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We’re doing something different this week, with most of our staff mobilized around the coronavirus. In the newsletter, we collected some of our most vital coverage of the outbreak to answer a few key questions. Let us know if you have other questions about the virus—or if you have a personal experience you’d like to share with us. You can reply directly to this newsletter, or send a note to our team here.
1. WHY IS AMERICA STRUGGLING TO WIDELY TEST PEOPLE FOR THE CORONAVIRUS?
The U.S. is woefully lagging behind other countries on testing for the coronavirus, as Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal have reported, a mishandling that has dangerous implications for understanding—and isolating—the disease. (South Korea, for comparison, is testing as many as 20,000 people per day). As a result of the testing bottleneck, the full scale of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. is essentially unknown. What’s worse, fragmented and stringent criteria for testing across states means doctors may not be able to identify a community outbreak until it’s too late for containment.
Our health reporter Olga Khazan has been reporting on some of the major obstacles to wider-scale testing in the U.S. Bureaucracy and massive leadership problems have contributed. So have equipment shortages, and slowness when it comes to sharing samples.
Labs and companies need samples of the virus itself in order to make their tests, but delays in getting access to samples further slowed down the test-development process. The coronavirus originated in China, and as several microbiologists told me, the Chinese government does not allow specimens to be shipped outside its borders. Many researchers have had difficulty getting their hands on samples even as the virus has spread.
“I was working the phones to try to get access to the virus,” said Alex Greninger, the assistant director of the virology division at the University of Washington Medical Center.
You can find the most up-to-date testing numbers at this database Rob and Alexis have been collaborating on with other data journalists and analysts.
2. HOW DO I PRACTICE “SOCIAL DISTANCING?”
You’ve very likely heard the term by now. If not: Social distance is what experts are calling the conscious effort to reduce close contact between people, and thus slow the pace of community transmission of the virus. What does this really mean for a person’s day-to-day?
Our writer Kaitlyn Tiffany was confused: “If I’m invited to a wedding in two weeks in another state, is it too late to cancel?” She wondered. “If I end up officially quarantined, can I walk around the park at night for some fresh air?”
Kaitlyn took some of these common questions to a few public-health experts. The experts didn’t always agree, but their answers paint a useful picture for how a young, healthy, symptom-free person might make personal choices in the coming weeks. Here’s one tip, on whether it’s safe to go to the grocery store:
I would say try to shop at times when there are very few other shoppers there. That [could mean] going first thing in the morning when the store opens, or late at night. I think many people will rely on delivery, and that’s just the nature of our lives right now. For delivery workers, I would say, leave the food on the doorstep and ring the bell, rather than interacting face-to-face with the person who’s ordered the food.
3. WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I DEVELOP A COUGH?
Preparation and protection are important, but it’s also crucial to know what steps you can take if you start to feel ill. In an ideal outbreak scenario, reliable testing would be available to all, but America’s already strained public-health system has left many with less serious symptoms waiting for a test for days on end. For now, the most common recommendation is temporary self-isolation—a choice that’s going to be difficult for workers and caretakers to make without community or government assistance. One other idea supported by some economists is that “everyone receive cash, immediately.” James Hamblin writes:
People need to feel able to skip work and still make rent and feed their family. They need cash without strings attached, and they need it now, not via a complex omnibus economic stimulus package next month … A pandemic is like a slow-motion hurricane that will hit the entire world. If the same amount of rain and wind is to hit us in any scenario, better to have it come over the course of a day than an hour.
4. WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE ECONOMY?
This public-health crisis is developing into an economic one, too—and a coronavirus-triggered recession could be unusually hard to fight. For one, there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty—and therefore fear—about the virus and its spread. The crisis is also unusual in that it affects both supply and demand.
The government’s main levers to keep the economy afloat fall on the “demand” side, but it’s not a given that it will even pull those levers. “Congress is divided: Democrats control the House and Republicans, the Senate,” our staff writer Annie Lowrey, who covers economic policy, notes. “Getting politicians to agree on quick, powerful, creative stimulus measures during an election year, even as the White House argues that the coronavirus is ‘contained’ and not much of a problem, does not seem easy. The risk that the epidemic intensifies abroad, making the United States’ policy job that much harder, is prevalent, too.”
One action taken so far: The Federal Reserve announced this week that it would inject as much as $1.5 trillion into the short-term money markets. The move prompted criticism from the left, but “there is a good progressive case for the Fed doing as much as it can to help the financial markets—and for Congress doing even more to help regular people,” Annie writes.
Wondering what to do about your own money? Nothing, Annie advised at the beginning of this week—advice that remains sound going forward. “Don’t touch your face. And don’t touch your stocks.”
5. WHAT IS HAPPENING WITH LIVE EVENTS?
How people move about the world may be fundamentally changing. Ahead of major primaries next week, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have canceled rallies. Studios are pushing back major film releases. Music festivals and concerts are being canceled or (aspirationally) postponed. In quick succession, the NBA, MLB, and NHL suspended games and other operations; the NCAA has canceled this year’s March Madness basketball tournaments.
This is as it should be, Jemele Hill argues. The potential consequences of not canceling are too great.
Tracing all the possibilities of who could potentially have been exposed because of [Utah Jazz player] Rudy Gobert crystallizes how frightening the COVID-19 pandemic is. In the past two weeks, the Jazz have played six teams in five different cities. The reason the New Orleans Pelicans–Sacramento Kings game also was canceled last night is because one of the referees set to officiate the game had officiated a Utah Jazz game last week. (Games already in progress when the suspension was announced last night were allowed to continue.)
Think about all the people Gobert was in contact with—his friends, family, teammates, players on other teams, and other Jazz employees.
Isabel Fattal and Haley Weiss contributed to this newsletter. You can find the rest of our COVID-19 coverage on our site.
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