The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pence is right, we’re not seeing a second coronavirus wave. We’re still in the first one.

Vice President Pence talks with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), left, her husband Kevin and state Sen. Randy Feenstra (R), right, during a lunch stop at Sally's, on Tuesday in Forest City, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
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New Zealand had its first cases of the novel coronavirus in early March. By the end of the month, the country was experiencing nearly 100 new confirmed cases a day.

But that was the peak. By the end of April, there were only a smattering of new cases and, by the end of May, none. The pandemic emerged and was pushed downward. The initial wave of cases was over.

To hear Vice President Pence tell it, something similar has happened or is happening in the United States. It’s hard to blame him for making that case, given that he was handed the unenviable task of managing the pandemic here, a task that necessitates containing both the virus and the president’s slapdash approaches to it. But that doesn’t make his presentation of what’s happening accurate.

In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Pence dismisses the idea that there’s an emerging second wave of cases in the United States.

“In recent days, the media has taken to sounding the alarm bells over a ‘second wave’ of coronavirus infections. Such panic is overblown,” Pence writes. “Thanks to the leadership of President Trump and the courage and compassion of the American people, our public health system is far stronger than it was four months ago, and we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy.”

You’ll notice that Pence’s response to the idea that there’s a new wave of cases doesn’t immediately address the idea that there’s a new wave of cases. Yes, yes, Trump’s leadership has been essential; we’ve heard this from Pence before. But that our public health system is stronger doesn’t actually tell us anything about whether there’s a second wave.

Pence gets to that.

“[M]ore than half of states are actually seeing cases decline or remain stable,” he writes. “Every state, territory and major metropolitan area, with the exception of three, have positive test rates under 10%. And in the six states that have reached more than 1,000 new cases a day, increased testing has allowed public health officials to identify most of the outbreaks in particular settings — prisons, nursing homes and meatpacking facilities — and contain them.”

“Lost in the coverage is the fact that today less than 6% of Americans tested each week are found to have the virus," he continues. “Cases have stabilized over the past two weeks, with the daily average case rate across the U.S. dropping to 20,000 — down from 30,000 in April and 25,000 in May. And in the past five days, deaths are down to fewer than 750 a day, a dramatic decline from 2,500 a day a few weeks ago — and a far cry from the 5,000 a day that some were predicting.”

All of these metrics offer some information about what’s happening with the virus, though don’t necessarily get to the point that’s Pence’s purported focus.

It’s also not clear how accurate Pence’s numbers are. Publicly available measures of testing, meaning those compiled by the COVID Tracking Project, indicate that multiple states have been averaging more than 10 percent positive tests over the past week, including Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, Mississippi, South Carolina, Washington and Wyoming. Whether states with more than 1,000 new cases a day on average are actually identifying “most” outbreaks is also murky.

Most importantly, though, Pence presents that central question — the rate of new cases — in a misleading light. The seven-day average of new cases in the country is at about 21,800 as of June 15. That figure hasn’t changed much in several weeks.

That’s important because Pence is presenting the pandemic as being fairly New Zealandesque, with new case totals trending steadily downward. But they aren’t. The average number of daily new cases is flat and has been for nearly a month.

That doesn’t tell us everything by itself, so let’s consider it in light of a few other metrics: daily tests, the rate of positive tests and the number of deaths per day.

Yes, the number of deaths per day has dropped off, which is both good news and accurately presented by Pence. And, yes, the number of tests being conducted per day is increasing, something which both Trump and Pence have argued is a cause (if not the main cause) of climbing case rates. As we wrote on Tuesday, that’s misleading. That the rate of positive tests has flattened instead of continuing downward reveals that the steadiness of the number of new cases is at least in part a function of infection rates holding relatively steady, too.

That new-case number, though, is the important one here. You can see clearly on the cases-per-day graph where the decline in new cases leveled off. Our curve doesn’t look like New Zealand’s; it barely looks like a curve. While Pence touts that the number of new cases is near 20,000, he doesn’t mention that it maxed out at a bit over 30,000. In other words, we haven’t even declined 33 percent off our peak daily new cases.

According to these numbers, we haven’t finished descending the mountain. We’re still above the tree line.

This is fundamentally the concern. It’s not that we’re reopening the economy and therefore risking a reemergence of the virus. It’s that the administration is pushing to get back to normal before the virus went away in the first place. One can certainly argue that an increase in economic activity is necessary for a variety of reasons. But it can’t be argued that such an increase is warranted given our success in limiting the spread of the virus.

It’s possible, if not likely, that we actually have seen a bigger decline in the number of new daily cases from the peak. After all, we were conducting so few tests in April that we unquestionably missed tens or hundreds of thousands of cases. Perhaps the increase in testing simply means that we now have a relatively accurate picture of where we are compared to how we were flying blind over the past few months.

That’s not an argument that Pence wants to make, given what it suggests about the administration’s efforts. But it does bolster the ostensible point of his article.

We aren’t seeing a second wave because we’re still dealing with the first one.

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