As coronavirus cases in Texas surge, Vice President Mike Pence spoke on Sunday at an indoor service at a Dallas megachurch. Gov. Greg Abbott, Housing Secretary Ben Carson, and Sen. John Cornyn, and joined the vice president at First Baptist Dallas for an event dubbed Celebrate Freedom Sunday.
Pastor Robert Jeffress, an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, called the event “our annual patriotic service” in which his church celebrates “God’s unique blessings on our country.” As of Friday, 2,200 people were expected to worship inside the main sanctuary, with between 1,500 and 2,000 people in overflow rooms across the church’s six-block campus in downtown Dallas. Jeffress told a local news channel that the church would take worshipers’ temperatures and strongly encouraged masks and social distancing.
Have a good time this morning at First Baptist Dallas Church. The wonderful Pastor @robertjeffress will be joined by our GREAT @VP Mike Pence!
Jeffress, an evangelical preacher and Fox News regular, has acted as an informal faith advisor to Trump. He also has a long history of trumpeting racist and homophobic views. In a March sermon entitled, “Is the Coronavirus a Judgement from God?”, he cautioned 90,000 online viewers that while the coronavirus is not mentioned in the Book of Revelation, “All natural disasters can ultimately be traced to sin.”
Pence’s visit to Texas comes as the state is experiencing a post-reopening wave of the coronavirus. Two months ago, Gov. Abbott announced one of the nation’s earliest and quickest reopening plans. But the past two weeks saw record hospitalization rates, with local officials considering using convention centers and stadiums for overflow capacity. In total, there have been around 150,000 COVID-19 cases and 2,400 deaths in Texas.
On Friday, Abbott reversed course on his reopening plan, shutting bars back down, scaling back restaurant capacity to 50 percent, and prohibiting outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people unless local officials approved. “At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” he said in a press release. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”
Abbott’s order on Friday exempted churches and other houses of worship, where there is no occupancy limit.
The fuckwit-in-chief at his rally in Tulsa last week.Tyler Tomasello/ZUMA
President Trump campaign staffers who attended a recent rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma are being required to get tested for the coronavirus after eight people connected with the re-election bid tested positive, according to a memo obtained by ABC News on Friday.
The memo said explicitly that staffers “are required to obtain a negative COVID-19 test this weekend,” ominously leaving out the fate of staffers who test positive. The staffers who have already tested positive are still working while self-quarantining, according to a report.
Trump campaign staff were informed Friday night via email that all who were in Tulsa for last weekend's rally "are required to obtain a negative COVID-19 test this weekend," according to an email obtained by ABC. Reporting w/ @wsteaks & @Santucci
Trump defiantly chose to proceed with the campaign rally despite surges in confirmed coronavirus cases across the country. As my colleague Jacob Rosenberg reported, Trump’s campaign didn’t even bother reaching out to local health officials to discuss the health implications of his rally. Oklahoma reported nearly 400 new cases in 24 hours, local news noted on June 26.
In addition to concerns over Trump rallies potentially being hotspots for spreading the virus, the rally had initially been scheduled for Juneteenth, the day celebrating the emancipation of enslaved Black people after the Civil War, in a city in which white mobs massacred a thriving community known as Black Wall Street in 1921. After public outcry, the Trump campaign decided to bump it back by one day.
For well over three months, America has been without many of its great pastimes. Now that they’re coming back, coronavirus infections are soaring again.
Baseball, basketball, and football have all been suspended as sports teams and fans grapple with a coronavirus pandemic that shows no signs of letting up any time soon. But talk is shifting toward a return; the National Basketball Association just released its revamped schedule to finish the 2020 season in a bizarre bubble at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
Most leagues are considering having teams come back without fans, but that’s proving to still be very dangerous for athletes. The NBA had players report back to their teams this week and required COVID tests, and 5 percent of its players have tested positive, according to Bloomberg. Coronavirus cases are also exploding all over the state of Florida. Nearly 10,000 people tested positive across the state on one recent day.
A whopping 37 players on Clemson University’s football team have tested positive, reported ESPN. And in the National Women’s Soccer League, the Orlando Pride, will sit out the rest of the season after several of its players tested positive for the virus.
The NBA, in particular, is at something of a crossroads. A majority of the league’s players are Black, and notable stars like Kyrie Irving have argued that they should use their platforms to advocate for racial justice rather than put themselves and their families in harm’s way. There are also financial considerations for players and teams. Aging athletes have to consider effectively missing a year of their playing career and the salary that comes along with it—especially as the league faces losing upwards of $1 billion as a result of the pandemic.
Coronavirus concerns have led some athletes to sit out even as their teams return to play. Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley declined to join his team’s NBA championship pursuit in Orlando because he’s worried about contracting the virus and passing it along to his son, who has a history of respiratory illness.
Sports would signal a return to normalcy, the argument goes. But these times are anything but normal.
Nursing homes proved to be some of the earliest epicenters of America’s coronavirus epidemic. But a new report from the New York Times details just how central nursing and long-term care facilities have been in the crisis: more than 54,000 residents and workers at such facilities have died from the virus—amounting to 43 percent of the country’s total deaths—and more than 282,000 people at them have been infected across 12,000 facilities.
From the outset of the pandemic early in 2020, nursing homes near Seattle and New York City reported the first cases of staggering numbers of infections and deaths. Residents at these facilities are especially high risk, since many are over 60 years old and have underlying medical conditions that can be exacerbated by the virus.
The Times report also found that in at least 24 states, a majority of deaths were found to be linked to nursing homes. The Times based its findings on official data from states, counties and facilities themselves, and will update the data as more information from these sources becomes available. You can keep up with it here.
As coronavirus cases soar across the country, Vice President Mike Pence on Friday attempted to take a victory lap.
“We slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, we saved lives,” Pence said during the first coronavirus briefing the White House has held in nearly two months. Pence also praised the “truly remarkable progress” in reopening the country.
But the gulf between that rosy characterization and the current reality facing the country could hardly be starker: More than half of the country is seeing the rapid spread of new cases, some to record highs, as well as increased rates of hospitalizations and deaths. In their most drastic moves since reopening yet, Republican governors in Texas and Florida on Friday abruptly halted additional reopening steps from moving forward as their infection rates shatter previous highs.
While Pence did note the alarming trend during the briefing, where he was joined by other members of the White House’s coronavirus task force, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, he insisted that the country was in a “much better place” than it was two months ago. He also repeated Trump’s misguided claim that expanded testing was solely to blame for the new surges—as if counting the cases caused them—even as health officials warn that removing social distancing measures has been the primary source fueling the current surge in cases.
Birx effectively refuted that talking point on Friday with a graph that showed positive rates in Texas had declined in May even as testing increased. “It was in the last two and a half weeks that we saw this inflection of rising test positivity along with rising testing,” Birx said.
But the chances of the President and his White House acolytes abandoning the claim, even as some administration aides refute it, remain slim as Trump appears to be undeterred in blaming testing for making him look bad.
Was Donald Trump joking when he confessed to commanding officials to “slow down” coronavirus testing? That’s what his aides have claimed again and again to explain Saturday’s rally-time confession. It was just in jest! A “light moment” offered just as the number of victims ticked over a grim threshold: 120,000 US deaths. But that spin campaign spun to a grinding halt on Tuesday, thwarted by the president himself.
