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Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Hello! It seems we have made it to May, but it feels like I somehow missed April completely. Anyone else think March lasted 386 years and April about three seconds? In case you blinked and missed this last week, I’ll fill you in on the important stories below.

But first–dogs! In a rare bright spot, doggos are being trained to sniff out coronavirus cases, even asymptomatic ones. If it’s successful, it might be possible to build up a sort of “canine surveillance” corps.

If you can believe it, there actually was non-coronavirus health news this week. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of insurers in a $12B “bait-and-switch” case, which could open a floodgate of legal suits against the government. Essentially, the government promised to shield insurers from the financial risk of entering into the health exchanges. But then when Republicans took power, they barred HHS from using taxpayer dollars to bankroll the program. The insurers cried foul, and SCOTUS agreed. As Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote, “These holdings reflect a principle as old as the Nation itself: The Government should honor its obligations.”

And now back to our regularly scheduled coronavirus programming.

The U.S. death toll from the outbreak surpassed that of the Vietnam War, climbing past 63,000 as of this morning. Projecting just how high that number is going to go is a tricky science that involves so many complicated factors, modelers are just trying to do their best. The predictive model that’s often cited by the White House just adjusted its projected official death toll to more than 74,000 by August. That model is considered conservative, though. And the government has placed an order for 100,000 body bags, so officials are likely braced for more deaths than that.

In related news: The Wall Street Journal: Pathologists Hunt For Earlier Coronavirus Cases In New York

Dr. Anthony Fauci announced that the NIH study of Gilead’s remdesivir was able to cut hospitalization times in a gold-standard, placebo-controlled clinical trial. While some were optimistic about the results–including both Fauci and President Donald Trump–Fauci acknowledged it wasn’t a “knockout” punch. The drug didn’t have a statistically significant impact on death rates.

If you need a remdesivir reality check, Politico has broken down the reasons that any celebrations should be tempered, such as the fact that the data isn’t publicly available and manufacturing the drug can be tricky.

Meanwhile, another top contender for treatments fell short of expectations. The trial for an arthritis drug that had the potential to quiet the immune system and thus ease the cytokine storms that have proven so fatal in younger patients was halted when it was shown it didn’t help seriously ill patients who weren’t on ventilators. The study will continue for patients who are critically ill.

It’s funny how “warp speed” in vaccine development land is still a months-to-years long process. But with the equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket waiting at the end, everyone is buckling in and going full throttle. Fauci, who has previously been cautious about over-promising on a vaccine timeline, said he thinks there will be hundreds of millions of vaccine doses ready by January.

How are countries and companies shaving years off the process? Picture an open accordion–that’s what the normal timeline looks like. Now squish it together, so that all the steps are squeezed into a tighter space. Whereas companies usually didn’t put money into building factories for an untested vaccine, now they are starting work on manufacturing the leading contenders to be ready to ship as soon as the trials are over (even if that means a potential waste of billions of dollars). Meanwhile, some places like a lab out of Oxford had a head start, having worked on similar coronavirus inoculations that proved harmless to humans.

But if you want another reality check (or just to look at some really cool graphics that allow you toggle around on the timeline to see how each stage in the process affects the whole), check out this NYT piece on how long vaccine development normally takes. All that optimism from this week? It hinges on successful trials, which are, quite frankly, rare.

Apart from all that, even if a vaccine is found to be safe, there are so many tiny components involved in the process–from vials to stoppers to syringes–it’s hard not to imagine a shortage scenario just like we’ve experienced during this outbreak.

In related news: Stat: Infect volunteers with Covid-19 in the name of research? A proposal lays bare a minefield of issues

President Donald Trump has well and truly shifted his message from the science of the virus—where he’s had some serious missteps that may haunt him this election year—back to his messaging comfort zone: the economy. The White House’s social distancing guidelines quietly expired this week to be replaced by a plan to help states reopen. Trump even announced that he’ll be traveling to Arizona soon after sticking mostly to the White House for the past weeks.

And even as the death toll hit that grim Vietnam War milestone, Trump has still avoided mourning with grieving Americans. Instead, he focuses on the “incredible” days ahead, touching on the death count in terms of how good a job his administration is doing. Despite the fact that Trump isn’t known for empathizing during times of struggle, some have still been surprised by the sharp contrast to his predecessors in both parties.

Meanwhile, a new report that finds Trump was warned about the threat in more than a dozen classified intelligence briefings corroborates other stories that Trump knew about the severity of coronavirus early in the year.

Intelligence agencies took the rare step of confirming that they were investigating Chinese laboratories, but issued a statement that they agree with the broad scientific consensus that the novel coronavirus was not man-made or genetically modified. In recent days, Trump has grown more vocal about the idea that’s been widely panned by experts. Trump has continued to focus on China as a scapegoat as he seeks to shift criticism for his own early missteps.

