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The Morning Dispatch: New COVID Cases Hit Daily Record
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The Morning Dispatch: New COVID Cases Hit Daily Record

Plus, the questions that surround reopening schools in the fall.

Happy Thursday! Prepare yourself for some #data in this newsletter.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • As of Wednesday night, 3,054,650 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the United States (an increase of 60,891 from yesterday) and 132,298 deaths have been attributed to the virus (an increase of 843 from yesterday), according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, leading to a mortality rate among confirmed cases of 4.3 percent (the true mortality rate is likely much lower, between 0.4 percent and 1.4 percent, but it’s impossible to determine precisely due to incomplete testing regimens). Of 37,431,666 coronavirus tests conducted in the United States (553,560 conducted since yesterday), 8.2 percent have come back positive.

  • In the penultimate day of the term, the Supreme Court delivered two wins for religious liberty advocates. In a 7-2 ruling, the court affirmed the Trump administration’s ability to exempt religious organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor from an Affordable Care Act mandate that required covered employers to provide health insurance coverage for birth control. In another 7-2 decision, the high court also expanded the rights of religious institutions to hire and fire certain ministerial employees without being being subject to employment discrimination laws. The court is expected to hand down its decision on whether the president must turn over personal financial records to Congress and the New York County District Attorney later this morning.

  • Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security in an effort to block its recently announced rule barring international college students from studying at universities that move entirely online when classes resume.

  • Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman—a key witness in President Trump’s impeachment inquiry—announced via Twitter his retirement from the U.S. Army after more than 21 years of service. His lawyer said Vindman has experienced a “campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation” since testifying in the inquiry last year.

  • The Ivy League became the first Division I conference to suspend all fall sports in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The State of the Virus

After locking down economic activity almost entirely for two months in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, most states across the country began gradually moving through the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s phased reopening approach in mid-to-late May or early June. The result? We’ve seen 1,264,478 new confirmed COVID-19 cases since June 1, per the Johns Hopkins University dashboard, and 60,891—a daily record—yesterday alone.

Some of these numbers—as the president is wont to point out—can be attributed to increased testing capacity. The country conducted roughly 510,000 thousand COVID-19 tests per day in June, up from about 350,000 per day in May. But rate statistics show COVID-19 transmission is growing faster than our ability to test for it. In the first seven days of June, just 4.6 percent of tests came back positive. That figure is nearly double for the past week: 8.2 percent.

Increases in the daily number of new cases are happening in states across the country—36 to be exact—but trends in Arizona, Florida, Texas, and California are among the most worrisome.

The Centers for Disease Control pegs COVID-19’s incubation period—the amount of time between exposure to the virus and the onset of symptoms—at between two and 14 days. A spike in case growth in early June, therefore, tracks with states beginning to reopen, as well as mass protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. “For anyone to claim that [the protests] didn’t contribute to the rise at all would be nonsensical,” Yale University professor of public health Howard Forman tells The Dispatch. But “if you go back and look at the epidemiological curve, this wave that we’re watching right now in most of these locations started mid-May. … It’s almost perfectly timed to when things were reopening. It didn’t start on Memorial Day, it didn’t start the day after Memorial Day, it clearly started before Memorial Day.”

“Some states, admittedly, opened up too early and too quickly,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Wall Street Journal yesterday. “So that was something that probably should not have happened that led to this.”

Far more important than the raw number of COVID-19 cases, of course, is the number of people who either are hospitalized with or die from the virus. And neither of those figures have shot up as quickly as the number of new infections has. In the last week of April, daily deaths averaged more than 2,000. That average has been around 600 for the past week. COVID-19’s case fatality rate—the percentage of those confirmed positive with the coronavirus who later died from it—peaked at nearly 6.1 percent in mid-May. It’s down to about 4.3 percent now.

There are a number of theories as to why this could be the case (we covered some of them here). For starters, the people being infected today are generally younger and healthier than the people being infected back in March and April. Fauci said earlier this week the average age of a coronavirus patient has dropped about 15 years in just the last month or two. Some also posit that the medical community has gotten better at treating patients coming down with the virus.

But the expert consensus continues to be that we’re not out of the woods yet. “There is a lag,” says Forman. “The first thing you see is case numbers go up because you’re testing a lot, the next thing to go up is hospitalizations because those typically occur about two to three weeks after infection, and the last thing to grow is deaths … At this stage right now, we’re seeing the deaths much, much later with a legitimate lag.”

Forman is right. Using Texas as an example, hospitalizations have been steadily increasing since the middle of June, and deaths—which tend to follow a weekly reporting pattern—have followed suit. Both figures peaked in the state yesterday.

Still, 98 fatalities in a day is a far cry from the 1,036 New Yorkers who died from the virus on April 7, especially after you adjust for Texas’ larger population. Gov. Greg Abbott has tried in recent days to keep things from spiraling further in the state, instituting a statewide mask mandate, closing bars, and otherwise reversing some of the state’s reopening measures.

But Forman does not believe yesterday was the state’s high-water mark. “Based on the case numbers in places like Texas, Florida, and Arizona,” he said, “I think you’re going to see deaths continue to increase over the next few weeks in numbers that most of the governors are going to be surprised by. I don’t think they realize what’s going on.”

Are Schools Going to Open in the Fall?

When the coronavirus pandemic led state and local officials to begin shutting things in mid-March, school closures were some of the most disruptive. Schools provide education, of course, but also child care, meals, and counseling to millions of children and their families across the country, five days a week. If the objective is to regain some semblance of normalcy in the fall, schools will have to reopen.