“I don’t kid,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday when asked about his desire to scale back testing, which if true, would come as nearly half the country is seeing new cases from the virus spike. He then proceeded to argue that increased testing capabilities—a critical part of fighting the pandemic—makes the country “look bad.”
It was the latest signal by Trump that he views his administration’s response purely in terms of perception and optics after he told supporters at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday about ordering officials to slow down the country’s COVID-19 testing. The White House, along with Vice President Mike Pence, has since claimed that the remark was nothing more than a joke, but the president has now undermined those cascading defenses on multiple occasions, including on Twitter and in an exchange with a reporter on Monday:
There were plenty of reasons to doubt the White House’s defense that Trump was joking about slowing down testing but now we have one more.
If this feels familiar, that’s because it is. As I wrote yesterday, Trump has openly and repeatedly questioned the need to test long before the Tulsa rally. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship,” he said in March, making his preference to keep a coronavirus-hit cruise ship away in order to keep the country’s infection numbers down.
“Any suggestion that testing has been curtailed is not rooted in fact,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Monday. “It was a comment that he made in jest.”
Cancer research, like so much else about this cursed year, has been derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Clinical trials—which are crucial for discovering new treatments—have been shut down, postponed, and disrupted. Other trials have been modified to protect participants and researchers. But experts warn that even for trials that have been moving and will continue to move forward, researchers could miss potentially life-saving data without periodic in-person check ins at hospitals.
Since the pandemic began, the number of people enrolling in all kinds of clinical trials has dropped dramatically—74 percent by one estimate. In cancer research specifically, more than 200 cancer trials were suspended in March and April due to the pandemic, an analysis by health care data science firm IQVIA found. STAT also reports that the last two weeks of March saw a reduction in the number of enrollments in Phase 2 and 3 cancer trials by as much as 48 percent, though those numbers have since improved to around a 30 percent drop from pre-pandemic enrollments.
While the Food and Drug Administration issued recommendations in March for how to safely proceed with clinical trials during this public health crisis, the guidelines recognize that due to supply chain disruptions, some patients may not be able to access treatments, that it’s possible some trial subjects would become infected with COVID-19, and that “unavoidable protocol deviations” may arise.
Biostatisticians Chaya Moskowitz and Katherine Panageas, both at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, are now raising alarms about the bigger picture impact on clinical trials, arguing in an opinion piece published late last week in JAMA Oncology that changes and delays in procedures may threaten the reliability of researchers’ data and, in turn, the possibility of uncovering new therapies.
I called up Moskowitz on Friday to get a breakdown of just how badly the coronavirus could damage cancer research:
Scientists may miss how tumors respond to treatments in the short term.
In typical cancer trials, Moskowitz explains, patients who are taking a trial drug or therapy visit doctors’ offices at specific intervals—six weeks, eight weeks, 12 weeks, etc.—for imaging. Those images, typically from a CT scan or MRI, allow researchers to measure whether a patient’s tumors are growing, shrinking, or staying the same. “If patients cannot come in to get those images,” Moskowitz says, “you don’t know what’s happening to the tumor.”
This is important for early-stage, “single-arm,” studies, which often just include one group of patients that receives the therapy (as compared to randomized controlled trials, the “gold standard” of testing, wherein one group of patients receives a treatment, another group doesn’t, and researchers compare the two). In these “single-arm” studies, doctors look at patients’ tumors before, after, and during treatment. That means regular check-ins matter. For example, a drug may be effective in shrinking a tumor in the short term, but if the patient misses her visits, researchers may not see those results.
It’s true that the best-case scenario is a therapy that causes the tumor to shrink and to have it stay that way. “But it’s possible,” Moskowitz says, “that there are some really aggressive tumors where [short-term results] could be of interest.”
One key measurement—how long it takes for a tumor to start growing again—is difficult to capture without regular visits.
More importantly, as a patient undergoes a new treatment, cancer researchers are often looking to see how long it takes for the tumor to grow. “We realize that the tumor is likely to continue to grow at some point, but we want to push back that time as far as we possibly can,” Moskowitz says. Simply put, effective treatments slow tumor growth. So if part of the experiment is determining when the tumor starts growing again, regular, timely patient visits are critical.
“Suppose the tumor does grow at six weeks, but you aren’t coming in at six weeks to measure it,” Moskowitz explains. “Then you come in at 12 weeks, and now you measure it and you see—a ha—the tumor is growing. You’re going to record for that patient that the tumor grew at 12 weeks.” As a result, the drug may appear to be much more effective than it really was.
Researchers may fail to capture “adverse events.”
Another loss that comes from missing in-person visits, Moskowitz argues, is that researchers could lose out on tracking “adverse events.” Patients checking in with scientists over the phone or by video chat are probably able to self-report things like nausea and pain. “But there are some things,” she says, “that require monitoring of what’s going on inside their bodies, like liver function, things that require blood work to be done—if they’re not coming in for in-person visits, that information is not being collected.”
One way to make sure research during the pandemic is reliable is to record everything.
“If patients didn’t get the drugs, that needs to be recorded. If patients are missing visits, it needs to be recorded,” Moskowitz says. Then, in analysis, researchers should disclose the limitations in their data, and potentially examine their findings during the pandemic separately from the data collected before and after it.
After all, Moskowitz points out, clinical trials are really the only way scientists have to evaluate whether a drug works or not. And participants are contributing their own time—and bodies—to get answers. “We have an ethical and moral obligation to be using people’s research data in a way that allows us to draw meaningful conclusions.”
President Donald Trump sent his aides scrambling this weekend after his trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he revealed during his first campaign rally since the lockdown that he had recently ordered health officials to “slow down” coronavirus testing.
Trump’s logic for scaling back a crucial tool for fighting the pandemic was that testing—rather than relaxed social distancing measures as health officials have warned—was to blame for the steady rise in new coronavirus cases. The remarks sparked alarm, and the White House went into overdrive to deny their seriousness.
Coronavirus cases continue to soar across the country, with more than half of US states recording new spikes this week. But as the numbers tick upward and communities emerge from lockdown, President Trump and his allies are resorting to the same denialist tactics they employed when the crisis first began, once again downplaying the threat of the virus that has now claimed 120,000 American lives.
The latest came when Trump, while speaking at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday, blamed the expansion of testing for the steady increase in cases—an assertion public health officials have labeled misguided.
“So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please,’” Trump told supporters, in what appeared to be a shocking admission that the president preferred to limit a critical tool for fighting the pandemic. While the White House was quick to claim that the remarks were a joke, as my colleague Jacob Rosenberg noted, it wasn’t the first time Trump has questioned the role of COVID-19 testing. Here he was in March, telling reporters that he wanted passengers aboard a coronavirus-hit cruise ship to stay away to keep the numbers of cases down.
“I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship” — Trump explains that he doesn’t want to let people off the Grand Princess cruise ship because he doesn’t want the number of coronavirus cases in the country to go up pic.twitter.com/ELhZDjiZW9
In a more recent example, Trump told the Wall Street Journal that testing is “overrated” and that “in many ways, it makes us look bad.”
