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The Morning Dispatch: Nobody Is Juicing COVID-19 Death Numbers
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The Morning Dispatch: Nobody Is Juicing COVID-19 Death Numbers

Plus, with Bernie suspending his campaign, it’s up to Joe Biden to unify the party.

Happy Thursday, and chag sameach to all our readers who celebrated the beginning of Passover last night! We hope you were able to find unique ways to celebrate with friends and loved ones while we’re all sequestered away in our homes.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • As of Wednesday night, there are now 432,132 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States (an 8.4 percent increase from yesterday) and 14,817 deaths (a 14.9 percent increase from yesterday), according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, leading to a mortality rate among confirmed cases of 3.4 percent (the true mortality rate is difficult to calculate due to incomplete testing regimens). Of 2,195,771 coronavirus tests conducted in the United States, 19.3 percent have come back positive, per the COVID Tracking Project, a separate dataset with slightly different topline numbers.

  • Bernie Sanders officially suspended his campaign for president on Wednesday, all but ensuring that Joe Biden will face Donald Trump in the general election in November. 

  • After accounting for new social distancing and hospitalization data, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s coronavirus model is now projecting about 33,000 fewer deaths in the United States than it was last week, down from about 93,000 to 60,000. The model, often cited by the White House, assumes social distancing measures remain in place through August, far later than currently planned.

  • New research shows the coronavirus may have arrived in New York City from Europe, not China, and in mid-February, weeks before the Big Apple’s first confirmed case.

  • Nearly one-third of apartment renters in the United States didn’t pay any rent for April during the first week of the month, according to data from the National Multifamily Housing Council. Several corporate tenants—like Staples and the Cheesecake Factory—are also withholding payment from landlords.

  • A bipartisan group of eight senators—including Chuck Grassley, Mitt Romney, and Ron Wyden—are demanding Trump explain his removal of the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson.

The Death Toll Mounts Even As We Flatten the Curve

We’re beginning to see some glimmers of encouragement in the parts of the country hardest hit by the coronavirus, with real, strong evidence that social distancing is slowing the rate of new infections. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that the rate of new hospitalizations has fallen substantially from its peak a week ago: “We are flattening the curve, thank God, thank God, thank God, and thank a lot of good people who have been working very hard.”

Hospitalizations are a lagging indicator of the state of the pandemic, since most coronavirus patients who require it have already been sick with the disease for a week or longer. If that number is dropping, it’s a good bet that the disease itself has been slowing already for weeks. This is good news.

Unfortunately, there’s another indicator that lags behind even hospitalizations: Coronavirus deaths, which are still accelerating. The numbers are hard to fathom: close to 2,000 in the U.S. from Monday to Tuesday alone. There will likely be more today, and more the day after that. Intellectually, we all knew this was coming; the cold data was clear. But that doesn’t make it easier to get through. Ten days ago, President Trump warned the country to brace for “a very, very painful two weeks.” On Sunday, Surgeon General Jerome Adams said this week was likely to be “the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives.” For far too many Americans, that’s already coming true.

In the face of that kind of tragedy, it’s perhaps unsurprising that people still persist in hoping that things aren’t quite as bad as the news coverage would make it out to be. We saw a bout of that over the last few days, springing from something Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, said in the Tuesday briefing.

“I think in this country we’ve taken a very liberal approach to mortality,” Birx said. “There are other countries that if you had a preexisting condition, and let’s say the virus caused you to go to the ICU and then have a heart or kidney problem, some countries are recording that as a heart issue or a kidney issue and not a COVID-19 death. … The intent is right now that if someone dies with COVID-19, we are counting that as a COVID-19 death.”

To some, this sounded as though Birx was saying that unrelated fatalities were being swept up into the COVID statistics. “Lots of people are asymptomatic, who may have other terrible diseases,” Fox News’ Brit Hume said on Tucker Carlson’s show later that night. “And if everybody is being automatically classified, if they’re found to have COVID-19, as a COVID-19 death, we’re going to get a very large number of deaths that way and we’re probably not going to have an accurate count of what the real death total is.”