With the fall term set to begin in less than two months, schools—public and private, from pre-K to college—are grappling with exactly how and when to proceed. The president offered his two cents earlier this week:

But plenty of education systems are ignoring his demand. Harvard University made news on Monday when it announced that “all course instruction (undergraduate and graduate) for the 2020-21 academic year will be delivered online.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio released the city’s hybrid approach for the fall on Wednesday: Some in-person learning will be available to students, but only one to three days per week in order to promote social distancing. No more than 12 students will be permitted in classrooms at any given time.

But these two examples—although prominent—aren’t necessarily emblematic of the country at large. The University of Notre Dame announced in May its plan to reopen academics and athletics in the fall, and the University of Virginia will also resume full operation for all students in a few months. Many colleges are adopting a hybrid approach, encouraging students to return to in-person instruction but putting a cap on the number of students allowed in each class. Princeton University is welcoming freshmen and juniors to campus in the fall, and sophomores and seniors in the spring.

Centers for Disease Control guidelines recommend schools require mask wearing for students and teachers, place desks six feet apart and facing the same direction, and close cafeterias and playgrounds. But Trump criticized these “very tough & expensive guidelines” yesterday, adding that the CDC is “asking schools to do very impractical things.” Vice President Mike Pence echoed Trump’s concerns. “We don’t want the guidance from the CDC to be the reason schools don’t open up,” he said.

Schools are largely a state and local issue. But to get districts and universities to comply with physical reopenings, the Trump administration is threatening to withhold a portion of the roughly 10 percent of school funding that comes from the federal government. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a rule on Monday making clear that international students “attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States” and that the State Department “will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester.” Acting Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told CNN a goal of this change was to “encourage schools to reopen.”

The administration could also dangle a carrot in front of schools in addition to these sticks, working with Congress to include various enticements in the next coronavirus relief package. “As we work with Congress on the next round of state support, we’re going to be looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and encouragement to get kids back to school,” Pence said Wednesday.

While remote education provides undeniable benefits in reducing the spread of COVID-19, several studies suggest that the costs are also significant. Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Dispatch that online learning has been psychologically, emotionally, and academically devastating for children. Remote instruction also poses lasting disadvantages to children living in homes with poor internet access, abusive guardians, or parents who work full-time. And Hess is skeptical that there will be any improvement in the quality of virtual learning for K-12 students this fall. “I’ve seen little sense that districts are being particularly transparent or clear with families or even with teachers about how they’re going to succeed,” he said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also voiced concerns about the developmental consequences of remote learning, citing the importance of in-person instruction to overall health. “Schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity,” the group said in a statement.

Views on COVID-19 transmission between children are mixed. According to a Nature Medicine study from June, children under 20 are about half as susceptible to COVID-19 infection as those over 20, and their likelihood of showing symptoms is also much lower. A pre-publication release of a study from the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics echoed these results. “It is unclear why documented SARS-CoV-2 transmission from children to other children or adults is so infrequent,” the authors write. But “these data all suggest that children are not significant drivers of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But even if the risk of transmission between students is relatively low, older teachers may not feel safe to return. “How much of your staff is going to come back if you try and go fully open, and to what degree can you comfort those who have worries by the measures you’re going to take to contain the virus?” asked Nat Malkus, the deputy director of education policy studies at AEI. “Staff is one essential part of opening a school, getting the kids in the doors is the other one.”

An increase in cases may cause some schools to backpedal on their reopening strategies as summer progresses. “The uncertainty is going up as the time to reopen draws nigh,” Malkus added. “I think five weeks ago there was a lot of districts that would have been comfortable with a more aggressive reopening plan that are now seeing case counts rising.”

Worth Your Time

  • Among the less-discussed casualties of the COVID-19 lockdowns: Victims of drug overdoses, domestic violence, and mental health crises. This piece from Jacob Stern in The Atlantic tackles the last of those three—predicting grim aftereffects of the coronavirus on our nation’s psychological health. Mixed messages from public health officials early on, combined with an already inadequate mental health-care system, will create a wave of psychological stress of massive proportions, he writes. “A pandemic, unlike an earthquake or a fire, is invisible, and that makes it all the more anxiety-inducing,” Stern writes. “Mental-health professionals can’t reassure [people living through a pandemic] that the danger has passed, because the danger has not passed.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • The gang recorded a Dispatch Podcast yesterday! Tune in for a discussion of the open letter on free speech that ran in Harper’s, the school reopening debate, mask wearing and culture warring, and President Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech last Friday.

  • In yesterday’s G-File, Jonah mounts a defense of the American founding, shedding light on the revolutionary liberal principles that drove the creation of a more perfect union. He disputes narratives that cast the American Revolution in the singular light of white supremacy, writing, “I understand that race is the most important issue—even the only issue—for a lot of people today. But it wasn’t then.”

  • This week, Thomas Joscelyn takes a look into the Chinese Communist Party’s “Fox Hunt.” On its face, the campaign targets Chinese nationals at home and abroad suspected of corruption charges. In practice, the wide-reaching operation takes aim at a variety of political deviations from the CCP, investigating and repatriating dissidents through a vast espionage apparatus. Learn more in the latest edition of Vital Interests (🔒).

  • Is there a better way to unpack a big day of Supreme Court decisions than by tuning into a bonus episode of Advisory Opinions? We don’t think so. Be sure to check out Sarah and David’s latest for an examination of the mounting legal tension between religious liberty and LGBTQ protections.

  • On the site today, Ronald Rubin on Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in which the majority found that the CFPB’s structure that allowed the director to be removed by the president only “for cause” to be unconstitutional. Rubin explains how the decision could have a lasting effect on the administrative state.

Let Us Know

If the school year started tomorrow, would you feel fine sending your child? If not, what would need to happen between now and late-August for you to feel comfortable?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Nate Hochman (@njhochman), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Tom Pennington/Getty Images.