But Trump’s record of airing dangerous statements about COVID-19 testing isn’t the only reason to doubt that his remarks on Saturday were merely “tongue-in-cheek.” In fact, the effort to attribute the rise in cases to increased testing appears to be the administration’s official new line. From the New York Times last week:
“I would just encourage you all, as we talk about these things, to make sure and continue to explain to your citizens the magnitude of increase in testing,” Mr. Pence said on a call with governors, audio of which was obtained by the New York Times. “And that in most of the cases where we are seeing some marginal rise in number, that’s more a result of the extraordinary work you’re doing.”
He added: “But also encourage people with the news that we are safely reopening the country. That, as we speak today, because people are going back to hospitals and elective surgery and getting ordinary care, hospitalization rates may be going up. But according to our most current information, hospitalizations for coronavirus are going down across the country.”
That statement is untrue: hospitalizations, particularly where states are experiencing the biggest surges, are rising. Health officials say that is further evidence that relaxed social distancing measures—not the rise in testing capabilities—are to blame. In his remarks to governors, it was clear that Pence, like his boss, seemed to prioritize optics over science.
During a separate press conference on police reform, Trump last Wednesday falsely claimed that the virus would disappear even in the absence of a vaccine. In the same breath, Trump pointed to a non-existent AIDS vaccine as proof.
President Donald Trump holds a medical testing swab near his nose as he tours Puritan Medical Products, a medical swab manufacturer, in early June.Patrick Semansky/AP
This story was published in partnership withProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.
Since May, the Trump administration has paid a fledgling Texas company $7.3 million for test tubes needed in tracking the spread of the coronavirus nationwide. But, instead of the standard vials, Fillakit LLC has supplied plastic tubes made for bottling soda, which state health officials say are unusable.
The state officials say that these “preforms,” which are designed to be expanded with heat and pressure into 2-liter soda bottles, don’t fit the racks used in laboratory analysis of test samples. Even if the bottles were the right size, experts say, the company’s process likely contaminated the tubes and could yield false test results. Fillakit employees, some not wearing masks, gathered the miniature soda bottles with snow shovels and dumped them into plastic bins before squirting saline into them, all in the open air, according to former employees and ProPublica’s observation of the company’s operations.
“It wasn’t even clean, let alone sterile,” said Teresa Green, a retired science teacher who worked at Fillakit’s makeshift warehouse outside of Houston for two weeks before leaving out of frustration.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency signed its first deal with Fillakit on May 7, just six days after the company was formed by an ex-telemarketer repeatedly accused of fraudulent practices over the past two decades. Fillakit has supplied a total of more than 3 million tubes, which FEMA then approved and sent to all 50 states. If the company fulfills its contractual obligation to provide 4 million tubes, it will receive a total of $10.16 million.
Officials in New York, New Jersey, Texas and New Mexico confirmed they can’t use the Fillakit tubes. Three other states told ProPublica that they received Fillakit supplies and have not distributed them to testing sites. FEMA has asked health officials in several states to find an alternative use for the unfinished soda bottles.
“We are still trying to identify an alternative use,” said Janelle Fleming, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Health.
Fillakit owner Paul Wexler acknowledged that the tubes are normally used for soda bottles but otherwise declined to comment.
The Fillakit deal shows the perils of the Trump administration’s frantic hiring of first-time federal contractors with little scrutiny during the pandemic. The federal government has awarded more than $2 billion to first-time contractors for work related to the coronavirus, a ProPublica analysis of purchasing data shows. Many of those companies, like Fillakit, had no experience with medical supplies.
The U.S. has lagged behind many European countries in its rate of testing people for the coronavirus, partly because of supply shortages or inadequacies. Epidemiologists say testing is vital to tracking the virus and slowing transmission. In at least one state, the shipment of unusable Fillakit tubes contributed to delays in rolling out widespread testing.
“They’re the most unusable tubes I’ve ever seen,” said a top public health scientist in that state, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job. “They’re going to sit in a warehouse and no one can use them. We won’t be able to do our full plan.”
In a written response to questions, FEMA said it inspects testing products “to ensure packaging is intact to maintain sterility; that the packing slip matches the requested product ordered, and that the vials are not leaking.” It said that “product validation” that medical supplies are effective “is reinforced at the state laboratories.”
The agency did not answer questions about the size and lack of sterilization of Fillakit’s tubes or about why it sought an alternative use for them.
Fillakit is one of more than 300 new federal contractors providing supplies related to COVID-19. A ProPublica analysis last month found about 13% of total federal government spending on pandemic-related contracts went to first-time vendors. FEMA said last month that it only pays for products once they have been delivered, minimizing the risk of wasting taxpayer dollars.
“FEMA does not enter into contracts unless it has reason to believe they will be successfully executed,” it said.
Preforms, the small tubes also known in the plastics industry as “baby soda bottles” or “blanks,” have a following among elementary school science teachers and amateur scientists, but they don’t meet rigorous laboratory standards. They’re much cheaper than glass vials and can be sealed off with a soda bottle cap. When inflated with high-pressure air, the soft plastic expands to the size of a 2-liter soda bottle.
The preforms arrive at Fillakit’s warehouse in a huge shipping container. The tubes are then shoveled into smaller bins. Workers add the saline solution and screw on caps. The tubes are then loosely piled in bags and sent to FEMA, which forwards them to the states. Typically, test tubes are individually packaged to guard against contamination.
Washington state, an epicenter of the first outbreak of the virus, got more than 76,000 Fillakit vials from FEMA. None can be used.
“They were packaged unusually,” said Frank Ameduri, a spokesman for the state Health Department. “Not in a way we’re used to seeing, and they were not labeled. Some of them have been sent to our lab for quality control. None of the vials will be used until we’ve identified what’s in them and that they are safe for use.”
About 140,000 Fillakit tubes are also shelved in Texas, where officials were slow to roll out testing. The number of confirmed cases in Texas has increased by more than one-third in the past two weeks, according to data gathered by The COVID Tracking Project.
“There were issues with the labeling, and they use saline rather than viral transport medium, so we have not used them for our testing efforts,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas health department.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only validated one solution, known as viral transport medium, as reliable in preserving the coronavirus RNA from decay or destruction by substances in the container. However, because that medium is in short supply, the FDA has also granted an emergency authorization for other products it believes can keep the virus intact for up to three days.
Fillakit has been squirting one of the alternatives into its tubes, phosphate buffered saline, which the FDA says should be placed into “a sterile glass or plastic vial.”
A spokeswoman for the Maryland-based Association of Public Health Laboratories, a membership organization that writes best practices and helps connect public health labs with government agencies, said it has heard rumblings about Fillakit’s tubes but “nothing deadly.”
“The bigger issue is the size of the tubes,” said the spokeswoman, Michelle Forman. “They are an unusual shape so they don’t fit racks, and we are getting lots of pushback about how difficult it is to work with them from our clinical partners.”
Richard Loeb, a contract law expert at the University of Baltimore, said FEMA has the power to claw back money paid to contractors, remove them from the government’s list of approved vendors or refer them to the agency’s inspector general.
“It’s outrageous enough that they [FEMA] ordered something to test for COVID-19, and they got something that can’t be used to test for COVID-19,” Loeb said. “I still am a little bit troubled as to why FEMA accepted them. … They may have stupidly accepted something that was nonconforming.”
