 hours a week emceeing briefings, without doing any of the homework to learn about the pandemic.

All the attempts to understand what happened have reminded me of the New Yorker article that described how Mark Barnett made a “skeezy hustler” like Donald Trump into a titan by repackaging the unprepared, impulsive things Trump said after the fact.

He wouldn’t read a script—he stumbled over the words and got the enunciation all wrong. But off the cuff he delivered the kind of zesty banter that is the lifeblood of reality television. He barked at one contestant, “Sam, you’re sort of a disaster. Don’t take offense, but everyone hates you.”

[snip]

“The Apprentice” was built around a weekly series of business challenges. At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But, as Braun explained, Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, Braun said, the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense.

As with the Apprentice, Thursday’s fiasco ended with reaction shot, this time of Dr. Birx realizing in real time what Trump had done.

Burnett has often boasted that, for each televised hour of “The Apprentice,” his crews shot as many as three hundred hours of footage. The real alchemy of reality television is the editing—sifting through a compost heap of clips and piecing together an absorbing story. Jonathon Braun, an editor who started working with Burnett on “Survivor” and then worked on the first six seasons of “The Apprentice,” told me, “You don’t make anything up. But you accentuate things that you see as themes.” He readily conceded how distorting this process can be. Much of reality TV consists of reaction shots: one participant says something outrageous, and the camera cuts away to another participant rolling her eyes. Often, Braun said, editors lift an eye roll from an entirely different part of the conversation.

Of course, this time it’s real. And no one gets to go back and edit Trump’s dangerous comments to make them look like leadership after the fact. By then, people were already drinking Lysol.

On Thursday, after Trump made his comments and had Dr. Birx comment on it, Philip Rucker asked him why he was spreading rumors. For me, it was the most remarkable part of an unbelievable briefing. Trump responded, first, by stating, “I’m the President and you’re fake news,” the kind of comment that might be a ratings hit if it wasn’t getting people killed.

THE PRESIDENT: Deborah, have you ever heard of that? The heat and the light, relative to certain viruses, yes, but relative to this virus?

DR. BIRX: Not as a treatment. I mean, certainly fever —

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah.

DR. BIRX: — is a good thing. When you have a fever, it helps your body respond. But not as — I’ve not seen heat or (inaudible).

THE PRESIDENT: I think it’s a great thing to look at. I mean, you know. Okay?

Q But respectfully, sir, you’re the President. And people tuning into these briefings, they want to get information and guidance and want to know what to do.

THE PRESIDENT: Hey — hey, Phil.

Q They’re not looking for a rumor.

THE PRESIDENT: Hey, Phil. I’m the President and you’re fake news. And you know what I’ll say to you? I’ll say it very nicely. I know you well.

Q Why do you say that?

THE PRESIDENT: I know you well.

Because I know the guy; I see what he writes. He’s a total faker.

Q He’s a good reporter.

THE PRESIDENT: So, are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready? It’s just a suggestion from a brilliant lab by a very, very smart, perhaps brilliant, man. He’s talking about sun. He’s talking about heat. And you see the numbers. So that’s it; that’s all I have. I’m just here to present talent.

Trump ended, however, the most powerful man in the world rendered helpless by an actual crisis with actual consequences, by claiming, “I’m just here to present talent.”

Update: WaPo catalogued what has been going on in Trump’s COVID rallies, both since March 16 and since April 6. The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s a taste of what they found.

The president has spoken for more than 28 hours in the 35 briefings held since March 16, eating up 60 percent of the time that officials spoke, according to a Washington Post analysis of annotated transcripts from Factba.se, a data analytics company.

Over the past three weeks, the tally comes to more than 13 hours of Trump — including two hours spent on attacks and 45 minutes praising himself and his administration, but just 4½ minutes expressing condolences for coronavirus victims. He spent twice as much time promoting an unproven antimalarial drug that was the object of a Food and Drug Administration warning Friday. Trump also said something false or misleading in nearly a quarter of his prepared comments or answers to questions, the analysis shows.

If my math is correct, there have been almost 47 hours of briefings since March 16, and they’ve been an average of an hour and twenty minutes (the average for the later range is shorter, no doubt skewed by the 22 minute briefing Friday). So for the briefings Trump attends, he can spend over 9 hours a week mouthing off about stuff he knows nothing about.

 

Trump’s Medical Quackery Exposes the Press’ Both-Sides Quackery

Last night, an increasingly desperate President went on live TV and advised that people might try ingesting disinfectant to cure COVID-19.

