That’s more infections than were seen cumulatively until the very end of April. It means that 1 out of every 319 Americans has contracted the virus over the past week.
At least one member of the White House coronavirus task force is perfectly content with that increase. Scott Atlas is a neuroradiologist who was added to the team after President Trump saw him badmouthing containment efforts on cable news. In the past few weeks, Atlas has repeatedly disparaged the idea that Americans should take steps to reduce new infections, criticizing state-level containment measures and insisting that they stand in necessary contrast to “freedom.”
On Sunday, he suggested that Michiganders “rise up” to block prohibitions against indoor dining at restaurants and bowling. Those measures were proposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who was recently the target of an alleged kidnapping plot.
At other times, Atlas has tried to downplay the risk posed by a rampant spread of the virus, very much in keeping with the “herd immunity” strategy he claims to oppose. Atlas insists that neither he nor the White House thinks that the population should be allowed to contract the virus and thereby build up the broad immunity that would be conferred by deployment of a vaccine. Instead, he advocates against efforts to slow the virus’s spread and insists that the virus isn’t all that deadly — certainly a subtle distinction from direct “herd immunity” advocacy.
Atlas’s rhetoric often appears to rely on giving the impression of studiousness or authority to make sketchy claims about why containment measures like restricting business activity should be avoided. He touted an analysis claiming that hospital utilization is down, relative to past years in states currently seeing massive spikes in new infections, analysis that runs contrary to what elected leaders are seeing on the ground.
In late October, Atlas elevated a news story about Sweden’s rejection of containment efforts, suggesting that no surge in deaths ensued and that politicians were praised as a result. Sweden has since implemented new legal restrictions aimed at containing the virus after a spike in hospitalizations and deaths.
Atlas’s insistence that somehow more cases don’t lead to significantly more deaths is baffling. There is by now a demonstrated relationship between cases, hospitalizations and deaths that comports with common sense: More cases means more people in the hospital and, then, more deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. The current surge in cases nationally began in mid-September; data from the COVID Tracking Project shows how hospitalizations and deaths each increased after the surge began.
As we’ve reported, there’s a fairly steady relationship between the number of cases and hospitalizations and the number of deaths that follow. Since Aug. 1, the average number of deaths on a day is about 1.7 percent of the number of new cases 16 days prior. The average number of deaths is about 2.2 percent of total hospitalizations 15 days prior.
In other words, if 150,000 people contract the virus today, on average, we can expect there to be more than 2,600 deaths a day in two weeks’ time. The actual figure has been slightly lower in recent days, given the rate at which new cases are being added. If we manage to hold at 1.5 percent of new cases leading to new deaths, that’s still 2,250 deaths per day — a rate that matches the worst period of mid-April.
It’s worth noting that this ratio is not significantly better than many other countries, including both Sweden and Canada. In other words, more new cases in the United States have led to a higher percentage of deaths here than in other countries.
(These figures are relative to the 16-day period, which is the most significant period in the United States and fluctuates with aberrations in the data.)
What’s important to remember is that increased hospitalizations introduce risks unrelated to the virus. Swamping hospitals with covid-19 patients fills up intensive care units which are then unavailable to other critically ill patients, like those in car accidents or those suffering from other acute trauma. Even if we are better able to treat coronavirus patients, there’s a downside to allowing the virus to spread wildly.
Atlas’s advocacy within the coronavirus task force for a policy allowing the virus to spread widely was met with internal resistance, as The Washington Post reported last month. With Trump’s blessing, however, Atlas has brought that message to the public, offering an obvious contrast with Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert.
Fauci said Monday that he “totally disagrees” with Atlas’s approach.
“The fact that help is on the way” — that is, vaccine candidates — “should spur us even more to double down on some of the public health measures,” Fauci said during an interview on the “Today” show. That includes measures aimed at limiting the spread of the virus by closing some business activity.
In a tweet on Sunday, Atlas again scoffed at such measures.
“Want more mandates & lockdown? Contact your governor,” Atlas wrote. “That’s state controlled. Not federal. Period.”
Atlas is not an elected official. Many elected officials at the state level and internationally have acted quickly to limit the number of their constituents infected with the virus and, therefore, the number who die. Atlas has no constituents. He can simply make rhetorical points without worrying about the reaction. He is accountable only to the president who decided that his voice should be heard by more than just Fox News’s afternoon television audience.
Now, with the election over, that president is himself no longer significantly accountable to the public. So here we are.