“Those individuals could have been infecting people before they ever felt bad, but we didn’t know that until the last 24 hours,” he said. He added that the state’s top doctor told him that “this is a game-changer.”
It may have been a game-changer, but it was a game-changer weeks or even months ago. That’s when health officials started emphasizing that asymptomatic people are transmitting the coronavirus. The idea that Kemp didn’t know this is striking. But he’s merely the latest top politician to indicate that he’s unfamiliar with the science even as he’s making life-or-death decisions for his constituents.
Anthony S. Fauci, a lead member of the White House coronavirus task force, was talking about asymptomatic transmission more than two months ago.
“You know that in the beginning, we were not sure if there were asymptomatic infection, which would make it a much broader outbreak than what we’re seeing. Now we know for sure that there are,” Fauci said at a Jan. 31 task force briefing. “It was not clear whether an asymptomatic person could transmit it to someone while they were asymptomatic. Now we know from a recent report from Germany that that is absolutely the case.”
Fauci added on Feb. 4: “We had been getting reports from highly reliable people in China — scientists, investigators and public health people who we’ve known over the years — and they’ve been telling us, ‘There’s asymptomatic disease, for sure, and we are seeing asymptomatic transmission.' "
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is headquartered in Atlanta, issued guidance as early as March 1 stating that asymptomatic people could indeed spread the coronavirus, even as it emphasized that people with symptoms were more likely to be contagious.
“Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms,” the CDC said, adding that “there have been reports of this occurring with this new coronavirus, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
By March 14, White House task force member Deborah Birx indicated that asymptomatic transmission was an increasing concern.
“Until you really understand how many people are asymptomatic and asymptomatically passing the virus on, we think it’s better for the entire American public to know that the risk of serious illness may be low, but they could be potentially spreading the virus to others,” Birx said, adding: “That’s why we’re asking every American to take personal responsibility to prevent that spread.”
Studies of the spread in other countries from earlier in the outbreak indicated that about half of the transmissions in Singapore were from asymptomatic people, and as many as 62 percent were in a study of China’s Tianjin province.
By March 22, Fauci was more directly warning young people that they could transmit the virus asymptomatically.
“You’re going to get people you care for sick if you are asymptomatic,” he told young people who were still going out. “So you may not think that you have it and you very well might. And you especially might if you continue to go out and live life as usual.”
Ten days after that and more than two months after Fauci first said there was strong evidence of asymptomatic transmission, Kemp is saying he learned this only in the previous 24 hours.
Kemp appears to have been citing a new number that the CDC placed on asymptomatic cases. CDC Director Robert Redfield said Monday on NPR that the number of people who have the coronavirus but are asymptomatic may be as high as 25 percent. But the idea that those people were transmitting the virus isn’t new at all.
And to be clear: This isn’t trivial. The fact that the coronavirus is transmitted asymptomatically is a tremendously important fact, because it speaks to the difficulty in combating the virus and the need to keep even people who don’t appear sick indoors. Did Kemp really not process that before the middle of this week?
Kemp isn’t the first top official to make comments suggesting that they weren’t exactly up to speed on the particulars here. President Trump said Sunday that he had just learned about a projection that 2.2 million people might have died in the United States if nothing had been done to mitigate the virus’s spread. Trump said that when he was given the number that day, it was the “first time I’ve heard that number.” In fact, that number had been part of a projection issued nearly two weeks earlier by an Imperial College London model that formed the basis of more aggressive responses in the United States and Britain.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R), Kemp’s neighboring state leader, has also said some strange things about the data in her state. She said Tuesday of the infections in Alabama: “Y’all, we are not Louisiana, we are not New York state, we are not California.” As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted, though, the rate of the spread in Alabama was similar to the early days of New York and worse than in California.
Ivey, like Kemp, has resisted pressure for a statewide stay-at-home order. And in both cases, it seems fair to ask just how much of their holding out was actually driven by the data and what health officials were saying.