U.S. sets new daily record in COVID cases as European numbers continue to skyrocket; Update: Another record

There isn’t much to say that isn’t said clearly by the data itself, apart from a reminder that it’s not even winter-coat weather yet in the U.S. If we’re setting records for cases with the entirety of respiratory disease season (a.k.a. “flu season”) still ahead of us, God only knows what sort of epidemic we’ll be facing on, say, Christmas Day.

Hardcore COVID deniers are known to say that the pandemic will mysteriously disappear the day after Election Day, once the unfavorable media coverage has served its purpose of tanking Trump’s electoral chances. In reality, given the trendline, we’ll probably be breaking our record for new daily cases regularly in November.

And Europe’s even worse off than we are. More on that in a moment.

But by midnight, 77,640 new coronavirus cases were on the books, up from the previous record of 75,723 set on July 29, the newest figures showed. And the death toll had risen by 921…

In the U.S., much of the increase in new cases have been driven by surges in Midwestern states like Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota that have recorded rises in case numbers in the last two weeks.

The situation in Idaho is so dire that local health officials are considering sending new coronavirus patients to neighboring Washington state and Oregon because they are running out of hospital beds.

The COVID Tracking Project recorded more than 1,000 deaths yesterday, the highest single-day total since late September. We got good news earlier this week with a pair of studies showing that coronavirus has become less lethal over time, probably because doctors have simply become better at treating infections. But a lower infection rate doesn’t necessarily mean a lower daily death toll; that depends on how widely the virus is spreading. The weekly death toll in the U.S. rose by more than 10 percent last week despite the virus’s declining lethality. More spread means more dead.

Here’s how bad it is in the midwest right now, via CTP:

To get a sense of the extent of the spread of COVID-19 in North Dakota, a comparison with San Francisco is instructive. There are more people in the city of San Francisco (883,000 people in 47 sq. miles) than in the state of North Dakota (762,000 people in 70,762 sq. miles). This week, more than 5,200 people in North Dakota tested positive for the coronavirus; San Francisco counted 213. Since the pandemic began, San Francisco has recorded just over 12,000 cases and 138 deaths; North Dakota has seen 34,165 cases and 323 deaths since March.

Comparable populations but a worse result in North Dakota despite San Francisco’s much, much higher density.

But it could be worse. We could be Europe. And maybe we will be before too long. Via Worldometer:

The number of daily new cases in the U.S. there is wrong (it may be that Worldometer updates earlier in the day, before the final count here) but the European numbers are accurate, I believe. And they’re staggering. France, Italy, and the UK each have populations on the order of one-fifth the size of the USA’s. Spain’s population is around one-seventh our size. If those countries were as big as we are and had the same case counts yesterday proportionally, France would be over 200,000 per day, Spain at 140,000, and the UK and Italy at around 100,000.

You can find solace in that, that our own epidemic could be worse right now. But you could also take it as a harbinger of things to come here, remembering that we followed Europe’s trajectory in the spring. Those countries took their lockdowns seriously too, driving case counts down this summer in the belief that a smaller baseline of community spread as fall began would mean a less ferocious second wave this winter. They’ve now learned otherwise. And since April, we’ve never made a concerted national effort to suppress the virus. We’re entering respiratory disease season with a higher baseline than the Europeans did, with new antibody drugs in short supply near-term and widespread access to a vaccine still many months away.

What can we do until then? Here’s a fascinating bit of data from WaPo’s Christopher Ingraham, gleaned from a COVID-tracking project at Carnegie Mellon.

There’s a strong negative correlation between the percentage of a state’s population that says it’s wearing masks most or all of the time outside of home and the percentage that’s observed COVID symptoms in someone they know. Does that prove that mask-wearing reduces infection? No. You’ll notice that some of the northeastern states that were ravaged by the virus in spring fare well on this graph; it may be that people there only started wearing masks en masse after the virus had already run its course, creating some degree of local immunity. It’s also possible that people who are prone to wearing masks are also prone to taking other precautions that are more effective than masks are. Maybe the states with higher rates of mask-wearing are also more diligent about social distancing.

But that graph obviously raises the possibility that widespread mask-wearing is helping reduce transmission — or, more specifically, to reduce transmission of the virus in quantities sufficient to produce symptomatic cases. There’s been a theory kicking around that, while masks don’t prevent the wearer from being infected, they *might* block enough viral particles from being inhaled to affect how severe the the wearer’s infection is. If higher viral loads produce more severe cases of COVID (another theory) then it’s important to limit how much of the virus enters your system when you happen to encounter someone who’s infectious. We need a study on whether there are in fact fewer symptomatic cases in states where mask-wearing is more prevalent. Ingraham’s graph suggests that, but doesn’t confirm it.

Update: WaPo says we beat yesterday’s case count today, cracking 80,000 nationally for the first time. “New record” may be a common news story on weekdays for the foreseeable future.