The comment has elicited justifiable uproar. It renewed questions about how long Trump’s medical experts, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, can remain on stage while he touts junk cures (this video capturing Birx’s response is painful). It sparked a fascinating thread from former Special Envoy on ISIS, Brett McGurk, explaining how Trump’s instability makes it impossible to credibly advise him:

  1. You can’t stay above crazy: On any issue, the crazy will catch up to you
  2. There’s no policy: You’re always a Tweet away from all going sideways
  3. You can’t speak credibly: Since there’s no policy, nobody speaks credibly for our country
  4. Diplomacy is impossible: Foreign parties know that only Trump counts and he changes on a whim
  5. You may need to resign: In any senior role, your integrity will be tested

It generated a lot of attention on Trump’s outrageous comments and as a result shifted attention away from the fact that we’ve probably surpassed 50,000 deaths (though not in official counts, yet) and that Trump explicitly disagreed —  “I don’t agree with him” — with Fauci’s earlier comments that we’re not where we need to be on testing.

But it also elicited both sides reporting.

WaPo did a piece that called Trump’s suggestions as “medical musings,” put his suggestions high up in the story labeled as “bizarre,” like a nifty circus act, then called ingesting Lysol as only “potentially” dangerous.

It went on to air the FDA Commissioner, Stephen Hahn’s sycophantic excuse for Trump’s comments — just a conversation between an idiotic patient and his doctor, not the most powerful leader of the world seeding hoaxes on live TV — without noting that by apologizing for his boss, Hahn himself was refusing to do his job to keep us safe.

The WaPo treated this as a both sides thing, Lysol’s manufacturer and Sanjay Gupta arguing the partisan side of “science” against Trump and Hahn arguing the partisan side of, “miracle cures.”

WaPo isn’t the only one, though. NYT (by-lined by one of the journalists responsible for Mobile Bioweapons Labs in Iraq), too, treated the disinfectant and related UV ray questions as a matter pitting experts against the President.

President Trump has long pinned his hopes on the powers of sunlight to defeat the Covid-19 virus. On Thursday, he returned to that theme at the daily White House coronavirus briefing, bringing in a top administration scientist to back up his assertions and eagerly theorizing — dangerously, in the view of some experts — about the powers of sunlight, ultraviolet light and household disinfectants to kill the coronavirus.

[snip]

Experts have long warned that ultraviolet lamps can harm humans if used improperly — when the exposure is outside the body, much less inside. But bottles of bleach and other disinfectants carry sharp warnings of ingestion dangers. The disinfectants can kill not only microbes but humans.

NBC, too, pitched this as a dispute between Lysol and their own health expert, Vin Gupta, versus Trump.

There’s no dispute here!!!!

We don’t actually need to call Lysol (which is undoubtedly panicked that liability claims will undermine an otherwise welcome spike in sales) or consult experts about whether drinking disinfectant will hurt us. It’s something we learned as small children. The fact that outlets are treating this as a both sides issue is all the more troubling given that Trump’s statement clearly misrepresented what Acting DHS Undersecretary for Science and Technology William Bryan said in the briefing, which addressed how to kill the virus outside of the human body, not inside it. That is, outlets could cover the statements by describing them as a matter of Trump totally misunderstanding what he just heard — which is, itself, newsworthy — rather than presenting the efficacy of drinking poison as a matter open to debate.

What yesterday’s comments did — on top of indicate just how unhinged the President is getting as he realizes you can’t cheat your way out of a pandemic — is illustrate once and for all that, five years into covering Donald Trump as a national politician, some journalists still haven’t learned how to avoid being complicit in Trump’s dis- and misinformation. It may well show that not just Hannity, but even some in the so-called objective press, will own some responsibility for the idiotic choices that Americans make after listening to Trump. It certainly shows that it is high time for the press to treat the President’s ramblings as a problem unto themselves, not as anything conveying actual information.

VOA Africa correspondent Jason Patinkin made this point presciently in a long thread the other day by comparing how Ebola got covered — by journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo and internationally — with how COVID-19 is getting covered now. He asked,

Anyways, did media (DRC and intl) covering outbreak coddle conspiracy theorists with both sides-ism, and give nonstop coverage to people encouraging such theories? Did they breathlessly report unproven cures and vaccines? Did they gently describe armed groups as “protesters”?

He noted that presenting “verified, critical information” means that, yes, journalists will and should default to taking the side of public health.

Journalists in DRC’s ebola outbreak in some ways “chose” a side: the side of public health. It seems to me that many US journalists, so obsessed with false ideas of neutrality, have not chosen the side of public health. This is wrong.

It has always been wrong to treat Trump’s disinformation as one side of a dispute up for debate. It was wrong on Russia, it was wrong on Ukraine, it was wrong on climate, it was wrong on North Korea.

But doing so now may make journalists complicit in getting people killed.

Update: This NBC report explains why Trump was pushing these particularly miracle cures.

Update: NYT has slightly updated its story (though not entirely eliminating the both-sidesing), and deleted their especially bad both-sides tweet on it. Trump, meanwhile, claims that he was being sarcastic, a claim that conflicts with what his spox said earlier today, a claim that even Fox’s Bret Baier has debunked.

