US hits 3M coronavirus cases — about a quarter of the world’s total. What number will spark societal changes to slow exponential rise?
The United States now has 3 million documented cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by
The United States now has 3 million documented cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, a virulent bug that crawled into the national consciousness early in the year and now is likely to consume the rest of it.
The grim milestone reached Wednesday represents roughly a quarter of the world’s cases and the same percentage of its deaths.
But while many Americans may now be numb to the growing coronavirus toll, avoiding the reality will likely make matters worse.
Consider these statistics: It took the U.S. a little more than three months to hit 1 million cases on April 28. It took about half that time, 44 days, to get to 2 million on June 11, and only 26 days to reach 3 million on July 8. By that gauge, if no new measures are taken, 4 million cases could be tallied as soon as July 22.
The U.S. leads an unenviable group. Its 3 million cases for a nation of 330 million beats out Brazil’s 1.6 million cases (210 million population), India’s 720,000 cases (1.3 billion) and Russia’s 693,000 cases (145 million), according to statistics compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. figure dwarfs the 85,000 cases in China, where the virus is thought to have originated. Even allowing for potential underreporting by Chinese authorities, China’s 1.4 billion people make its per capita infection rate one in 16,000. Here, one in every 110 Americans has tested positive for the virus.
After reaching the 3 million mark in record time, a few elected officials seem ready to slow the pace of business reopenings. But others, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, remain steadfast in their desire to prioritize the economy over health in a politically charged climate that has turned masks into a divisive symbol.
One reason could be that the number of those killed by the virus — 131,000 — hasn’t spiked, confounding scientists and encouraging those opposed to renewed shutdowns, including President Donald Trump, who most recently insisted schools fully reopen in the fall despite the growing number of cases.
That said, the death toll is not insignificant. COVID-19 deaths long ago rocketed past annual suicides (47,000), common flu (55,000), diabetes (83,000), Alzheimer’s disease (121,000) and is fast coming up on strokes (146,000). And those are the U.S. figures for an average year. The virus has done its damage in less than half that time.
“Like a runner coming from behind in a macabre race, it has surpassed the death toll of many diseases so many Americans consider important,” says Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “People may get numb to the numbers, until it strikes someone near them.”
Another problem, Woolf says, is the delayed and sometimes non-existent impact of the virus.
“Human beings are used to learning from their behaviors with the immediate response. You touch a hot stove and you get the results right away,” he says. “With this, the people going out and partying and going to the beach and so forth all occurs weeks before the hospitalizations start increasing, so there’s less opportunity for society to learn their lesson from some of these behaviors.’’
Death, in the end, may be the only motivating factor capable of changing U.S. hygiene habits and reopening plans, says Carolyn Marvin, Frances Yates Emeritus Professor of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“If people are truly inoculated to the notion that this virus is dangerous, it will take dead people in their own personal experience to change their minds,” says Marvin.
There are various examples of just such conversions, as with the case of a Florida ride-share driver who said he thought the virus was a distraction created by the government, until he contracted it.
But, Marvin says, such isolated revelations won’t pierce the “echo chamber that is conservative radio and TV, which if you listen to it often as I do, argues that no one is sick, the numbers are made up and the testing is corrupt.”
Talk show host and Trump supporter Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show last month that “you can’t believe the virus numbers,” adding that they are being trumpeted only to harm the president’s chances for reelection in November.
US coronavirus response: ‘It will go away’
Some health experts are unsparing in their views on how the U.S. has mishandled its response to the coronavirus. Although Europe and specifically Italy were hit especially hard by the virus, numbers in many countries have steadily declined thanks to stiff quarantine rules. New Zealand has eradicated the virus from its island nation altogether.
The U.S. response, despite warnings from the spike in Wuhan, China, in January, was “almost like a delusional level of unpreparedness, that we were somehow superior, and we’re dramatically paying the price for that,” said Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
On Jan. 22, Trump said things in the U.S. were “going to be just fine.” On March 10, he told a meeting of Republican governors, “Just stay calm, it will go away.” A month later, most states started putting their citizens in self-quarantine.
Despite the nation’s surging virus cases, the Trump administration continues to pull away from the world on the topic of once and future global pandemics.
On Tuesday, Trump announced the U.S. would pull out of funding the World Health Organization, stripping away a large source of the group’s funding.
“Our government has doubled down on the mistrust of science, the mistrust of public health that got us in trouble in the first place,” says Metzl.
Few states have been immune to the mounting coronavirus case toll. But some have been harder hit than others, including Florida, Texas, Georgia and Arizona — places where state leaders pressed for early re-openings.
The spike in virus cases is likely the result of a variety of factors. These include the arrival of summer’s heat and a desire to resume normal activities and a general misconception by younger Americans that they were not at risk of contracting COVID-19.
In fact, a growing number of people in their 20s and 30s are ending up in intensive care units and on ventilators, causing state officials from Ohio to California to shutter bars and other businesses that draw large numbers of often-unmasked revelers.
Getting this segment of the population to take the virus threat seriously will be a critical part of driving the numbers down in time for the fall semester to begin at campuses across the nation. Many universities are cutting back on the number of students allowed on campus for the coming academic year, and in some cases professors will only be teaching online.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has served as the president’s embattled point man on the virus, notes that the average age of those getting infected with the coronavirus is about 15 years younger than just a few months ago.
“The more we learn about this disease, the more we realize that many young people may not necessarily get sick enough to go to the hospital, but they can get very sick, put them out of action for weeks at a time,” Fauci recently told reporters.
Invincibility of youth a virus stimulant
Once states started to ease stay-at-home restrictions several months ago, reports abounded of high school and college-age revelers partying in bars, on boats and in lakes, often with no masks or social distancing. There have even been tales of so-called “COVID-parties” where young people intentionally tried to get infected.
Someone who has the virus but isn’t sick and doesn’t show symptoms can still transmit it to other more vulnerable groups.
“It’s harder to put your social life on hold when you’re a young adult,” says Elissa Epel, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
Epel says behavioral change only comes when the perception of personal risk grows. “If the case can be made to this group that, ‘Your risk is my risk,’ then that may help them see the gravity of their behavior,” she says.
That dawning realization of co-dependence is facing a battle from centuries of American exceptionalism, the notion that somehow the rules that apply to other nations don’t apply here.
But Mother Nature only knows one set of rules, experts say, and currently those are flying in the face of a belief that somehow the nation’s coronavirus numbers will decline without any measured sacrifice by its citizens.
“When you have a pandemic and you need to have a science-based response to it by everybody in the society, and you have a population that culturally doesn’t trust science and doesn’t trust authority, you get problems like we’re seeing now, people arguing over masks,” says John Swartzberg, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley who specializes in infectious diseases.
“From outside the country, people would look and say, ‘Are they crazy? Why are they fighting about this?'” he says.
To slow the race to 4 million cases, Swartzberg says people must accept that life may no longer truly be the same, and understand that recovering what we can of that past life depends on how we meet this moment.
“This (virus) is something unique to our generation and we don’t know how to respond to this, because we’ve never been told that our world has changed and we can’t continue to live the way we were living,” he says. “That’s a big pill to take.’’
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How many US coronavirus cases? 3 million, quarter of world’s total