Wexler, Fillakit’s owner, has a background in law and real estate, not medical supplies. In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission accused Wexler and his telemarketing firm of illegal robocalling, making unauthorized charges to consumers’ bank accounts and falsely claiming to be a nonprofit organization. Wexler’s firm allegedly misrepresented itself as a credit counseling service for several years, charging customers for work it did not do, according to court records.
Wexler, who denied the charges, settled the case a year later. The settlement banned him from offering debt relief services—but not from being a federal contractor—and imposed a $2.7 million judgment.
Fillakit and another Wexler company, Cleargate Labs, operate out of the same warehouse in The Woodlands, a sprawling Houston suburb.
Cleargate describes itself as a “network of primary clinical laboratories” on its website. Last year, the company cold-called an elderly Iowa woman, told her that it was marketing a DNA screening for cancer genes and offered to send her testing supplies in exchange for her Medicare number, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Suspecting a scam, the woman reported the company to local law enforcement. Cleargate did not bill her and was not charged with a crime.
Three former Fillakit employees said that its process was unsterile. Workers shoveled up the tubes from unsanitary surfaces. The liquid that they added to each tube to preserve samples for lab analysis was kept in trays exposed to the air, which was whipped around by large fans.
Standards were compromised in the rush to meet productivity goals, Green said. “At the beginning, they were being picky, saying, ‘You have to make sure it’s at least 2 milliliters.’ And sometimes there were tubes that didn’t have any [solution] in there,” she said.
Wexler would come in and “cuss and scream at everybody in this warehouse about how nobody’s paying attention to what they’re doing,” she said.
Wexler and Stephen Wachtler, a manager at Cleargate and Fillakit, “were telling us, ‘Yeah, we gotta have four bins by lunch,’” Green said. “‘We gotta have 10 bins before you leave at 5 o’clock. Work faster, work faster.’”
Green said that few employees at the company had backgrounds in science or medicine. In May, during Fillakit’s first week of operations, the company did not provide workers with face masks, she said, raising concerns that fluid from their noses and mouths could land inside the tubes. Later, supervisors did hand out masks but did not require employees to wear them.
On June 10, a ProPublica reporter observed workers, some not wearing masks, standing over snow shovels and bins of tiny soda bottles.
Wexler and workers loaded a shipment of tubes into an Enterprise rental truck, which lacked the refrigeration that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say is needed to safely transport legitimate testing supplies.
Wexler denied a request to tour the warehouse. Asked about the lack of sterile conditions and the use of soda preforms, Wexler screamed, “What’s your problem, man?”
Michelle Hardy, a retired nurse who worked at Fillakit through June 10, said her concerns about contamination were dismissed by Wachtler. He did not respond to requests for comment.
“I kind of said to Stephen, ‘Is this supposed to be, like, clean technique, or sterile technique or what?’” Hardy said. “He’s like: ‘No, it’s fine. It’s fine what you’re doing because they’re just testing for COVID, and so if there’s any other bacteria or viruses in there then it’s not going to show up.’”
That’s not true, according to Vjollca Konjufca, an associate professor of microbiology at Southern Illinois University. If Fillakit employees were infected, they might have contaminated the tubes with their own virus, potentially causing false test results, she said.
Konjufca was part of a team at her university that manufactured the viral transport solution validated by the FDA. She said they followed strict protocols to ensure tests aren’t contaminated.
“We filter-sterilize, and then we add antibiotics,” Konjufca said. “The whole work is handled under a biosafety hood … so it does not allow any sort of air from the room, particulates or whatever, to get into your vials.”
There are many ways to mess up medical testing, so careful manufacturing is vital. Some substances in saliva or the plastic vials can damage virus RNA and alter test results, Konjufca said.
“You cannot just makeshift use soda bottles to make tubes,” she said. “You have enzymes in there and you have contaminants that can mess up the results.”
Riffing about the coronavirus during a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to reboot his reelection campaign, President Trump said he asked for less testing to track the coronavirus pandemic for fear the increase in positives might make him look bad. The White House quickly clarified that Trump was joking, though it’s the sort of thing the president has said in the past. (Remember this?)
“When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases,” Trump said. “So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.'”
"Here's the bad part: When you do testing to that extent, you're gonna find more people, you're gonna find more cases. So I said to my people, 'slow the testing down please!'" — Trump pic.twitter.com/m5MOV9je70
White House official says Trump was clearly joking. "He's never advised staff to slow testing. We are extremely proud of the 25 million tests we are conducting at a rapid pace." https://t.co/TLlZxtyvXo
Our weak testing capability hamstrung the initial response to the coronavirus, and the country is still paying the price for it. As of Saturday, nearly 122,000 Americans have died in the pandemic. Joke’s on them, I guess.
Attendees of President Donald Trump's June 20 rally, without masks on, cheer Eric Trump.Sue Ogrocki/AP
President Donald Trump’s rally tonight could be, health officials warned, a “super spreader” event—risking a rise in hospitalizations in the community. In light of that potential spread, local health officials in Tulsa have cautioned against the gathering. Still, Trump decided to go ahead with it.
In theory, if someone did test positive for COVID-19 after attending the rally, there would be a need to conduct contact tracing to mitigate the spread. I was curious if the Trump campaign had reached out to local officials to put a plan in place in the event someone does get the virus. You could imagine the campaign potentially helping Tulsa’s 60 public health officials trace to stop the spread of the virus after a mass event, that, after all, they didn’t want in the first place. Resources like the campaign’s databases of tickets could be helpful, for example.
But, nope, the Trump campaign has not talked to city officials about combating any outbreak.
“The Tulsa Health Department has not been contacted by any representatives from the Trump campaign,” the city’s health department told me in a statement.
This is even more worrying considering that, this morning, it was revealed six Trump staffers doing logistics for the rally tested positive for COVID-19. When it was revealed, Trump just got mad that it went public.
Six people working on logistics for President Trump’s Tulsa rally have tested positive for COVID-19, according to NBC News. Twenty-thousand people, none of whom will be required to wear masks, are expected at the rally, which will be held inside.
“Quarantine procedures were immediately implemented,” said a Trump spokesperson, adding: “No COVID-positive staffers or anyone in immediate contact will be at today’s rally or near attendees and elected officials.”
The top health official in Tulsa warned against President Donald Trump’s first rally since the coronavirus pandemic, saying it could cause havoc, including a surge in hospitalizations. Even the president, the official warned, was at risk.
“A large indoor rally with 19-20,000 people is a huge risk factor today in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” he said, as we reported earlier. “I’m concerned about our ability to protect anyone who attends a large, indoor event, and I’m also concerned about our ability to ensure the president stays safe as well.”
Health officials have worried that this could be a “super spreader” event. But as we’ve documented in timeline form, the president’s self-regard always comes first, even at the expense of other people’s lives.
Some experts suggest that data on antibody levels from blood samples could be used to greenlight a vaccine before results from a longer trial are available.John Raoux/AP Photo
This story was published in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.
Pharmaceutical companies are racing to develop a coronavirus vaccine, with the most ambitious timelines ever attempted in history. When announcing Operation Warp Speed, the government’s effort to develop a vaccine, President Donald Trump said in May, “We’re looking to get it by the end of the year if we can, maybe before.”
Vaccine development under normal circumstances typically takes about 10 to 15 years. Now, developers are compressing the traditional timeline with both technological innovation and by putting vast amounts of money at risk.