Long Overdue Policies that Look Obvious in the Age of Pandemic

I’m not usually a fan of George Packer. But I keep coming back to this column, We Are Living in a Failed State. The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, which is something I might have written. It argued that this pandemic, to which the US responded like a corrupt poor country, was actually the third crisis of this century, and our responses to the previous two — 9/11 and the Iraq War, and the Wall Street crisis — simply brought this country to the place where Trump could loot it.

Like a wanton boy throwing matches in a parched field, Trump began to immolate what was left of national civic life. He never even pretended to be president of the whole country, but pitted us against one another along lines of race, sex, religion, citizenship, education, region, and—every day of his presidency—political party. His main tool of governance was to lie. A third of the country locked itself in a hall of mirrors that it believed to be reality; a third drove itself mad with the effort to hold on to the idea of knowable truth; and a third gave up even trying.

Trump acquired a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties, and steady defunding. He set about finishing off the job and destroying the professional civil service. He drove out some of the most talented and experienced career officials, left essential positions unfilled, and installed loyalists as commissars over the cowed survivors, with one purpose: to serve his own interests. His major legislative accomplishment, one of the largest tax cuts in history, sent hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations and the rich. The beneficiaries flocked to patronize his resorts and line his reelection pockets. If lying was his means for using power, corruption was his end.

Packer ends with a call for renewed solidarity.

But he might as well also call for a fix to all the failures of the past twenty years. Right now, mind you, Trump is failing, miserably, in part because he believes maximizing the opportunities for looting by his friends is all the policy he needs.

But the sheer scale of the crisis makes policies that long made sense for the United States more urgent and far easier to justify. I plan to keep a running list of those policies.

Medicare for All

No one has figured out how all the people put out of work by the shut-downs will pay for COVID-related health care. Trump has persisted in a plan to kill Obamacare, and some badly affected states never even expanded Medicaid.

Early reports suggested that Trump’s administration has claimed it is willing to pay hospital bill, so long as they pay those bills directly (thereby avoiding establishing a policy, I guess). But with so many people out of work and with hospitals reeling from the shut-down, the far better solution is to make Medicare available to all.

Universal Basic Income

The US government has been backing credit for big industry and tried, but failed, to provide free money for small businesses to keep their employees on staff. Instead, 26 million Americans have applied for unemployment, a sixth of all workers (and a third of all workers in MI, KY, and RI). Meanwhile, the Administration botched even a one-time $1,200 payment.

The government could better ensure that markets don’t crash entirely–and keep states from buckling as they try to serve all these unemployed people–if they simply gave a UBI to all people, as Spain has decided it will do. By keeping it, the US might be able to address the underlying inequality problems that have led to such a disproportionate impact of COVID on communities of color.

Decarceration

Closed spaces, generally, amount for a huge percentage of COVID cases and (in the case of nursing homes) deaths. ACLU just rolled out a paper that argues the models for COVID (which were originally based off other societies’ social patterns, including their prison system) underestimate the total number of deaths because they don’t account for the spread in our prisons.

COVID will remain lethal for long enough that states and the federal government will need to achieve some level of decarceration to prevent the prisons from becoming a source of spread to the wider community (as they have become in the localities with harder hit prisons).

In this case, even before COVID hit, there was bipartisan support to wean ourselves from overincarceration. Prisons will become less lucrative in conservative communities, especially as some states begin to end prison gerrymandering (which gives rural communities representation for prisoners who can’t vote, just like slavery did).

So now is the time to end incarceration for minor crimes, and improve the humanity of incarceration for those who need to be jailed.

Deindustrialization of the Food System

We’ll be lucky if we avoid famine conditions. That’s partly because our food system has the same institutional/retail split our toilet paper supply chain does, meaning the market for half of the food out there disappeared when restaurants and other institutional buyers shut down. That’s partly because bottlenecks in our food supply chain — most notably, thus far, meatpacking plants, but there will be others — have further undermined the market for our plentiful food production. And that’s partly because Trump’s farmer support, thus far, has emphasized direct payments that are effectively a continuation of his earlier bribery of farmers whose markets his trade war screwed, rather than purchasing up surpluses to provide to food banks.

Trump hasn’t shown an ability to get any other needed supplies where they’re needed; it’s unlikely he’ll do better with food.

Meanwhile, food supplies that bypass these commodity markets remain. We need to make this food supply chain more resilient and one way of doing so is to bypass the industrial bottlenecks.

Broadband as a Utility

When schools shut down, it suddenly became acutely visible how many Americans — both rural and urban — don’t have broadband. While some areas have gerry-rigged solutions (like driving wifi-enabled busses to poorer neighborhoods) to get some kids online and learning, that’s not possible everywhere. And even for adults, it takes broadband access to be able to social distance.

Trump is already talking about using infrastructure investments to get America working again. Extending basic broadband as a utility should be part of that.

