By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS  – Last March 29, President Trump said at one of his coronavirus task force shows, “Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won.”

But that is exactly what Trump and task force chair Mike Pence are saying and doing in their stewarding the United States through the COVID-19 pandemic that has infected more than 1 million people, killing 118,000. Americans are tired of isolation. Trump was told his coronavirus “shows” were harming his torpid reelection chances, so he was champing at the bit to return to his MAGA rallies he uses to fuel his ego and display political momentum. Pence’s coronavirus task force has been shuttled off to the mothballs. Trump hasn’t spoken with Dr. Anthony Fauci in weeks.

On Tuesday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Pence said there is no “second wave” and blamed the media. “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. While talk of an increase in cases dominates cable news coverage, more than half of states are actually seeing cases decline or remain stable. 

“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,” Pence continued. “Lost in the coverage is the fact that today less than 6% of Americans tested each week are found to have the virus. The media has tried to scare the American people every step of the way, and these grim predictions of a second wave are no different. The truth is, whatever the media says, our whole-of-America approach has been a success. We’ve slowed the spread, we’ve cared for the most vulnerable, we’ve saved lives, and we’ve created a solid foundation for whatever challenges we may face in the future. That’s a cause for celebration, not the media’s fear-mongering.”

On April 24, Pence had predicted the pandemic would “largely be behind us by Memorial Day.” IBJ reporter John Russell tweeted: “Just gonna bookmark this op-ed by Mike Pence and check back in a month or two.”

This Saturday night, Trump and Pence will appear at Tulsa’s BOK Center arena before a packed house, with the Trump campaign reporting a million requests for tickets. The Trump campaign will hand out face masks and hand sanitizers. Social distancing? Don’t count on it. But attendees had to sign a waiver protecting Trump Inc., and holding the arena harmless should anyone contract COVID-19.

The Tulsa World reported Wednesday: Trump supporters, who were gathering outside of the BOK Center on Tuesday, said they had no fear of the virus. James Massery said he did not worry about COVID-19, a sentiment shared among others there. “Whether or not I get it, it doesn’t bother me in the least,” said Massery, who is from Preston, a small community about 30 miles from Tulsa. “If I get it, I’ll deal with it ... if it takes me out, it’s just going to make me mad that I can’t vote for Trump in this coming election.”

Tulsa City-County Health Commissioner Bruce Dart appeared before the city’s school board on Monday and was asked if the MAGA rally could impact the reopening of city schools in August. “I’m extremely concerned,” Dart said. “I think we have the responsibility to stand up when things are happening that I think are going to be dangerous for our community, which it will be. It hurts my heart to think about the aftermath of what’s going to happen.”

This is just the ramping up to a full-fledged Republican National Convention in Jacksonville in late August. in an another emerging hotspot state. There, President Trump expects a packed arena filled with adulating supporters. In contrast, Indiana Republicans and Democrats opted for “virtual” conventions this past week and an expanded ballot by mail for the delayed June 2 primary. The Democratic National Committee is still weighing what it will do for its July convention slated for Milwaukee.

The Trump/Pence MAGA rally comes as “hotspots” emerge in 17 states like Oklahoma (new cases up 68% in the second week of June, two weeks after the Memorial Day holiday), South Carolina (up 86%), and Alabama (97%). In Indiana’s Trump country, Elkhart and LaGrange county commissioners mandated face masks in public this past week. “In view of our continuing rise in the number of COVID cases that we’re having, we need to pull another tool out of our box,” Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Lydia Mertz told the Elkhart Truth. 

“Anecdotal hospital capacity information, and this is from a phone call around to the hospitals yesterday: You’ve got Lutheran and Parkview in Fort Wayne, very full, quite busy,” said Goshen General Health President Randy Christofel (Eklhart Truth). “We still have capacity, but at this rate, we will run out. If this continues, we will be tight on capacity here within the next week or two at the most.”

“COVID’s not taking a summer vacation,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert and professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told CNN.

In a conference call with governors on Monday, Vice President Pence urged them “to continue to explain to your citizens the magnitude of the increase in testing” in addressing the new outbreaks. And he asked them to “encourage people with the news that we’re safely reopening the country.”

In fact, according to the New York Times and Washington Post, seven-day averages in several states with outbreaks have increased since May 31, and in at least 14 states, the positive case rate is increasing faster than the increase in the average number of tests. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll learn whether the mass George Floyd protests across the nation increased COVID propagation.