But one stage, the phase 3 clinical trial, which is the key to proving a vaccine’s safety and efficacy, is frustratingly hard to predict in terms of its timeline. It’s dependent on the rate of infection in the locations where the study is being conducted, because the goal is to compare how many people get sick in the vaccine arm of the trial versus the placebo arm. If public health measures, like social distancing, are working very well, and there are low rates of transmission, that’s good for the general public, but it could take a long time for enough trial participants to get sick and for the study to come to a conclusion.
One potential shortcut to approval, if phase 3 trials are taking too long, is for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to authorize the use of a vaccine based on what’s known as an “immune correlate.” This was suggested by Dr. Philip Dormitzer, Pfizer’s vice president and chief scientific officer for viral vaccines, and Dr. Tal Zaks, chief medical officer of Moderna Therapeutics. (Paul Sagan, chairman of ProPublica‘s board, is also one of Moderna’s board members. ProPublica’s board members have no say in what reporters write about, nor do they know about articles before they are published.)
The idea here would be to show that vaccinated participants have levels of neutralizing antibodies in their blood that are at least as high as patients naturally infected by the virus, and to greenlight the use of a vaccine based on its anticipated benefit, perhaps limited initially to some high-risk populations. Neutralizing antibodies are a type of antibody that can directly block a virus from infecting cells, but as of now, it’s still unclear if there’s a level of neutralizing antibodies that can guarantee immunity.
“We believe that by September there will be proof in animals that neutralizing antibodies can prevent disease, and that there will be proof that the vaccine, when given to people, can generate levels of neutralizing antibodies that are similar or higher than levels of antibodies in people who have been infected naturally, so some people will say that there is a reasonable likelihood that this should work, while people are continuing to die every day without a vaccine,” Zaks said.
He added, “For any drug approval, there’s always a balance between benefit and risk, so there’s a rational question to be asked: In September or October, if I’ve demonstrated enough potential benefit, and I’ve made half a million doses, should the government start to vaccinate people who are exceptionally at risk, based on expected benefit, or should they wait for proven benefit?”
Some fear that this winter, as the annual flu season returns, there could be a “double threat” with both viruses circulating simultaneously, adding to the urgent need for a coronavirus vaccine.
Pfizer’s Dormitzer said his company will be simultaneously running a full phase 3 trial while gathering data on antibody levels in vaccinated participants. “We want public health measures to reduce infection levels, but we also want a vaccine. That can create a dilemma if there aren’t enough cases,” he said. “We need a plan B, just in case.”
Both Dormitzer and Zaks noted that ultimately, the decision is not for pharmaceutical companies to make but is up to the FDA. “It’s our job to come up with the data and the arguments, and they say yes or no,” Dormitzer said.
Other experts cautioned against approving a vaccine based on a proxy.
“There are still a lot of coronavirus cases in the United States. Given the current attack rate”—the pace at which people are getting infected—“you should be able to do a good study,” said Dr. Luciana Borio, former FDA acting chief scientist and current vice president at In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit strategic investment firm. “There’s still significant uncertainty about what level of antibody response will be required to prevent disease.”
There is precedent for the FDA approving products based on a biomarker that is supposed to correlate with real-world benefit before trials are completed to prove benefit on symptoms or outcome of the disease. The agency has typically made these calls in cases where the need is acutely high, such as when patients have no other treatments available. Vaccines have been approved based on immune correlates in the past, when the rate of natural infection is low, such as meningococcal vaccine.
Sometimes, the FDA’s decisions have been controversial, such as in 2016, when the agency approved a drug for a rare form of muscular dystrophy based on data from a trial with just 12 boys. The study showed that the drug helped some patients make dystrophin, a protein that is critical to muscle function. But the trial didn’t have a placebo arm and the company didn’t prove that its drug helped the patients walk or breathe better. The drug, Exondys 51, is still on the market, and the company is years behind schedule on a requirement to confirm the drug’s benefit in muscle function.
The history of drug development is also full of surprising disappointments, which often come in the final-stage trials. For example, an experimental drug that lowered bad cholesterol in hundreds of patients in mid-stage phase 2 trials didn’t end up proving its ability to prevent heart attacks or strokes in thousands of participants in the big phase 3 study.
Dr. Paul Offit, director of the vaccine education center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, noted that many approved vaccines on the market today don’t have a known immune correlate. “The immune response may or may not be predictive,” he said. “The proof is in the pudding. The pudding is the big phase 3 trial.”
The FDA is in a difficult position of having to weigh risk and benefit, when the stakes are high on both sides, explained Dr. Tim Persons, chief scientist at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘I want to be fast,’ but on the other hand, if you’re fast and you’re wrong or you miss some things, imagine how that fuels concerns about having any type of vaccine at all,” he said.
On the other hand, “CDC has reported that 8 in 10 deaths from the coronavirus are seniors, which is a terrible thing, so perhaps we’re willing to take more risk and not wait a decade for a vaccine.”
Evaluating vaccine efficacy may include looking at evidence of immune responses, which would entail a “rigorous scientific process” to determine which biomarkers could predict protection, the FDA said in an emailed statement.
“Provided the incidence of COVID-19 remains high enough to conduct randomized, controlled clinical trials that directly evaluate protection against disease, such studies are likely to be the most efficient way to demonstrate the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines,” the agency said.
No matter what happens, Moderna is committed to completing its phase 3 trial, Zaks said, even if the FDA allows its vaccine on the market based on antibody data before the trial is complete. That way, there will eventually be data from a placebo-controlled, randomized trial.
After phase 3 trials begin this summer, everyone in the vaccine world will be watching the infection rates at the trial sites, anxiously hoping that the trials will be able to come to a definitive conclusion.
“Certainly, one hopes that the phase 3 trials will be large enough that they will be able to measure actual clinical protection,” said Dr. Walter Orenstein, associate director of Emory University’s vaccine center. “On the other hand, if you have 1,000 people dying a day in the U.S., you might be willing to take a chance. It’s a last resort.”
Another update in the hydroxychloroquine saga: The Food and Drug Administration has revoked its emergency use authorization for the controversial drug, which President Donald Trump has aggressively promoted and, at one point, claimed to be taking prophylactically.
The FDA said in its announcement that the suggested doses of chloroquine and hydroxychlorine “are unlikely to produce an antiviral effect” and that data from a recent randomized controlled trial did not show benefits over standard of care alone.
The bottom line, according to the FDA, is that “it is no longer reasonable to believe that oral formulations of HCQ and CQ may be effective in treating COVID-19, nor is it reasonable to believe that the known and potential benefits of these products outweigh their known and potential risks.”
Trump said in late May that he’d finished his two-week regimen of hydroxychloroquine—perhaps now he’ll stop urging others to take the drug.
The top public health official in Tulsa wishes Donald Trump would stay away next week. When the president recently announced he would resume his in-person arena rallies after they were put on pause because of the coronavirus pandemic, his first scheduled stop was set for the Oklahoma city on June 20. While the campaign plans to fill a 19,000-person indoor stadium there, health officials are cautioning that the rally could have deadly consequences.