Update: Arne Duncan describes what needs to happen for existing efforts to expand broadband access to be really effective.

Industrial Policy

Two months after we first identified shortages in necessary medical supply, we’ve barely managed to switch production to those necessary objects, even as entire factories were otherwise shut down. We’ve got shortages of not just testing kits, but the underlying supplies. We’ve got drug shortages too (and had them, even before the President started pitching miracle cures).

It’s long past time to admit that we do have an industrial policy — but right now, it’s focused on building the troubled F-35, not ensuring that the United States has the ability to build the things we need domestically, even if we interact openly with the rest of the world. This story uses the failed lithium battery investments Obama made, largely in Michigan, to talk about how we came to be unable to supply our own medical equipment.

We have an industrial policy. We just need to be willing to match that policy to our society’s real needs, not exporting warmongering.

Brian Kemp Suggests Workers at Nail Salons Don’t Own Their Own Lives

Fox News’ Martha MacCallum did a good job last night pushing Georgia Governor Brian Kemp to justify his order to reopen non-essential businesses like hair and nail salons and gyms. The order supersedes any city-wide orders, meaning even devastated cities like Albany must comply.

The entire thing is worth watching. The same guy who claimed neither he nor his health commissioner understood that COVID-19 can be spread by asymptomatic people three weeks ago — and in this clip suggests temperature screening could be effective to stop the spread — now claims that, “our people in our state have learned a lot … we’ve all been, learned how to do” social distancing and that’ll be enough to open businesses that require close proximity for extended periods.

He also suggested that the data on Georgia cases and fatalities are dated by as much as six days, meaning he’s claiming that Georgia passed its peak already.

But the real tell came when he explained that,

We’re talking about a few businesses that I closed down to help flatten the curve which we have done in our state. But for us to continue to ask them to do that while they lose everything, quite honestly, there are a lot of civil repercussions of that … When you close somebody’s business down, and take the livelihood of that individual and those employees, and they are literally at the face of losing everything, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Kemp treats small businesses — not life itself — as “everything.” And he doesn’t consider that, for people who work in these small businesses, their health and their life is what they own. Effectively, he’s stripping them of their ability to work in safety.

And, as many people have suggested, he’s also stripping people who choose not to work in unsafe conditions of unemployment benefits.

Kemp went on to suggest that “if you take Albany out of the situation right now our state is a much different place,” correctly noting that it has more deaths (but not more cases) than Atlanta but, in making the suggestion, imagining he could take Georgia’s rural black population out of the state’s general condition.

Kemp cited Trump repeatedly in this interview, even claiming that this move complies with his guidelines on reopening (it is being done before cases decline adequately and in businesses not included even in Trump’s irresponsible list, which includes gyms). He didn’t, however, say that if the Trump Administration hadn’t botched the PPP, then these small businesses wouldn’t have to choose between reopening or their lives.

On Trump’s COVID Rallies: Lying and Bullying Are Different Things

Ben Smith wrote a column about how the press should deal with Trump’s daily COVID pressers rallies that has pissed a lot of journalists off. In it, he suggests even having the debate that he’s actually engaging in is tiresome.

I don’t intend to reopen the tiresome debate over whether news organizations should broadcast Mr. Trump’s remarks. The only people really debating this are the outlets for whom it doesn’t really matter, unless you’re big on symbolism. How many listeners to Seattle’s NPR affiliate are proud red hat wearers? And who thinks that the outlets for whom it would matter — Fox News, most of all — are even considering it? The whole debate seemed rooted in the idea that if only your favored news outlet didn’t live stream the president, he would just go away.

But that’s not the biggest problem with Smith’s column.

The very first line of the column suggests — in mocking tone — that the story of Trump’s COVID rallies is his bullying.

Did you hear? The president said some things today. Mean things! About someone I know … I can’t quite remember the details, or whether it was today or yesterday, or what day of the week it is, anyway.

In claiming the COVID rallies are about Trump’s bullying, Smith focuses on the warm mutual dysfunction of Maggie Haberman’s relationship with the President. He doesn’t talk about the way that the President uses the COVID rallies to denigrate beautiful smart women who are in the room with him, questioning him, which in my opinion is a story unto itself if you want to talk whether symbolism is worth airing or not.

And that’s one of the reasons why — contrary to Smith’s claim — it’s not clear the rallies really are, “The most effective form of direct presidential communication since Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats,” because they continue to alienate people like the suburban women whose support Trump would need to win reelection. If it were just about Trump’s bullying, Smith’s argument would still be suspect regarding Trump’s efficacy.

But the debate about the COVID rallies is not just about Trump’s bullying.

On the contrary, it’s about his lies. In his column, Smith suggests that Trump’s COVID rallies only “occasionally” derail the public health response.

[T]hey should cover them as what they are, a political campaign, not as a central part of the public health response except to the degree that it occasionally derails that response.