“The president often talks about embers,” Pence said, adding that “despite a mass increase in testing, we are still averaging roughly 20,000 cases a day, which is significantly down from six weeks ago.”

Politico’s Ryan Lizza and Ranuka Rayasam observed, “Pence abruptly reinvented himself as a coronavirus skeptic this week, with comments and an op-ed article that stray into pandemic denialism. Perhaps most telling, Pence made it clear that the effort to eliminate the disease before a vaccine is ready is not really the goal anymore. Instead, Pence argued that the White House now measures success by a lower level of daily deaths.”

Tempting fate in Tulsa


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined the highest risk events for transmission of the coronavirus this way: “Large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least six feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area.” The CDC recommends cloth masks in places where people might shout or chant.

The Wall Street Journal called them “superspreading events.” It reported: A study published by the National Academy of Sciences last week found that one minute of loud speech was enough to produce thousands of droplets that remain airborne for about 12 minutes, potentially able to infect anyone in the area. Similar studies have shown that virus-laden aerosols, particles smaller than droplets, can levitate for hours after being released in indoor spaces.

Indiana had one such event on March 6 at Lawrence Central HS for a sectional basketball game, one of 64 tournament games that fateful night. It was the scene where five Hoosiers caught the coronavirus and eventually died, including North Central HS Athletic Director Paul Loggan. Another dozen people tested positive and/or displayed symptoms.

Within two weeks, Indiana was in shutdown mode to keep its medical systems from being swamped. Not only has the pandemic claimed 2,265 Hoosier lives (the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted 2,800 deaths by Aug. 1 and 3,407 by Oct. 1), it has prompted 750,000 Hoosiers to file unemployment claims and put 30% to 40% of the state’s half million small businesses on the ropes. 

A second phase of a statewide study, a collaboration between the Indiana State Department of Health and IU’s Fairbanks School of Public Health revealed that 43% of those testing positive were asymptomatic. The study of 3,600 Hoosiers between June 3 and June 8  determined that the statewide estimate for the active infection rate was 0.6%, a sharp decrease from the 1.7% observed in Phase 1. The estimate for antibody positivity in Phase 2 was 1.5%, an increase from 1.1% from the Phase 1 results. “While the reasons for this decline could vary, it is likely that the virus has slowed due to our collective efforts to be safer, engage in social distancing, and reduce transmission by wearing masks and adhering to higher hand- and surface-hygiene standards,” said Dr. Nir Menachemi, lead scientist on the study and a professor and Fairbanks Endowed Chair. “This was an example of Hoosiers successfully hunkering down during the initial outbreak.”

“The reason we were able to move to Stage 4 of our reopening plan was that Hoosiers took steps to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, and these data show that those steps have worked,” State Health Commissioner Kris Box said. “But we still have active transmission, and we must continue to take steps to protect our most vulnerable Hoosiers.”

Pressure to reopen

Those 750,000 Hoosiers thrown out of work and a coming $2 billion biennial budget shortfall have placed pressures on governors to reopen. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s five-stage plan was supposed to culminate with the July 4 NASCAR race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It will be run without spectators. Dozens of Hoosier county fairs and the 17-day Indiana State Fair have been cancelled, as have an array of community festivals, fireworks and conventions.

Recent polling suggests that nearly a third of Hoosier parents are “very likely” to not have their children return to school, according to a letter four Democratic lawmakers sent to the governor last week. Dr. Box put the number between 25% and 30% on Wednesday, calling it “incredibly discouraging.”
 
“It’s a pandemic. There are so many unknowns,” State Rep. Tonya Pfaff told the Terre Haute Tribune-Star’s Sue Loughlin, noting that a mid-September head count is used to determine federal and state funding for the academic year. “Don’t cut the funds this year. Let’s wait until we get through this year and then go back to business as usual.”

U.S.  Rep. Jim Banks took the exact opposite course, introducing the Reopen Our Schools Act that would halt federal funding if in-person learning isn’t returned this fall. “We need to change the subject from ‘our schools might not reopen in the fall’ to ‘our schools will reopen in the fall and here’s what we need to do it,’” said Banks. “America is the land of opportunity where education is guaranteed to all children. We’re not living up that guarantee at the moment.”