“COVID is here in Tulsa, it is transmitting very efficiently,” warned Dr. Bruce Dart, director of Tulsa’s City-County Health Department, in theTulsa World. “I wish we could postpone this to a time when the virus isn’t as large a concern as it is today.” On Saturday, Oklahoma reported 225 new infections, a new daily high. As of Sunday, Oklahoma was reporting more than 8,000 infections and 359 deaths.
Dr. Dart blames the spike in infections on several factors, including quarantine fatigue, and warned that a large outbreak had the possibility of overwhelming the county’s health system. “A large indoor rally with 19-20,000 people is a huge risk factor today in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” he said before suggesting Trump could fall ill as a result of his own event. “I’m concerned about our ability to protect anyone who attends a large, indoor event, and I’m also concerned about our ability to ensure the president stays safe as well.”
“I think it’s an honor for Tulsa to have a sitting president want to come and visit our community, but not during a pandemic,” Dart added, telling the newspaper he was concerned infections touched off by travelers and crowds attending the rally could swamp local treatment capacity.
Several states that, like Oklahoma, were spared the worst in the early days of the pandemic are now recording a surge in infections and hospitalizations. On Saturday, 22 states reported increases in their daily cases. Relaxing restrictions aimed at stemming the virus’s spread have prompted health experts to warn that the country could see more outbreaks, spurred along by growing indoor gatherings.
But the president is prepared to go ahead with the rally, after rescheduling it from June 19, the day the Juneteenth holiday is celebrated marking Black people’s liberation from slavery. (Critics had pointed out the insensitivity of hosting a rally on that day, especially given the city’s history as a site of a major 20th century anti-Black massacre.)
Despite his track record of downplaying the seriousness of the disease, fumbling the federal response, and shunning masks, Trump and his campaign know they are subjecting his fans to risk by holding the rally: attendees must submit a form agreeing to not sue the campaign if they contract COVID-19.
Two distinct videos went viral over the Memorial Day weekend. One was of crowds of people partying and drinking at an Ozarks’ pool resort in Missouri. The other was of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, killing a Black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. George Floyd’s death sparked protests that would spread through the country and the world over the course of two weeks. It’s too soon to know how these two events might affect the spread of coronavirus. Nonetheless, the hand-wringing about who to blame when the disease surge arrives—the states that had reopened too early or the protesters—has become a kind of Rorschach test of political preference.
But that dichotomy misses the point.
There was never a comprehensive plan to stop the novel coronavirus from infecting millions of people, much less preventing more than 100,000 deaths in the United States. In the early days of the pandemic, Donald Trump insisted that it would just go away. His party and favorite television network blamed it on a Democratic plot to sabotage Trump’s reelection chances. Larry Kudlow, who is the Director of the United States National Economic Council and not an infectious disease expert, insisted the contagion was contained. And when in doubt, China and the World Health Organization were the perfect scapegoats. Meanwhile, state and local governments scrambled to close schools and businesses, and ordered everyone to stay home in an effort to limit the damage.
The federal government failed spectacularly to roll out a competent strategy to test and isolate the sick, and the country first slowly then suddenly shut down. As the unemployment numbers climbed, the government gave a portion of the population a $1,200 check for their troubles. Then, the nation and the world watched in horror as US hospitals were inundated with people gasping for air, our morgues overflowed with bodies, our food distribution lines circled around the block, and millions of people applied for unemployment as the jobless rate soared. It remains a spectacular display of government incompetence and an indictment of the entire American system.
But then there is the question about the uptick in cases, just when we thought we were “flattening the curve” and states were reopening. This week, according to the Washington Post, several states have seen an increase in coronavirus hospitalizations in the last two weeks, the typical incubation period for COVID-19 and the period of time that has elapsed since Memorial Day. Texas, which was one of the first states to ease restrictions, has seen a 36 percent increase in new cases since the holiday. In Arizona, hospitalizations have increased by 49 percent. And in Arkansas, hospitalizations are up by 88 percent during that same time period. Several states are warning that their hospitals could soon be at capacity. Did this result in a renewed government effort to address the crisis? Hardly. Just more of the same, tired blame game.
Not that this reflex is unique to the pandemic or to police shootings. It’s a tried and true American reaction. When faced with systemic failures, we look at individuals not the system. For Black people who live in poverty, it’s not the decades of racist policies that have left them with a decimated tax base and crumbling infrastructure, it’s their fault for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Earth is warming at an alarming rate, bringing with it untold disaster. But instead of blaming decades of corporate pollution for profit, and the complicity of certain elected officials to make sure there are no consequences, we shame people who drink out of plastic straws and neglect to bring their own woven shopping bag to the store. When the coronavirus appeared, the vast majority of people, those whose livelihood did not depend on placing themselves in harm’s way, mostly stayed home, wore masks when they went out, and sanitized their hands regularly. And still, even though that individual action may have slowed the spread, without any aggressive government intervention, the renewed surge of the virus could be even more deadly than the first round.
The government’s lackluster response to the pandemic is rooted in a president who is actively hostile to science, the systematic defunding and dismantling of government bodies like the pandemic response team in the National Security Council, and Trump administration interference with and undermining of the work of the Centers for Disease Control. The once world-class agency has largely remained silent or been muffled. As a result, we’ve all been left to decide on our own which activities are safest and how to minimize risk while we navigate the world while COVID-19 still spreads. And because we’re following our own rules, with few accepted government guidelines, it’s only natural to see photos of people doing something you personally don’t think is safe and to blame them for the current state of affairs. If only they were quarantining like me, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Most public health experts agree that washing your hands, wearing a mask in public, and mostly staying at home is the best way to remain safe from COVID-19. But if you think everyone should stay home until there’s a comprehensive testing, tracing, and isolating strategy in place, you’ll be waiting for a long time. The Trump administration has not indicated that they’ll beef up the coronavirus response. In fact, it appears that they’re ready to move on and wage yet another culture war while Americans die by the thousands every week. As my colleague David Corn reported on Thursday:
[Trump] referenced the coronavirus crisis—”this horrible plague”—in his usual fashion: he defended his administration’s record on testing, and he blamed China for the pandemic. But he said nothing about the need to stay vigilant regarding masks, social distancing, and other countermeasures. (Trump even toured the plant without wearing a mask, and the swabs he watched being made in a sterile environment were later thrown out.) He said nothing about coronavirus remaining a serious threat to the United States.
If we weren’t in this unique moment, I might be inclined to believe that the predictable cycle of government incompetence and blaming individuals will continue indefinitely, certainly as long as Trump remains president and the Republicans remain in power. The government will fail to respond, hundreds of thousands of people will die, and we’ll accept it as just another facet of American life.
But for the first time in generations, a counter-narrative is beginning. There’s an uprising. More people are starting to realize that maybe there is something systemically wrong. A majority of Americans think the death of George Floyd represents a broader problem of policing. They’re realizing that we have the money to arm police officers with military equipment, but across the country people are forced to wait hours to cast a ballot. They see that the federal government can give corporations billions of dollars, but only offered a single payment of $1,200 to working people during the economic crisis, plus a temporary boost in unemployment benefits. It’s time to make the final connection and see that the same premise that there is something pervasively wrong with our system of policing also holds true for the pandemic.
Yes, there’s a crisis. But remember, fundamentally, we only have the government to blame.