Trump has encouraged people to take untested medicine, he has refused to model the rules on social distancing his own CDC recommends, to say nothing of wearing a mask in public. He has at times interrupted his medical experts and ad-libbed responses to serious questions with no basis in fact, much less science. He has suggested, over and over and over, that tests are not a crucial part of this response when every single expert says they are. He has used the briefings to celebrate corporations — like Tyson Foods — that haven’t provided their employees adequate protection. He has accused medical professionals of stealing supplies.

Trump’s derailments of the public health response are in no way an “occasional” thing. They happen daily.

Which is why it’s all the more irresponsible — in providing decent advice to go show the human cost of this tragedy (which would entail dedicating the time spent showing Trump’s briefing to showing those human interest stories) — that Smith dismisses the import of fact-checking, of the kind that CNN’s Daniel Dale and Vox’s Aaron Rupar do in real time.

But if the cable networks want an alternative to the briefings, they can get out of the studio and back to what first made TV news so powerful — not fact-checking, but emotionally powerful imagery of human suffering.

During Katrina, for instance, “the power of CNN was having an army of cameras and correspondents all over the Gulf, showing the brutal human and economic toll split-screened against the anemic assurances of the Bush administration,” Mr. Hamby, a former CNN staff member, recalled. “It was crippling.”

Virtually every media outlet has published at least one story emphasizing the main lesson from the 1918 flu: that leaders need to tell the truth, most importantly to convince people to comply with public health guidelines over time. Here’s the version of that argument Smith’s NYT published, written by John Barry, who wrote The Great Influenza.

That brings us back to the most important lesson of 1918, one that all the working groups on pandemic planning agreed upon: Tell the truth. That instruction is built into the federal pandemic preparedness plans and the plan for every state and territory.

In 1918, pressured to maintain wartime morale, neither national nor local government officials told the truth. The disease was called “Spanish flu,” and one national public-health leader said, “This is ordinary influenza by another name.” Most local health commissioners followed that lead. Newspapers echoed them. After Philadelphia began digging mass graves; closed schools, saloons and theaters; and banned public gatherings, one newspaper even wrote: “This is not a public health measure. There is no cause for alarm.”

Trust in authority disintegrated, and at its core, society is based on trust. Not knowing whom or what to believe, people also lost trust in one another. They became alienated, isolated. Intimacy was destroyed. “You had no school life, you had no church life, you had nothing,” a survivor recalled. “People were afraid to kiss one another, people were afraid to eat with one another.” Some people actually starved to death because no one would deliver food to them.

Society began fraying — so much that the scientist who was in charge of the armed forces’ division of communicable disease worried that if the pandemic continued its accelerating for a few more weeks, “civilization could easily disappear from the face of the earth.”

The few places where leadership told the truth had a different experience. In San Francisco, the mayor and business, labor and medical leaders jointly signed a full-page ad that read in huge all-caps type, “Wear a Mask and Save Your Life.” They didn’t know that masks offered little protection, but they did know they trusted the public. The community feared but came together. When schools closed, teachers volunteered as ambulance drivers, telephone operators, food deliverers.

Compliance today has been made vastly more difficult by the White House, echoed by right-wing media, minimizing the seriousness of this threat. That seemed to change on Monday. But will President Trump stick to his blunt message of Monday? Will his supporters and Rush Limbaugh’s listeners self-quarantine if called upon? Or will they reject it as media hype and go out and infect the community?

This is not a hoax.

Telling the truth is a life or death issue during a pandemic. An early study even suggests that Hannity — one of the most important players in Trump’s echo chamber — encouraged his watchers to sustain behaviors that could get them killed.

And in recent days, Trump has repeatedly undermined the advice of his experts, lying about the social distancing of rent-a-mobs challenging shut-downs, and magnifying those who say this virus is, indeed, a hoax.

You cannot separate Trump’s COVID rallies from the public health story. Because his rallies — especially the lies he tells — are a menace to public health.

Update: Here’s Charles Blow’s op-ed arguing the same point.

The Human Experiment in Herd Immunity Ohio Is Unintentionally Running at Marion Prison

Given shortages on testing, there have been just a few populations exposed to coronavirus in the US that have all been tested. Among the first cruise ships to be tested, up to 19% of those on board tested positive. 660 members of the crew of the USS Teddy Roosevelt have tested positive, about 13% of the crew. At the Kirkland Life Care Center, 67% of residents tested positive by March 27.

In Marion Prison in Ohio, two months into this crisis, an astounding 1828 — around 73% — of prisoners have tested positive, per Ohio’s official numbers.

