State of the Union under pandemic shut-downs

Paige Elliott/MSR News Social distancing in practice at Seward Friendship Store in Mpls. Patrons shop 10 at a time.

News Analysis

As I recently sat across from a group of young Black kids on the bus, I overheard them make a joke of the coronavirus, but COVID-19 has shown us that it is anything but a joke. However, the U.S. government’s uneven response to the virus led by President Donald Trump, seems to fluctuate between seriousness and a joke.

No joke: On Wednesday, Minnesota joined 20 other states in issuing stay-at-home orders. The order will go into effect 11:59 pm on Friday, March 27 to 5 pm on Friday, April 10. To date, the state has reported two deaths and 346 positive cases of COVID-19.

No joke: The coronavirus has proved fatal to 22,295 people worldwide according to the Johns Hopkins tracker.

No joke: Pictures coming out of Italy lately are primarily of coffins as COVID-19 continues to take a deadly toll on that country. The number of deaths as of Thursday climbed past 7,500. The total number of confirmed cases in the country has reached a staggering 74,386 to date.

Much of the rest of Western Europe is suffering under this epidemic, as doctors in Madrid, Spain warn of overcrowded emergency rooms that will soon be overrun by infected patients. Officials, there are saying there soon may not be enough beds or medical personnel to help. Spain’s death climbed past 4,000 as of Thursday.

“I would love to have the country opened up and raring to go by Easter,” Trump said during a Fox News town hall broadcast from the Rose Garden at the White House. Easter falls on April 12 this year.

However, all of his medical advisors are warning that the forecast is too soon and that the virus is far from under control. “We’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression,” Trump said. “You can’t just come in and say let’s close up the United States of America, the biggest, the most successful country in the world by far.” He said about the economy, “The faster we go back, the better it’s going to be.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) responded to Trump’s pronouncement on Tuesday. “Protecting people and protecting the economy are not mutually exclusive,” DeWine said during his daily coronavirus briefing. “The fact is, we save our economy by first saving lives. And we have to do it in that order.”

Young people everywhere were apparently not taking seriously the calls to maintain social distance. The mayor of Miami Dade County, Carlos Gimenez, closed South Beach and other parks, noting that he was “disappointed to see photos and videos on social media of boats close together and large groups of people congregating.”

The same was true in other warm-weather parts of the country, including Florida’s coastal beaches and beaches in California and Texas. Incredibly, practically every locale in the U.S. has reported a shortage of COVID-19 tests that can tell people whether they are infected. The president had said at a press conference that there were enough tests for anyone who needs one.

The president’s misinformation has caused extra anxiety to people who took him at his word and insisted on being tested. There were not enough tests available at the time of his statement, and tests are still in short supply. Testing is being limited to those who clearly are showing symptoms of COVID-19.

New York Governor Mario Cuomo tweeted on Tuesday that “New York needs 30,000 ventilators…It will be the difference between life and death. The federal government must provide these ventilators.” President Trump responded in a tweet, “We’re building him hospitals, we’re building him medical centers…and he was talking about the ventilators. But he should have ordered the ventilators. And he had a choice; he had a chance.”

Meanwhile, a coronavirus emergency bill has focused primarily on bailing out big business. It is rumored that the initial efforts stalled because of a clause that would have allowed the chair of the Federal Reserve to bail out the corporations of his choosing.

“Before Washington even thinks about giving the Trump Administration a $500 billion bailout fund for businesses, it can start by bailing out the ordinary taxpayers who send money to Washington every year,” wrote Micheal Grunwald of Politico.

National nurses unions and nurses from the Minnesota Nurses Association have held press conferences complaining about the lack of N95 masks that offer the best protection. Nurses and doctors around the country have complained about having to reuse masks, which put personnel in danger of contracting the virus from infected patients. In New York, the nurses have asked people to make home-made masks for medical personnel.

With the medical community in short supply of personal protection equipment (PPE), COVID-19 test kits and ventilators, the president could mandate private industry to step up and fill these needs through the Defense Production Act. Congress approved the act in 1950 to facilitate the production of aluminum and copper during the Korean conflict.

“We need to get Honeywell and other companies to start turning out PPE ASAP. The government needs to enact an order to tell corporations that they need to start turning out PPE like during war times. These are wartime conditions. This is sweeping through and can take a lot of lives if we don’t step it up and step it up now.”

Target Corporation was excoriated by social media and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee when it was discovered that the company had put N95 masks on sale in their Seattle area stores while local hospitals were experiencing a shortage of the masks. The company apologized and donated the masks to Seattle area medical centers and hospitals.

St. Paul-based 3M is a manufacturer of the masks, but there has been no word from the company about whether they plan on increasing production.
A group of doctors in Virginia is calling for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to release information about whether Black communities are being left behind as the shortage of coronavirus tests continues in the U.S. They’re concerned that Black communities and other underserved groups might be disproportionately missing out on getting tested for COVID-19.

“We know in the U.S. that there are great discrepancies in not only the diagnosis but the treatment that African Americans and other minorities are afforded. So I want to make sure that in this pandemic, that Black and Brown people are treated in the same way and that these tests are made available in the same pattern as for White people,” said Dr. Ebony Hilton, an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at the University of Virginia.

The doctors say that the deep-seated inequities that disproportionately affect Black communities—like a lack of paid sick leave and adequate health insurance, income disparities, and access to medical facilities—can heighten the effects of a crisis like the coronavirus outbreak.

“There’s a lot of reasons not to trust the government to be fair in circumstances like these,” said Dr. Cameron Webb, who is running for Congress in Virginia. “Yes, that’s a huge question, who has access to those tests… If you’re not an NBA player, it might be a little harder for Black people to get access to those tests.”

Further adding to the nation’s distress are reports of racism and intolerance. The New York Times in an article titled, “Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety,” reported that Chinese and others of Asian descent have been attacked and verbally abused around the country.

President Trump’s decision to begin referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinense virus” earlier this month may have played a role in exacerbating anti-Asian feeling in the country.

Yahoo News reported that the FBI had gathered intelligence that “racist extremist groups, including neo-Nazis and other White supremacists, are encouraging members who contract novel coronavirus disease to spread the contagion to cops and Jews.”

“There is a chance that the virus will have spread more widely into fall of 2020,” Patricia Sung, epidemiologist and manager of infection prevention at the University of Southern California’s Verdugo Hills Hospital, explained in a recent interview with Variety. She added that “by the fall, we will have even more knowledge about how to prevent people from getting sick and how to respond to people who are dealing with complications from COVID-19.”