Take a walk in any park in the United States right now, and you may be tempted to believe that the coronavirus pandemic is all but over. Every state has loosened its lockdown restrictions, and the warmer weather has Americans eschewing sweaty masks to take in the summery air. Plus, hundreds of thousands of people across the country have congregated in the streets—with and without masks—to protest racial injustice, defying bans on large gatherings, albeit for a righteous cause. More Americans are going to work in person and the percentage of Americans who wear masks in public, which rose steadily in April, has leveled out at around 70 percent, according to data from YouGov. Still, many states are seeing COVID-19 case counts rise, and public health experts don’t expect the pandemic to resolve anytime soon.
If history is any indicator, attempts to reinstitute social distancing measures to flatten a potential second wave of the virus could face more opposition than the initial lockdowns. The widespread business closures and mask ordinances implemented during the 1918 influenza pandemic weren’t especially popular. Yet a second round of restrictions put in place to stem a second wave of the flu was so hated that dissenters in San Francisco formed a 2,000-person Anti-Mask League and some mayors openly violated public health orders. Similarly, it’s not hard to imagine the return of ferocious anti-lockdown protests if authorities enforce new lockdowns when COVID-19 counts start to tick back up.
To understand the echoes of the flu pandemic in our current moment, I contacted historian J. Alex Navarro. Navarro was one of the researchers who, as part of a Bush-era initiative to prepare for for a possible pandemic, helped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by studying newspaper archives from 43 American cities to determine whether social distancing measures during the 1918 outbreak reduced mortality. (They did.) Navarro, along with Dr. Howard Markel, is coeditor-in-chief of the online Influenza Encyclopedia, which hosts a fascinating page about the anti-mask sentiment that abounded in 1918 San Francisco.
I spoke with Navarro about a historical constant: humans’ tendency to buck authority, even if it means putting their health at risk.
Abigail Weinberg: What major political differences should we be aware of when comparing 1918 to today?
J. Alex Navarro: In 1918, there’s this overriding sense of hyper-patriotism that is not only being driven by the war effort, but is also being purposefully stoked by [President] Woodrow Wilson. It was not a very popular war, so Wilson created the Committee on Public Information, basically a propaganda effort. Patriotism is being ginned up as much as possible, and that probably had a large effect on the initial reaction to the epidemic from the public.
You can see this in the newspaper coverage. For example, in places where mask ordinances were passed, like San Francisco, the Red Cross prints out this PSA in the newspapers and basically says, “Save a life. Wear a mask. Do your part.” It actually used the term “slacker,” which had been used for people who weren’t doing their part to support the war effort.
In what ways did people resist or defy public health measures?
There were some notable acts of pushback, from actual legal challenges to outright defiance. For example, about three weeks into Atlanta’s epidemic, a group of businessmen come to the mayor, Asa Candler, and they say, “We need to reopen.” He’s a pro-business leader, and he decides unilaterally, over the objection of his board of health, to reopen Atlanta—and Atlanta’s epidemic was not over. In fact, we don’t really know the course of Atlanta’s epidemic, because the city stopped reporting cases in the same way. [Sound familiar?]
In San Francisco there were two mask orders, but it’s the second one in January of 1919 that leads to this Anti-Mask League. Even during the first mask ordinance in the fall, there are hundreds of people who are arrested for not wearing their masks. It’s hard to know how many of those people were being defiant because they just didn’t think that they needed to wear one, or the government had no right to tell them to wear one. Some of them probably simply forgot or thought they could get away without wearing a mask because they were uncomfortable, but they got caught and were arrested.
But then it leads to that second mask order when there’s a resurgence in cases, and that one was definitely despised. People did not like wearing the masks, and there was opposition from prominent physicians. There was a member of the California Board of Supervisors who was part of the Anti-Mask League. There were 2,000 people who met in an auditorium to hear speeches to protest the wearing of masks.
Perhaps the most notable example of defiance came from the mayor of Newark, Charles P. Gillen, who implemented the state Department of Health’s closure orders, which closed many places of public amusement including saloons, but at the last minute changed the saloon order and allowed them to sell liquor by prescription out of their side doors. Saloons took that to mean they could more or less remain open, which they did. They flagrantly flouted the ordinance. When the state department of health pushed back, Gillen didn’t back down, and he said that he was in charge of the Board of Public Health in Newark and that the state had no jurisdiction. He at one point decides that the epidemic’s over. It wasn’t quite over, he lifts the orders, and he said everyone can go back to life as normal.
How did Gillen’s constituents feel about his defiance?
Church leaders were not happy that churches were required to close, but saloons were basically allowed to be open. They complained to Gillen, and Gillen said, “If you want to reopen, I’m gonna look the other way at churches.” The Newark Evening News was aghast that he would do this, and they ran scathing editorials about the mayor. He in fact ordered them out of his office. He said, “None of your reporters are welcome until you stop printing lies.” He had no authority to do it, but he threatened to close the newspaper down under public health rules for being a public health nuisance for questioning his authority. It’s kind of reminiscent of what’s going on today.
People who refused to wear masks in 1918 claimed that they were ineffective or that mask ordinances were unconstitutional—many of the same justifications we hear today. How did the Anti-Mask League differ from the vocal minority of anti-mask protesters that we see on the news today?
In terms of why there was such widespread organized opposition in San Francisco in particular, I think that has to do with timing. Denver, Seattle, Oakland, and San Francisco all used masks, and they were all hated in each of these cities. There was definitely opposition to wearing them. The difference, I think, in San Francisco, is San Francisco implemented a second mandatory mask order that came after the end of World War I, so that sense of patriotism and doing your duty is starting to dwindle. In other communities those mask ordinances ended right around or shortly after Armistice Day, so that patriotism is still hanging around a little bit, and then as it starts to dwindle, people want to get back to life as normal. That’s when San Francisco rolls out this second mask order.
Did the virus disproportionately affect minorities and lower-income communities, as we’re seeing today?
We don’t really know, and that’s because the data just doesn’t really exist. We don’t even know the number of aggregate cases.
Chicago had a very long, very detailed public health report on the pandemic. They do include some racial data, but it’s really interesting the way they include it. They calculated the percent change increase in the number of deaths for whites versus African Americans due to the epidemic, and what they found is that that percent change was much higher for whites. They concluded therefore that Black residents may have had some sort of immunity to influenza. It’s not at all the case. It’s just that the way that they reported and were looking at the data, if you have a group of people who are already dying of other underlying medical conditions at a higher level than their white counterparts, then the epidemic comes along and kills people at roughly the same level, probably more heavily impacting African Americans, the difference in that decrease is going to be much greater for the group that had fewer underlying health conditions and better access to health care initially. So the percent change seemed greater for whites than Blacks, but the reality was that was because African Americans were already dying from other endemic diseases and malnourishment and diseases of that sort at higher levels.
The coronavirus in the United States has stoked xenophobia and racism against Asian-Americans, particularly people of Chinese descent. Given that epidemics have historically lent themselves to scapegoating, did the 1918 flu exacerbate racism in the United States?
It probably did not exacerbate racism. This is probably the first pandemic, in fact, where we don’t see widespread scapegoating. There is one example that comes to mind. When Denver released its closure orders on Armistice Day, there was a great rush for everyone to congregate downtown and celebrate. They had another spike in cases that was actually worse than the first spike. A public health official for the city complained that that second spike in cases was caused by Italian and Hungarian immigrants, because they were congregating to care for sick relatives and friends. That is probably true. They probably were. Culturally, people from various communities probably were likely to take care of each other, especially if you live in a community like Denver which had a history of anti-Italian prejudice. But to blame them for causing the continuation of the epidemic was of course completely inaccurate. But that’s the only case that we saw of that, and I think it’s pretty striking.