I have no reason to believe that Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine conducted this experiment intentionally — or even considers it an experiment at all. This is data the state needs to understand how to deal with COVID. His medical officer, Amy Acton, has been first rate. I assume that as Ohio considered the areas where their aggressive response hasn’t succeeded in stopping the spread of COVID, the prisons in the state were one of the most obvious failures (the federal prison at Elkton, Ohio has an official count of 50 inmates who have tested positive, with 6 who have died, though federal prisons aren’t testing everyone). And so the state decided to test everyone at three different institutions.

*DRC has taken an aggressive and unique approach to testing, which includes mass testing of all staff and inmates at the Marion Correctional Institution, the Pickaway Correctional Institution, and the Franklin Medical Center (which is Ohio’s medical facility for inmates). Because we are testing everyone – including those who are not showing symptoms – we are getting positive test results on individuals who otherwise would have never been tested because they were asymptomatic. The total tested and total pending are part of the large mass testing currently underway. Pickaway staff testing will begin the week of April 19, 2020. Once all of those results are received, these columns will be filled. Positive and negative results are still being reported and are current as of this posting.

Thus far, the positive rates in the other two facilities are lower than at Marion. While I’m not convinced all the Marion prison cases get included in the Ohio count right away, as of now, almost 16% of the Ohio’s cases are in Marion prison.

Whether intentionally or not, Ohio will soon begin to understand what happens when COVID spreads in an enclosed space with a younger population and — in the weeks ahead, what percentage of those men will weather the exposure without deathly symptoms, and then, what percentage of those men have antibodies that suggest they might be able to leave in a prison rampant with the virus with some kind of immunity.

At a minimum, the Marion prison experience shows that — even with two months of warning — without testing, spread of the disease inside closed quarters, will outrun any attempt to generate herd immunity, presumably because the lag between getting the disease, exhibiting symptoms, and developing immunity is too long.

Ohio is collecting necessary data. Better to collect it and identify all the people that might need medical treatment, then pretending the problem is not as bad as it is, which is what virtually all other prisons are doing. The data will help Ohio understand what’s happening at all of its prisons and make informed decisions as a result. One reason DeWine’s response in Ohio has been so good is that he has followed the data.

But having it will create ethically fraught policy questions, particularly in places where those making policy decisions have already shown an inclination to put economic decisions over health considerations.

It poses some pretty troubling policy considerations. While 109 guards at Marion have also tested positive (244 guards in state prisons across Ohio, as well as 38 at Elkton), it’s not yet clear whether the guards have contributed to clusters in surrounding communities — though that’s another thing Ohio will learn as it tests all the Marion population. No prisoner at Marion has yet died (one staffer has). Effectively — again, I’m not saying that this was at all intentional — Ohio is testing whether it’s possible for certain, younger enclosed populations to just weather this illness.

The thing is, I suspect something similar may be happening in other clusters where entire populations will be tested, one where ethical considerations won’t be aired publicly. Will meatpackers, for example, decide that their workers are so expendable that losing ten or so, but then reopening a plant with an immune workforce, is worth the human cost? if they do, we’re unlikely to find out they’ve made that decision anytime soon.

Given the disproportionate impact of this disease on the poor and those who live or work in confined spaces, especially people of color in both populations, given the political stakes Republicans are placing on proceeding as if a pandemic doesn’t change ordinary politics, as more populations like the one in Marion do tests of the entire population, will present ethical questions that our society is in no way prepared to handle.

On Mountains, Mountain Climbing, and COVID-19

Memorial to climbers who have died on Mount Everest at the Pheriche Aid Post (h/t akunamatata via flikr; CC BY-ND 2.0)

The language of mountains and mountain climbing is all over the COVID-19 coverage, from the talk of “reaching the peak” of infections to the euphoria of those who proclaim that in various areas, we are “hitting the plateau.” But as a mountain-climbing friend once told me “Climbing the mountain is the easy part — it’s the descent that’ll kill you.”

This is not just a cliche, or a (non-)urban legend, but backed up by the experience of those who know the mountains best:

Kami Rita Sherpa knows Mount Everest better than anyone else: He’s summited the world’s tallest peak 24 times, more than any person in history. . . .

Sherpa said problems arise not from those lines [of climbers waiting at altitude to pass along single-file sections of the climb], but when people accidentally push past what their body can support. Some research suggests that Everest climbers can develop a kind of “summit fever,” racing to the top to prove they can, even when their bodies are showing signs of giving out.

“At that altitude, it takes everything to put one foot in front of the other,” Everest climber and exercise psychologist Shaunna Burke recently told Business Insider. “If you haven’t judged how much gas you have left in the tank, then you can’t make it down. That’s why some climbers sit down and don’t get back up.”

Sherpa echoed this.

“When returning, their body is out of energy, and many people die due to this cause,” he said.

