The full picture suggests the opposite of a rosy one: On the same day that Pence urged senators to focus on “encouraging signs,” the United States had its highest single day of reported coronavirus cases. Some of their comments risk underplaying the risk the country faces.
Here’s what Pence and Republicans who talked to reporters said after his lunch on Capitol Hill about the coronavirus.
1. Infections are rising, Pence told senators, but the mortality rate is not.
Larry Kudlow, the White House economic adviser, sounded a similar note on Fox News on Thursday, saying that while coronavirus hot spots will keep popping up, the fatality rate is not spiking. “We’re going to have to live with this from time to time,” he said. “But that’s a different matter than the whole country. We have seen case growth rates rise nationally just a little bit. Fatality rates, however, continue to go down.”
But that could change in a few weeks. The death toll we are seeing now — which is still hundreds every day — is mostly reflecting those who got sick a few weeks ago. Health experts, including top infectious-disease specialist Anthony S. Fauci, warn that the death toll could rise considerably in July, commensurate with case increases, once those who are sick today start to deteriorate.
Data from state hot spots show that younger people, in their 20s and 30s and 40s, are getting sick more often than they used to as states open up restaurants and bars. And younger people so far are dying at a lower rate than older people or those with underlying conditions. But young people still spread the virus quickly.
Hospitalizations are another way to measure sickness spreading in communities, and Arizona, one of the hardest-hit states today, set a record this past week in hospitalizations.
2. Only 12 states are experiencing increased cases.
The data Pence gave senators does not match with data independently tracked by The Washington Post, which shows 20 or more states with increased cases, my colleagues report. The difference is significant; Pence was arguing that about a quarter of states are seeing increased infections. The Post says 40 percent to maybe half of states are experiencing an increase in infections.
3. “I think compared to where we were, we’re in a much better situation, but everybody knows it’s very fragile and we’ve got to stay after it,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told reporters.
April 25 was the previous height of the pandemic, with the United States seeing 34,203 cases. On Wednesday, the country hit 38,115 — with Cornyn’s state of Texas playing a notable role in that.
Cornyn seems to mean we are better prepared to handle the rise in virus cases. On that, it depends which way you look at it. The United States has had months to ramp up testing so people who need a test can get one, and scientists are learning more about the virus and its impacts the longer we live with it. But by some measures, we know we are not prepared. For example, NPR surveyed how many states have set up enough contact tracers to aggressively control and isolate outbreaks. The answer: Seven, plus the District of Columbia.
4. Increased testing is what’s increasing the number of coronavirus infections.
It does not appear that Pence said this directly to senators. But the New York Times reports that earlier this month, he urged governors to emphasize the rise in testing when talking about increased coronavirus infections. Trump has consistently said this, and he tweeted it Thursday.
But Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said that is not the case. “We have very good evidence that this is not just about testing,” he told NBC’s “Today Show” on Thursday. Hospitalizations are going up, positivity rates from those that are getting tested are going up and Fauci and other government health officials told Congress this week that community spread is playing a significant role in these numbers increasing.
Plus, how many more people are sick and undiagnosed? The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, estimated Thursday that for every confirmed coronavirus case, there are possibly 10 more health officials do not know about.
5. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urged taking precautions for the virus, and cited potentially encouraging stats alongside his warnings.
Rubio said after Wednesday’s lunch that people should “wear a damn mask,” and also told reporters that in Florida a significant percentage of new cases have come from people hospitalized for unrelated issues who are tested and discovered to have the coronavirus.
Rubio’s point seemed to be that at least in his state, covid-19 is a secondary health concern for a significant portion of new cases, and he made it in concert with urging behavior that public health officials say can slow the spread. He has been striking a similar line in other public posts and comments, saying this is the rational approach.
Rubio responded in a tweet after this post initially published, again pointing out the tweet above that shows he regularly warns people to be careful and take the prospect of transmitting the virus seriously.
Presenting a message of caution with caveats of hopeful news is still a risky strategy, with so many things unknown about the virus. Rubio is citing this specific stat at a time when Florida is seeing huge jumps in infections. One of public health officials’ struggles with the coronavirus is that it could pass through people without giving them any symptoms, or it can kill them. As scientists are trying to figure out why, they have little explanation to offer Americans other than to urge them to stay away from other people as much as possible.
There are frequent reminders that underscore how little they know about it. For example, a new study found that supposedly asymptomatic people actually had problems in the lungs akin to walking pneumonia. Young people can get sick, too.
Being optimistic as a politician in a crisis is one thing. As much of the nation is stepping out into their communities again, people will look to their government for cues on how to behave in this in-between moment. Politicians owe it to Americans to honestly assess how serious the outbreak is, and we are not seeing a number of high-profile Republicans emphasize the dangers, or the unknowns, in their own public assessments.
This post has been updated to clarify Rubio’s comments.