In other news from the administration:

→ Politico: ‘HHS Has Been Kicked In The Teeth’

→ The New York Times: Powerful Meat Industry Holds More Sway After Trump’s Order

Is wearing a mask going to be the new political virtue signaling of the coming months? It’s hard to believe public health guidance intended to allow people to interact without infecting each other has been politicized—but also not hard to believe at all considering where we’re at in this country. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence caused an uproar when he flouted the Mayo Clinic’s mask guidelines on a recent visit. (The pictures of the vice president surrounded by mask-wearers was not great PR for him.) Although Pence defended the decision, on his visit to the General Motors plan in Indiana he wore a mask.

Whether you want to make a statement or not, though, if you’re flying on some of the bigger airlines, the choice won’t be left up to you. A group of companies announced this week that they’ll be requiring passengers to don protective face covering if they want to travel. After watching the simulation of just exactly how a cough circulates inside an airplane (only watch if you want to be forever scarred), I would say it’s about time.

Insurers have gone lobbying to Congress with their hands out and sad puppy dog eyes about how they’re being squeezed on both sides during this pandemic. Costs are increasing, but they’re losing premium dollars with the unprecedented wave of job losses, they say. But then they’ve turned around and told their investors that they’re actually good. Cost savings from elective procedures are balancing out coronavirus care.

Some states are chomping at the bit to reopen, with about half relaxing some guidelines heading into May. But the neighboring states who are keeping to public health guidelines are worried they’re going to have to deal with the consequences of what they see as a bad decision. “That’s like having a peeing section in the swimming pool,” said one health expert, earning himself my favorite-quote-of-the-week award.

Officials are eager to reopen the economy, but many say that it’s not as easy as just lifting stay-at-home orders. Just because people are allowed to go to the movie theaters, won’t mean they want to. Polls have consistently shown Americans support the restrictions, despite the quarantine fatigue setting in for some.

And conservatives have been growing ever-more fascinated with Sweden‘s “hands-off” approach. Sweden has created controversy throughout the world by avoiding sweeping shut-downs in favor of creating herd immunity. But the strategy relies on a concept antithetical to American conservative philosophy: extreme trust in government. (FWIW: Sweden says its strategy has been misrepresented, and it is taking action against people who are not practicing social distancing. In possibly the most brilliant strategy I’ve seen yet, they’ve also been spreading manure in their parks to keep people from congregating.)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is taking flak over his decision to call Senators back to Capitol Hill after the House abruptly decided to cancel plans to do the same, in a pitch-perfect representation of the political divide over the issue. One wrench in McConnell’s plan, that also seems quite telling: the Capitol physician says there’s not enough tests for the lawmakers, 48 of whom are over 65.

While lawmakers fight over that, employer liability is emerging as the next battleground in the debate over the next (hypothetical) relief package. McConnell hinted that he would support money to help support states in their pandemic efforts, but only if the next legislation included protections for businesses against possible lawsuits from workers. Democrats scoffed at the idea.

The swine flu pandemic that didn’t quite materialize coulda, shoulda, woulda acted as a perfect dry run to our current one. Hospitals didn’t have enough protective gear, inventory shortages were exposed, the health system was strained at every point in the chain–from hospitals to device makers to the government. And yet instead of learning from those lessons, miscalculations from all the players–and a desire to put profit over preparedness–led to history repeating itself on a far more devastating scale.

Another week of staggering unemployment numbers pushed the total from the pandemic up to 30 million. While that figure seems daunting enough, experts say there are up to another 50% that aren’t being counted because states’ systems are overwhelmed by claims. Meanwhile, food lines continue to reveal the harsh economic toll the the outbreak is taking on newly desperate Americans. “I’ve worked since I was 14 years old,” said 55-year-old Jean Wickham, of New Jersey. “We’ve never had to rely on anyone else. … I feel like a failure right now.”

Times like these—when everyone is desperate for information—tend to shift concerns away from privacy and toward safety. (Think 9/11 and the PATRIOT Act.) With a pandemic, though, it’s medical data that is in the spotlight. Politico looks at how opinions are changing and what that could mean for the future of safeguarding information about Americans’ health.

And here are just some good stories for you to dive into for the weekend:

The New York Times: How Coronavirus Mutates And Spreads

The New York Times: ‘A Terrible Price’: The Deadly Racial Disparities Of Covid-19 In America

Politico: Lawmakers Made Hundreds Of Stock Transactions During Pandemic, Watchdog Finds

The Associated Press: Police Called After NYC Funeral Home Puts Bodies In Trucks

The Associated Press: Over 70% Of Tested Inmates In Federal Prisons Have COVID-19

Modern Healthcare: Oncologists Anticipate Worse Cancer Diagnoses After COVID-19

The New York Times: Closed Hospitals Leave Rural Patients ‘Stranded’ As Coronavirus Spreads

That’s it from me! Have a restful weekend.

Related Topics

COVID-19 Global Health Watch