The flaw in America’s virus numbers

 

Coronavirus infection rates are "spiking" in multiple areas across the United States, even as President Donald Trump insists they are actually dropping throughout the entire country.

Yesterday, NBC News got its hands on data Mr Trump's coronavirus task force had been using to track the virus's spread behind the scenes.

The data in question, which had not been disclosed to the public, came from a report given to the task force on May 7.

It detailed a number of areas, including some major US cities, where there had been a recent surge in cases of the virus.

"The spiking infection rates suggest that the pandemic is spreading quickly outside major coastal population centres that were early hot spots, while governors of some of the states that are home to new hot spots are following Mr Trump's advice to relax stay-at-home restrictions," NBC reports.

The hardest-hit area in the report - Central City, in the state of Kentucky - had seen a 650 per cent increase in cases over a seven-day period.

There were also significant surges in Nashville, Des Moines, Kansas City, Charlotte, Lincoln, Minneapolis, Columbus, Omaha, Phoenix and Amarillo.

That data contradicts Mr Trump's optimistic appraisal, delivered at today's White House coronavirus briefing, that infections are dropping "substantially".

"The numbers are really coming down very substantially, and this weekend was one of the lowest we've had," Mr Trump told reporters.

"The numbers are coming down very rapidly - all throughout the country, by the way."

RELATED: Donald Trump flees his own coronavirus briefing

Donald Trump at today’s briefing in the White House’s Rose Garden. Picture: Alex Brandon/AP
Donald Trump at today’s briefing in the White House’s Rose Garden. Picture: Alex Brandon/AP

This is not the first time Mr Trump has claimed America's numbers are dropping.

Back in late February, when there were still fewer than 100 confirmed cases, he said something similar.

"We're going down, not up. We're going very substantially down, not up," he said.

"We're going to be, pretty soon, at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time."

That obviously didn't happen.

This time, however, there is more evidence to back up his view.

After peaking at 36,000 new cases a day in mid-April, America recorded a more modest increase of 20,000 today. The national curve does appear to be flattening.

That trend is driven, in large part, by improving figures from New York, which was one of the first areas hit by the virus in the US and quickly became the global epicentre of the pandemic.

RELATED: '60 per cent' of US cases can be traced back to New York

New York alone has recorded 347,000 cases, which is more than any other country - let alone state - on Earth. But the infection rate has been steadily decreasing in recent weeks.

"All the arrows are pointed in the right directions," Governor Andrew Cuomo said today.

The risk, from a national perspective, is that New York's declining figures, and the huge effect they have on the national tally, will make the situation in the rest of the country appear better than it truly is.

According to The New York Times' database of cases, just 14 of America's 50 states are currently experiencing a decline in their infection rates. And that doesn't mean the number of cases is going down, by the way - just that the rate of growth is slowing.

Twenty-eight states have seen their infection rates stay about the same. The other early outbreak centre, Washington state, is in this group.

Finally, infection rates are still increasing in nine states - Oregon, Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, South Dakota, Minnesota, West Virginia and Maine.

 

SOURCE OF THE OUTBREAK

Why is New York seemingly recovering from its peak sooner than the rest of the US? Because the pandemic reached New York first.

Just as, for example, Italy's coronavirus outbreak was a few weeks ahead of many other countries', New York's was weeks ahead of the other states'.

According to an analysis from the Yale School of Health, New York actually acted as the "primary gateway" through which the virus spread to the rest of the country.

RELATED: '60 per cent' of US cases can be traced back to New York

As the virus spreads, it gains mutations, which subtly change its genetic "signature". Scientists can use that signature to distinguish between different lines of the disease and, in this case, determine where they came from.

As we mentioned above, the two earliest known outbreaks in the US were in the state of Washington, on the country's west coast, and then New York on the east coast. Cases linked to Washington have a slightly different signature than the ones connected to New York.

After analysing thousands of samples from infected people across the US, Yale found that a majority of the cases bore mutations that could be traced back to the New York outbreak.

That was even true in a number of western states geographically closer to Washington. In California, for example, 50 per cent of the samples analysed were linked to New York, compared to 32 per cent that were linked to Washington.

"We now have enough data to feel pretty confident that New York was the primary gateway for the rest of the country," epidemiologist Dr Nathan Grubaugh told The New York Times.

Dr Grubaugh estimated that the spread of infections from New York accounted for "60 to 65 per cent of the sequenced viruses" in the US.

OPENING UP THE COUNTRY

Mr Trump is currently pushing for the states to reopen their economies, despite concerns that relaxing social distancing rules too soon could lead to a second wave of the virus.

Today the President complained that Democratic governors were lifting restrictions too slowly.

"The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails," he tweeted.

"The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the US, for political purposes. They would wait until November 3 if it were up to them. Don't play politics. Be safe, move quickly!"

As he alluded to there, decisions about how fast to reopen are being made with the presidential election less than six months away.

"If we do this carefully, working with the governors, I don't think there's a considerable risk," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Fox News.

"Matter of fact, I think there's a considerable risk in not reopening. You're talking about what would be permanent economic damage to the American public."

By contrast Dr Anthony Fauci, one of the top advisers on Mr Trump's coronavirus task force, will tomorrow warn the Senate that "needless suffering and death" will follow if the states reopen too quickly.

Dr Fauci is due to testify before a Senate committee tomorrow.

Originally published as The flaw in America's virus numbers


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