OP-ED: A horrifying COVID chart still frightens months later

Max Nisen
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
A worker packages a COVID-19 test swab from a client at Prism Heath Lab in Chicago, on Aug. 6, 2020.  (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

In late June, I highlighted what I deemed a “horrifying” chart showing massive growth in new infections in the U.S. relative to the European Union. A key explanation for the discrepancy was that many U.S. states were moving forward with reopening despite high case counts, while many European countries had waited to “crush the curve” and ensure infections were lower before loosening restrictions.

Now, almost four months later, that same chart remains very scary — but in a different way. For the first time since March, the EU is reporting more new COVID-19 cases on a population-adjusted basis than the U.S., reflecting a second wave of virus outbreaks on the continent. (The EU tally doesn’t include Britain, which is also dealing with outbreaks; rewinding Brexit and including U.K. case loads would result in an even larger rise.)

That’s even as U.S. per-capita case rates climb from an alarmingly high post-summer plateau.

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Both regions are at a dangerous moment. The virus will be harder to control in winter as more people congregate indoors, and resistance to renewed restrictions may make them harder to impose and enforce. Europe’s second wave after a quiet summer shows precisely how hard controlling the virus can be.

Yet even as EU per-capita case rates rise past the level of those in the U.S., Europe may have two advantages over America in facing the virus as the dangerous winter season approaches. First, it got its infections under control last spring and that has kept deaths much lower in the intervening months. And it is now taking more steps to control its outbreaks. Meanwhile in the U.S., a lack of concerted action means case loads have stayed at an elevated level, with deaths following suit.

Countries including France, Spain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Italy are beginning to impose new restrictions, from a broader mask mandate in Italy and at least two weeks of closed bars in the Czech Republic to targeted lockdowns in parts of Madrid. Some of these moves appear to be on the late side given the rate of case growth, and they will take time to have an impact compared with broader lockdowns, but European countries have at least begun to act.

The American response and outlook is potentially more troubling. States have largely been left to set policy on their own, and the Trump administration is not modeling good behavior. Several states that are experiencing concerning outbreaks, including Alabama, Iowa, Indiana, Florida and both North and South Dakota, are among those that have the fewest restrictions on public gatherings and bars and restaurants.

The consequences of failing to contain outbreaks on either side of the Atlantic are clear. Since the spring, and as you might expect from the above chart, the U.S. has recorded more per-capita and total COVID deaths than any other developed country. Overall death rates have dropped as a result of better protection of vulnerable people, catching cases earlier with better testing and improved treatment. But mitigation tactics such as wearing masks and smart social distancing measures could potentially drive death rates even lower.

Every week brings the world closer to better drugs and a vaccine. They’re not here yet. But there are things we can do in the meantime to slow the spread. Until the death rate drops closer to zero, it is essential to try.

— Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, pharma and health care. He previously wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.