It’s not just one or two climbers’ opinion, either. In 2006, Paul Firth and his colleagues published “Mortality on Mount Everest, 1921-2006: descriptive study” in the British Medical Journal, which looked at every documented death on Mount Everest and sought to understand what commonalities might be found among the fatalities. They first distinguished between deaths below 8000 meters as climbers and their guides traversed areas prone to avalanches, crevasses, and other features of the mountain, and the deaths that took place above 8000 meters, where the mountain is generally more stable but fatigue and altitude sickness are the greatest dangers. On the lower part of the mountain, guides were more likely to be the ones who died, which the authors surmise is because the guides make multiple trips up and down the climbing route, setting ropes and bringing supplies up to the higher camp, before they guide the climbers along the route they found and made more safe. When it came to the deaths above 8000 meters, however, things reversed, and they noticed some shocking numbers:

Table 3 presents data on the mountaineers who died after reaching 8000 m. Fifty three (56%) died during the descent, 16 (17%) after turning back below the summit, and nine (10%) during the ascent. The stage of the summit bid was unknown for 12 mountaineers (13%), and four (5%) died before leaving the final camp.

Look at those top three figures again: 10% died while making the push for the summit, and 73% died while descending. For every death going up, there were 7 going down.

Maybe these climbers who died on the way back down pushed too hard going up, and had nothing left for the descent. Maybe they became disoriented because of lack of oxygen and quit thinking clearly. Maybe they were so excited at having made it to the top that they got sloppy as they turned around and headed down the mountain.

Whatever the cause, the study was clear: descending from the peak is more deadly that making the climb up. As our veteran climber cited above put it:

Burke said that although all climbers want to reach the summit, that objective alone can be a problematic.

“The summit is only halfway,” she said. “Your ultimate goal should be to make it back to camp alive.”

I look at the images of the folks protesting the “stay-at-home” orders issued to fight the COVID-19 epidemic, and their cheers of things like “We made it! We stopped the disease! Now let’s open things up again and get back to work!” I read the tweets to “liberate” this or that state, cheering on those who think the task is done. Then I think of the mountain climbers cheering at having reached the top of the mountain, who don’t realize how dangerous things can be on the way back down. That’s what worries me about all the talk of opening back up right now.

Yes, some places may have reached the peak of new infections, the peak of ICU bed usage, and the peak number of intubated patients. But here’s the thing: we are still on the mountain. Getting to the top is great, but the goal is to make it back to camp alive.

I don’t want to minimize the accomplishment of the climb, whether speaking of those who scale mountains or those who have been struggling to keep ahead of the increasing numbers of those hit by COVID-19. But relatively speaking, climbing the mountain is the easy part. It’s the descent that’s much more likely to kill. Face it, people: This journey has a long way to go, with plenty of opportunities for negligence and for misplaced cheering which will give life to a virus that deals out death.

This is no time for getting complacent or sloppy. Stay home, stay safe, save lives.

Rural COVID-19: The Tyson Food Clusters

There has been a lot of attention to the COVID cluster in the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, SD, which shut down after hundreds of workers became ill with COVID-19. One worker in the factory died.

But there’s another meatpacking plant that has had four deaths: a Tyson’s Food plant in Camilla, GA.

Four employees of a major poultry producer’s operations in rural southwest Georgia have died after becoming infected with the coronavirus, a company spokesman said Friday.

Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson said three of the employees worked at the company’s chicken processing plant in Camilla, while the fourth person worked in a supporting job outside the plant. He declined to say how many workers there have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus.

[snip]

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents 2,000 workers at the Georgia chicken plant, identified the three plant employees who died as women who had worked there for 13 to 35 years. A statement from the union said many plant employees are “sick or in quarantine.”

This factory is commuting distance — 30 miles — from Albany, GA, where a funeral on February 29 led to a significant cluster. It’s in Mitchell County, GA, which has a population of around 22,000, of whom about half are black. Camilla itself is about 5,600 people, of whom 66% are black. The poultry plant is the largest employer.

Coronavirus has spread to the next largest employer in town: Autry State Prison, which employs 500 people and houses 1,700 prisoners. 4 staffers and 6 prisoners have tested positive, according to official numbers. (And a County jail has 3 cases.)

While Tyson Foods has implemented some measures to slow the spread — including making masks mandatory — it still isn’t providing sick pay.

Gonzalez said the company has improved safety measures at the Camilla plant by checking employees’ temperatures, requiring workers to wear face coverings, installing dividers at work stations and providing more space in break rooms. He said the company in March had “relaxed our attendance policy to encourage workers to stay at home when they’re sick.”

[snip]

The union has called on poultry processors to require employees to quarantine themselves for 14 days, and pay them sick leave, when they’re exposed to co-workers testing positive for the virus. It also wants individual departments to be shut down for 72 hours and cleaned after a worker tests positive.

The CEO of Tyson Foods, Dean Banks, is one of the CEOs Trump claims to be consulting on how to reopen the country. Yet his plants are responsible for two clusters of COVID.