In May, HPI observed that Holcomb would face, perhaps, the most arduous set of policy decisions in reopening the state any governor has faced in two centuries. But, ultimately, it will be consumers who will make the final determination. Trump has twisted the face mask issue into a partisan divide and his 30% to 40% of ardent supporters will go to MAGA rallies, eschew face masks and pack into bars. But 60% of Americans will stick to social distancing, wear face masks, not attend theaters, restaurants, arenas and classrooms.

According to an Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index, 80% of Americans worry about a second virus wave. Large majorities say they’d resume social distancing, dial back shopping and keep kids out of school. “But getting Americans to swallow a second round of 14-day self-quarantining could be tougher, with one in three of our 1,022 respondents saying they likely won’t do it,” Axios reported. “The biggest factor is partisan identification: 81% of Democrats, but only 49% of Republicans, say they’d self-quarantine if a second wave hits.”

“Because of quarantine fatigue, because of the economic effects of quarantine, another round of shutdowns might have even larger effects on businesses that may be on the edge of not being able to stay solvent,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. 

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Anthony Fauci reiterated that the jump in cases “cannot be explained by increased testing.” He warned that relaxed approaches to social distancing, such as congregating close to lots of people in large venues, and an aversion to mask-wearing would cause the disease to spread. But Fauci did agree with Pence on one thing. “People keep talking about a second wave. We’re still in a first wave.”

Harsh realities ahead


Hoosiers are just a couple of months away from realizing harsh pandemic realities when it comes to schools as well as Colts and college football. The Wall Street Journal reported: Football is incompatible with social distancing. It also relies on a large share of people, despite their relatively young ages, who could face a disproportionate risk of severe complications from the coronavirus. According to the NFL Players Association’s ongoing research, more than 70% of NFL players fall into a serious, at-risk category, such as being African-American or having a high body-mass index. “It will be more difficult for football than a few other sports,” said Saad Omer, an epidemiologist and director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.

In a recent Congressional hearing with college presidents, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) asked Purdue University President Mitch Daniels what would happen if one of the school’s teams had an outbreak. “What’s your protocol?” Murphy asked. “Do you shut that team down?” Daniels replied: “I think you would shut it down.”

Then there are colleges and universities, most of which are poised to reopen early in August, and end the semester just prior to Thanksgiving, when chances of the so-called “second wave” are expected to rise. Prof. Laurence Steinberg, of Temple University and author of “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence,” called university reopening plans “so unrealistically optimistic that they border on delusional and could lead to outbreaks of COVID-19 among students, faculty and staff.”

In a New York Times op-ed, Steinberg observed: “My skepticism about the strategies under consideration is not based on videos of college students frolicking on Florida’s beaches when they were explicitly told to avoid large gatherings. Rather, it comes from more than 40 years teaching and researching young people. Most types of risky behavior — reckless driving, criminal activity, fighting, unsafe sex and binge drinking, to name just a few — peak during the late teens and early 20s. Moreover, interventions designed to diminish risk-taking in this age group, such as attempts to squelch binge drinking on campus, have an underwhelming track record. There is little reason to think that the approaches proposed to mitigate transmission of the coronavirus among college students will fare any better.”

The scene at Harry’s Chocolate Bar near the Purdue campus in mid-May revealed that mindset: Students lined up to enter the iconic bar “elbow to elbow,” according to Dave Bangert of the Lafayette Journal & Courier. Few wore masks.
Epilogue

It has been a long, long winter and spring. We watched March Madness, The Masters and Major League Baseball be replaced on ESPN by the National Cornhole Championships. We’ve heard Dr. Deborah Birx warn in early April, “This is the moment to not be going to the grocery store, not going to the pharmacy,” which begged the question: How are we supposed to eat? We watched Hoosier restaurants and bars miss out on more than $1 billion in income. We’ve watched the notion of wearing face masks become politicized. On a recent Sunday, the North Keystone Lowe’s in blue Indianapolis had about 75% of people wearing face masks, while a Lowe’s in red Fishers had less than 20%.

In an interview with Sean Hannity on Wednesday, President Trump said the virus was “fading away.” He added, “We’re very close to a vaccine.”

President Trump and Vice President Pence have essentially declared “victory” over the microbe deemed crucial to their wavering reelection chances and that the financial reawakening is at hand. That may be akin to President George W. Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” declaration in the Iraq War.

The cold hard reality is that unless an effective vaccine emerges, such a win still seems to be a long way off as Americans continue to received mixed messages from the White House, governors and health officials.