Editor’s Note: Kent Sepkowitz is a CNN medical analyst and a physician and infection control expert at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
New cases of Covid-19 in the United States have fallen in the last two months to about 55,000 a day. That seems like a whopping number until you compare it with the more than 200,000 daily cases reported in early January. Deaths have also fallen, to about 1,000 a day from more than 3,000. Concern is growing that the US may be at the start of yet another rise in cases.
These numbers are promising, but the ups and downs and ups tell an important lesson about keeping perspective in a pandemic. Today’s promising numbers would have been horrific at this time last year and are hardly as good as they need to be. The pandemic is nothing if not dynamic, with ever-shifting expectations and outcomes.
Similarly, the actions that looked wise last month can seem ill-advised today, when new data and results cast a new light on decisions and the people who make them. No one knows this more than the country’s governors. Since the Trump White House dumped the job of handling the pandemic almost entirely into their laps, they have had to respond on the fly. Without a coordinated, effective federal response the states have had to fill the gap. Some governors have been heroes in this crisis, others goats. Many, strangely, have been both.
We are already seeing the first wave of “who won and who lost” sorts of stories pitting various governors’ responses against each other in horse-race fashion, as if these were early polls for the 2024 presidential election.
Take the recent flurry of articles on the pandemic “performance” of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He was in the spotlight last spring, when some on the right declared him a visionary for ignoring medical advice and reopening his beaches for college kids’ fun-in-the-sun. Cases did not rise at first – or perhaps reported cases did not rise, as some questioned the Florida government’s transparency in reporting data – and DeSantis briefly stood in the winner’s circle.
Then reality stepped in. A surge of summer cases forced the imposition of some restrictions on Floridians, like local mask mandates imposed by mayors in some cities in South Florida.
Cases decreased for a few months until, as in the rest of the country, early November to mid-January saw an even more alarming spike of infections (and another round of accusations about the accuracy of the counting). DeSantis has denied these claims throughout, considering them all “political.”
Now DeSantis is claiming again to be a master of pandemic control, as Florida’s beach-tourism-restaurant industry is said to be doing well. Never mind that the state’s seven-day infection rate of 143.9 per 100,000 population places it 12th highest of the 50 states.
DeSantis is so tickled with himself that he even gathered admiring scientists like the former Trump coronavirus adviser Dr. Scott Atlas – a neuroradiologist – to celebrate his prescience. He played the same trick in September when he thought the worst had passed.
The problem is this: by the time the ink was dry on DeSantis’ latest claim that “Everyone told me I was wrong … (but) it’s clear. Florida got it right,” newer data showed trends flipping to the wrong direction. For example, as of March 22, over the last seven days, Florida has had the most Covid-19 cases in the country, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 12th highest per capita case-rate, the fourth highest number of deaths, and the 17th highest death rate.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom seems to be following an exact opposite pattern from DeSantis in both praise and ridicule. Once celebrated for his pandemic management, he is now getting poor marks on managing. He has not strutted or had roundtables of fan-doctors to sing his praise. But the fact is California’s recent numbers are much better than those of Florida, coming in at about 47th in the country with a case-rate 46.8 per 100,000, according to the CDC’s data, and fewer deaths as well.
Why is DeSantis up and Newsom down? It’s simple: Florida is ignoring the death toll and instead pushing the upbeat metrics the governor would like America to pay attention to: jobs are up! and schools are open! DeSantis stood up to the Covid-19 threat like John Wayne would have done!
DeSantis is not the only governor trying to dart into the spotlight using a mix of cherry-picked metrics and a tough guy, damn the scientists pose. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem shrugged off the pandemic threat then proclaimed her approach a success despite the facts.
Rather than wallow in reality, she chose to celebrate an active economy and the joys of hunting season (note: the South Dakota new-infection rate is climbing the charts once again and sits at 105 per 100,000 South Dakotans ).
And Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who energetically ignored all medical advice, then listened, then ignored, then listened, now has reopened the state. Yessir, he has let us know that he has decided to play hardball with the virus, and will scare the living daylights out of it – despite those 46,000 Texans who have died of Covid-19 and despite the state seeing the country’s second highest number of deaths in the last seven days.
These rate-the-governors perspectives ignore a basic fact: it is no time for trophies. The pandemic is still very much with us. It is too early to compare who did what better than the next person. Every governor and state have had ups and downs, and the months ahead will still be full of bumpy, bad surprises, as Europe is now finding. Focusing on the governors’ personalities and self-serving “performance reviews” turns the discussion into a raucous sack race at the county fair between too many ambitious but quirky officials.
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Worse, this obeisance to economic and social factors as measure of success creates a series of disturbing false equivalencies as they compare deaths against the economy.
In a pandemic, there is only one outcome of any relevance: the number of people who die. For the 1919 Spanish Flu outbreak, the accounting – 675,000 deaths in the US and 50 million worldwide – is how we quickly evoke the depth of the tragedy. For Covid-19, this will also be what we discuss – not a 2.3% difference in employment rates, but rather the staggering number of persons who died.
Measuring Covid-19 management on anything other than the number of human lives lost is not only disgraceful, it will also almost certainly lead us to make all the wrong decisions once again and usher in yet another Covid-19 resurgence in the US.