Carlson took the thought a step further, insinuating some pernicious fiddling with the numbers might be involved: “And there may be reasons that people seek an inaccurate death count. … When journalists work with numbers, there sometimes is an agenda, unfortunately.”

From there it was off to the races, with some of the most irresponsible voices in media, from former Turning Point USA spokeswoman Candace Owens to conspiratorial radio host Bill Mitchell, trumpeting the statement as proof of a “COVID-19 death-rating scam.” 

But the situation Hume envisioned—people dying totally unrelated deaths, receiving a posthumous COVID test, and being logged in the statistics as COVID victims—simply isn’t happening. Although the country has dramatically ramped up its testing capacity in recent weeks, COVID tests are still not so ubiquitous that doctors could run them posthumously on all deceased people in a hotspot, even if they had the inclination to do so. Postmortem tests are taking place around the country, but only in those who died with COVID-like symptoms who were not able to get tested sooner—and not always even then.

Indeed, Birx’s own statement is clear that she’s talking only about patients who are seriously ill both with COVID and with something else—those who “the virus caused to go to the ICU.” We shouldn’t be surprised that such deaths are counted as COVID deaths; after all, we’ve known for as long as the coronavirus has been around that it is deadliest to those with preexisting health complications.

“Just as with any acute infection, having other preexisting conditions increases your chance of death,” Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and professor at Brown University, told The Dispatch. “People’s immune systems and ability to handle an infection are compromised by their age, by their other medical conditions, and by multiple other risk factors. But the fact remains that most of these people would not have died today were it not for COVID-19.”

Birx said as much herself when asked to expound on her previous remarks Wednesday: “Those individuals will have an underlying condition, but that underlying condition did not cause their acute death when it’s related to a COVID infection. In fact, it’s the opposite.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci pushed back more directly against the “death-rating scam” narrative.

“You will always have conspiracy theories when you have a very challenging public health crisis,” he said. “They are nothing but distractions. … I would just hope that we just put those conspiracy stuff—and let somebody write a book about it later on, but not now.” 

For a deeper dive into the numbers, we recommend this excellent Twitter thread from author/investor J.D. Vance and, once again, Jonah’s podcast with Lyman Stone from earlier this week, which includes a tutorial on the numbers.

Bernie Calls It Quits

One day after Wisconsin voters went to the polls amid a pandemic, and one month after his path to the nomination was all but foreclosed upon, Bernie Sanders officially suspended his campaign for president.

“I wish I could give you better news, but I think you know the truth,” Sanders confessed to his supporters, ten minutes into a live-streamed address. “We are now some 300 delegates behind Vice President Biden, and the path toward victory is virtually impossible.”

Biden was gracious in victory. “I want to commend Bernie for being a powerful voice for a fairer and more just America. It’s voices like Bernie’s that refuse to allow us to just accept what is—that refuse to accept we can’t change what’s wrong in our nation,” the former vice president said in a 772-word statement. “To Bernie and Jane [Sanders, Bernie’s wife] … I’ll be reaching out to you. You will be heard by me. As you say: Not me, Us. And to your supporters I make the same commitment: I see you, I hear you, and I understand the urgency of what it is we have to get done in this country. I hope you will join us. You are more than welcome. You’re needed.”

Sanders’s voters certainly will be needed if Biden wants to beat Donald Trump this November. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly blamed Sanders and his supporters for her loss in 2016, arguing—fairly or not—that the senator from Vermont made it difficult for her to unify the Democratic party. 

The Trump campaign will undoubtedly do everything it can to sow discord between the establishment and progressive wings of the party, as evidenced by the president’s reaction to Tuesday’s news.

While a handful of high-profile Sanders surrogates have said they will not vote for the now-presumptive Democratic nominee, this is not 2016; 80 percent of them reported in a late-March ABC News/Washington Post poll they’d support Biden in November. In 2016, the democratic socialist hung around in the race well into the summer, and did not endorse Clinton until mid-July. As NBC’s Steve Kornacki pointed out, this is actually the earliest a contested Democratic presidential primary has ended since 2004.