148 of the workers in a Tyson pork plant in Columbus Junction, IA have tested positive, and two have died. 47% of the population in Columbus Junction are Hispanic and 12% Asian.

Tyson’s workers account for 89% of the cases in rural Louisa County. This story includes an anonymous family member of someone who works at the plant claiming that Tyson’s public comments about preventative measures at the plant are not true.

The relative of one plant worker, however, disputed that, telling Starting Line the company did not provide face masks to workers, still had people working in close proximity to each other, allowed workers to eat together in the break room, and that workers weren’t told of the infections until the day the plant shut down. Not wanting to disclose their name, they also noted the only changes made at the plant were taking employees’ temperatures as they came in, encouraging people to wash their hands, and displaying posters with information about the virus in multiple languages.

Trump and Tyson Foods seem to think these workers are expendable. But if food plants continue to cause clusters like this, it’ll not only shut down key parts of the food supply, but create clusters of COVID-19 in rural areas that are far less equipped to deal with it.

Update: Deleted a comment about Hispanic population in Columbus Junction per Peterr’s comment.

Liberate All Trump’s Criminals to Sustain the Lockdown

According to multiple reports yesterday, Michael Cohen will soon be released to serve out the remainder of his prison sentence in home confinement.

The federal Bureau of Prisons has notified Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, that he will be released early from prison due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter and his lawyer.

Cohen is serving a three-year sentence at the federal prison camp in Otisville, NY, where 14 inmates and seven staff members at the complex have tested positive for the virus.

Cohen was scheduled for release in November 2021, but he will be allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence from home confinement, the people said. He will have to undergo a 14-day quarantine at the prison camp before he is released.

Cohen was notified on Thursday of his pending release, and his lawyer, Roger Adler, confirmed it to CNN.

As Josh Gerstein has described, sometimes these promises don’t work out.

The spouse of an inmate at one of the hardest-hit federal prisons, in Elkton, Ohio, described a puzzling transfer of prisoners into pre-release quarantine and then out again.

Tammy Hartman said her husband Pete, who’s due out of prison in August of next year, was one of 56 inmates whose names were called on Saturday to report for quarantine so they could be sent on home confinement.

“They were all told: you’re going home,” she said. But on Wednesday, 54 of the men were sent back to their cells. “They told them, sorry, you’re not going anywhere, because they’d approved only two of them to leave.”

“I actually thought he was coming home,” Hartman said of her 59-year-old husband who — like other prisoners mentioned in this story — is serving time on drug charges. “I canceled all his subscriptions to magazines because I thought he’d be home in 14 days… I’m trying to hold it together.”

Which is, I guess, why Cohen’s lawyers promptly made this public — to make it harder for BOP to renege.

Otisville prison is one of the federal prisons with a growing cluster — currently, officially, with 14 prisoners and 7 guards testing positive. So it is an appropriate places for BOP to attempt to move older, non-violent prisoners. That said, Cohen is not actually that old (just 53) and as far as is public, his health is fine.

A far better case might be made that Paul Manafort should be sent to home confinement. He’s 71 and wasn’t all that healthy when he first went to jail almost two years ago, and he has continued to have health problems since then. His attorney, Kevin Downing, cited those health problems in a letter to BOP asking for his release. Curiously, Downing appears to be thinking exclusively in terms of internal appeals, rather than appealing to a judge, which suggests he thinks his client stands a better chance if someone working for Bill Barr makes the decision (which certainly worked to keep him out of Rikers when he was arraigned in New York). Perhaps that’s because the prison he’s in, Loretto, has had no reported cases yet. Manafort has been quarantining since the end of March, so can be sent home if there are cases there.

Paul Manafort is a shithole who sold out the candidate he worked for and his own country. He got fabulously wealthy fronting for dictators and other sleazebags, and stiffed the American taxpayers on the blood money he got in exchange.

But BOP should seriously consider moving him to home confinement for as long as the COVID outbreak lasts. Manafort was not nor should he have been sentenced to a death for his crimes. And if you can’t support that move for his miserable humanity, then do it for others he might infect, like the far poorer guards who tend to him.

Cohen and Manafort are not the only Trump criminals who may dodge full prison terms because of this virus. As bmaz noted, yesterday Amy Berman Jackson rejected Roger Stone’s bid for a new trial. While BOP doesn’t assign spots to people all that quickly in any case, for new non-violent prisoners, BOP is not rushing people into incarceration. And Stone, at 67, is also old enough to be considered a higher risk.

So rather than starting rebellions against stay-at-home orders in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, Trump should encourage Bill Barr to liberate his criminal co-conspirators, along with the similarly situated men of color incarcerated with them.

But the only reason to remove Paul Manafort from an environment where he’d be more likely to contract the virus is if there’s a shut-down. So if Trump wants his criminals liberated — or wants Stone to remain out of prison long enough for the post-election pardon — then he should be rooting for a continued shut-down.

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