Why do you think cases of scapegoating were so rare?
I think because it hit so hard and across all segments of the population—all ethnicities, all racial groups—with equal ferocity, that you couldn’t easily pinpoint it to a particular group of people and then scapegoat that group of people. It seemed to pop up out of nowhere.
Public health crises tend to spawn misinformation. I’m sure you remember the president suggesting that people ingest disinfectants to cure the coronavirus. Were there any dangerous folk remedies in 1918 that people had to look out for?
There were lots, and they range from dangerous to silly. One of the typical ones was “clean heart, warm feet, clean bowels.” Some people advocated cutting an onion in half and rubbing that on your chest and that would protect you. There may have been something to that: If you smell like raw onion, people are probably gonna stay away from you. There were some who recommended taking a bath of creosote—which is a pretty dangerous, toxic chemical—and taking copious amounts of brown sugar.
What lessons can we take away from studying the 1918 pandemic?
These closure orders are very onerous for society as a whole, particularly business owners, but they’re meant to just initially get a handle on an explosive pandemic. They’re not meant to be in place forever. As we come out of this and as we see states starting to reopen, if we don’t have an effective mitigation strategy in place that people are actually going to use and buy into, that’s a huge problem.
In 1918, when cities removed these social distancing orders and closure orders, in cities that faced another spike in cases when the epidemic wasn’t quite done yet, it was almost impossible to reimplement closure orders a second time, because the business community in particular and residents overall pushed back so much. Today, if we’re not gonna do things like socially distance whenever possible, if we’re not going to wear masks while in public and get widespread compliance, I don’t see how we mitigate the pandemic as it rolls on.
This epidemic will be around with us for a lot longer than influenza, because the threshold for herd immunity is at least twice as high for COVID. Human nature being fairly static despite changes in historical context, I fear that whatever the level of opposition is now—it seems small but rather vocal—that that’s gonna turn into a combination of outright defiance and noncompliance.
Immigration detainees sit in a yard at the Winn Correctional Center, a for-profit prison in Louisiana run by LaSalle Corrections, in September.Gerald Herbert/AP
A fourth guard at a US immigration detention facility has died as a result of COVID-19, as the virus continues to spread through the close quarters where asylum seekers and other immigrants are being held indefinitely.
On May 1, Lieutenant Lewis Dempsey was sent home from a Louisiana immigration detention center with a fever. On Wednesday morning, he passed away from complications from COVID-19.
Dempsey is the third employee of the private prison company LaSalle Corrections known to have died after contracting the new coronavirus. All three are assumed to have been infected at Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in rural Louisiana where 180 people in detention have now tested positive. The first two both worked at the Richwood Correctional Center. Dempsey worked at the Winn Correctional Center. A fourth guard employed by another private company, CoreCivic, at an ICE detention center in New Jersey died in April.
Dempsey’s death is a reminder that it is not just immigrants whose lives are put at risk by ICE’s decision to keep people in crowded detention centers. Detention center employees, their families, and their communities are also threatened by the outbreaks that experts warned for months were inevitable. As of Wednesday, 115 people detained at Winn have tested positive, 45 of whom are still being monitored for COVID symptoms.
Twopeople died in ICE custody last month of complications from the new coronavirus. A third man died after being released from a detention center with a massive outbreak without being tested.
LaSalle spokesperson Scott Sutterfield, who previously served as ICE’s top official for Louisiana and four other Southern states, said about Dempsey, “We were saddened to learn today of the passing of our friend and colleague. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies go out to his family, friends and coworkers.” ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The agency does not report when employees of the private prison companies it contracts with test positive or die.
Former Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer worked as a guard at Winn while it was a Louisiana prison operated by CoreCivic. His award-winning investigation exposed an institution plagued by rampant violence and medical neglect. Last year, I reported that ICE had started sending immigrants and asylum seekers to the facility:
The prison, which is more than four hours from both Houston and New Orleans, is in the “middle of absolute nowhere,” [Marshall Goff, a Mississippi immigration attorney,] says. When he visited for the first time on Saturday, it was clear to him that it was designed to be a prison, not a jail that holds people serving short sentences. It was striking to Goff that immigrants, who are held in a separate area of the prison, “are being housed in the same place as people who commit felonies and who’ve been sentenced for decades.”
The GoFundMe page started by Dempsey’s sister Dochia Doughty states that he was initially unable to get non-emergency medical attention in Winnfield, the town where the detention center is located. He was later rushed to the local hospital, where he nearly died before being airlifted to Shreveport. Dempsey would go on to “code,” a term used when people go into cardiopulmonary arrest, many times there.
His family still hoped that he would survive when they started a GoFundMe page to raise money for his recovery on Tuesday. Doughty wrote about her brother:
Our family is just an ordinary, working-class American family, but we do have extraordinary work ethic. Lewis was undeservedly struck by an extraordinarily deadly virus. Yet he survived. This is a long and on-going story, but what happened to Lewis could happen to any of us. While he may be an ordinary statistic to some, he is an extraordinary brother to us. He epitomizes a loving, kind-natured man with a childlike innocence. I always say he’s a lover, not a fighter. We place no blame or fault on anyone.
On Wednesday morning, Doughty updated the fundraising page to say that her brother had passed away. “My sister and I were allowed in to love on him beforehand,” she wrote. “He was alert and listening to us. His heart just stopped. He left this world knowing he was loved by so many family and friends.”
Two children cross the Rio Grande into the United States to turn themselves over to authorities and ask for asylum. June 2019.AP Photo/Christian Torres
The Trump administration is facing the first legal challenge of its policy of turning away thousands of asylum seekers at the southern border—including unaccompanied children—during the coronavirus pandemic.
The ACLU and others filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday on behalf of a 16-year-old Honduran boy who was set to be deported after coming to the United States last week to flee persecution at home. A federal judge temporarily blocked the deportation, however, following the filing of the suit.
The government’s move to deport the boy was in line with an emergency order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suspended immigration into the country as a way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But the ACLU is arguing that the boy’s expulsion from the country would violate anti-trafficking laws and special protections afforded children seeking asylum.
The CDC order was issued in March—and extended indefinitely—ostensibly as a measure to protect the health and safety of Americans. But it has effectively shut down the immigration and asylum systems at the southern border. In recent months, thousands of asylum seekers have been turned away there, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which would normally house minors while they are being placed with family members or sponsors, has seen a dramatic decline in new immigrants entering its care—just 58 for the month of April, according to BuzzFeed News.
Immigrant advocates say that the Trump administration is merely using the pandemic as cover to push through its draconian immigration policies. As Andrea Flores, deputy director of immigration policy for the ACLU, told my colleague Fernanda Echavarri last month: “The president is hellbent on exploiting a public health crisis to achieve his long-held goal of ending asylum at the border. He’s also doubling down on fear-mongering against immigrants, so many of whom are essential workers during this crisis. Do not be fooled: Trump’s goal is not to protect our health, it’s to sow division and advance his political agenda.”