Sanders has not yet endorsed Biden—and in fact told his supporters he will “stay on the ballot in all remaining states” in an effort to rack up delegates and maximize influence over the party’s eventual platform—but he did refer to Biden as “a very decent man” and wrote that “together, standing united, we will go forward to defeat Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in modern American history.”

“It’s no great secret that Joe Biden’s politics are different than mine,” Sanders said in an interview with Stephen Colbert Wednesday night. “But I have known Joe since I came to the Senate in 2006, worked with him when he was vice president in the Obama administration. … I hope to be able to work with Joe to move him in a more progressive direction.”

That last sentence points to a tension inherent in the Trump campaign’s messaging on Biden thus far. The former vice president can either be so out-of-touch with the progressive left that Sanders’ supporters are left “looking for a new home,” or he can be “the same” as Sanders. It will prove difficult to argue he is both.

And though it’s early, Bernie seems set on lessening the blow of at least one of those charges. “I can tell you this, Stephen,” Sanders concluded on CBS. “What I said from the first day that I announced my intention to run for president: I will do everything that I can to make sure that Donald Trump is not re-elected.”

Worth Your Time

  • Bernie Sanders may have withdrawn from the 2020 race yesterday, but Commentary’s Noah Rothman argues that he earned a greater victory: remaking the Democratic party in his likeness. 

  • In addition to all the other stressors of pandemic life—fears about health, fears about money—many parents are feeling horribly unsuited to the task of suddenly reinventing their parenting styles to accommodate the family’s upended schedules. In this excellent piece for The Atlantic, Mary Katherine Ham writes about how the things she learned about parenting in the wake of her husband’s death can be applied to the lives of these parents with new responsibilities unexpectedly thrust upon them.

  • At least six members of Congress have contracted the coronavirus, and Paul Kane of the Washington Post was able to talk to three of them. While Rep. Joe Cunningham experienced only mild symptoms—his typical Chick-fil-A order tasted bland—Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ben McAdams had much rougher goes. “Even my hair—I don’t have much of it—that hurt,” said Diaz-Balart.

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In his latest midweek G-File, Jonah tackles an interesting question: In this time of grave national disaster, why do we hear so few people talking about a higher power’s role, or lack thereof, in it? Jonah’s got a few theories—and if you think we’re going to spoil them here, buddy, you’ve got another thing coming.It’s a great read.

  • Tom Joscelyn’s latest Vital Interests newsletter uses Henry Kissinger’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed—in which the former secretary of state argued that the U.S. will need to use the days following the coronavirus to rebuild the international world order, but fails to even mention China—as a jumping-off point to discuss Kissinger’s cozy ties to the Xi regime and the ways in which the coronavirus crisis has shown China to be deeply unreliable as a cooperative world power.

  • A rumor bounced around #Resistance social media: President Trump has been hawking hydroxychloroquine as a miracle drug because it turns out he has a financial interest in it! Alec’s latest Dispatch Fact Check looks into the theories, which began with reporting in New York Times article and grew wildly from there. But the facts of the matter don’t support the hype. Give it a read here.

  • Lots of good stuff on the site today: Stephen Eide lays out the challenges facing the homeless—and the people who take care of them—during the pandemic. Bill Wirtz has a piece on the “corona apps” gaining popularity in Europe even though they present a threat to privacy and might be of limited effectiveness. And Bob Driscoll has a modest suggestion for helping shuttered small businesses.

Let Us Know

At the age of 78, Bernie Sanders will almost assuredly never be president. What’s his most lasting legacy?

  • Millionayuhs and billionayuhs.

  • The sheer number of campaign surrogates he’s unleashed upon the American populace.

  • I mean, it’s probably the whole tapping into and growing a massive nationwide democratic socialist movement in the United States, right?

  • Normalizing curmudgeons.

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Alec Dent (@Alec_Dent), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph of ambulances by Getty Images.