- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2020

The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. has hit a once-unthinkable 180,000, school reopenings are a struggle and the economy is still a mess, but there is good news to be found: Daily cases are steadily declining and a lower percentage of tests are coming back positive.

More than 1,200 people at the University of Alabama, with more than 38,000 students, have tested positive since its reopening in early August, prompting a temporary ban on student events. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, ordered bars closed in six counties partly because of a spread among Iowa State University students in Ames.

The spread on campuses is upending President Trump’s push to resume in-person learning nationwide, though the broader picture is improving. The seven-day rolling average of cases stands at roughly 42,000 per day, down from about 52,000 a week ago but far higher than at the start of June, when the average sat around 22,000.

“I’m saying we’re in ‘purgatory,’ meaning hospital admissions not accelerating as before but still a screaming high level of transmission [with the] South at a plateau,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “It means we cannot open schools and colleges safely in the South.”

He pointed to a resurgence across the Great Plains and the fact that outbreaks among young people will remain there for only so long before they spread to more vulnerable populations.

Mr. Trump has focused on protecting the most vulnerable, such as the elderly in nursing homes and those with underlying health conditions.

Experts have long known that people with underlying conditions are more likely to die from the disease, and a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms it: 94% of people who died with COVID-19 in the U.S., the agency said, had some sort of preexisting condition, or “comorbidity.”

Twitter removed a post, retweeted by Mr. Trump, that claimed the CDC was saying only 6% of the official death toll was related to the virus. The post was misleading because the CDC was saying 94% of people who died from COVID-19 had another contributing factor.

Mr. Trump’s chief spokeswoman on Monday said the president was not trying to downplay the actual toll but rather highlighting the CDC’s point about underlying conditions.

“He was just pointing to those numbers. We are encouraged to see a drop in cases, deaths, hospitalizations,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said. “We are very encouraged we have one of the lowest case-fatality rates in the world. In fact, ours is 3.1%.”

She was referring to the percentage of people who test positive for the disease and later die. The U.S. has a relatively better rate than many other developed nations, such as 6.6% in Spain and over 13% in Italy.

The metric is influenced by a variety of factors. Being able to identify more cases through testing will lower the case-to-fatality ratio. Demographics also matter: An older population overall will have more deaths.

Meanwhile, the percentage of tests returning positive in the U.S. stands at 5% to 6%, representing a steady downward slide from 8% or so at the start of August. Experts say officials should seek a positivity rate of less than 10% to be sure they are catching enough cases in their communities.

Mr. Trump on Monday also touted the start of phase three trials in the U.S. for the COVID-19 vaccine developed by British drugmaker AstraZeneca, one of a handful of promising candidates as the administration seeks a vaccine before the end of the year.

In regional terms, a summertime surge in cases across the Sun Belt has been reeled in, but officials are eyeing flare-ups in the Midwest, including Iowa, where Ms. Reynolds closed bars in Story County — home to Iowa State University — and five other counties. The order, which went into effect Thursday, lasts until Sept. 20 and forbids restaurants from selling alcohol after 10 p.m.

In the East, students returning to the University of Maryland in College Park for the fall semester Monday had to wear masks and practice social distancing while on campus, though classes will be online for the first two weeks as a precaution. Other colleges, including the University of North Carolina, tried in-person learning last month but were forced to backtrack because of the spread of the virus.

Experts and governors say the spread of the virus in recent months has been driven by students and other younger people who aren’t being cautious. Younger people are less likely to die from the disease but are fueling transmission, prolonging the U.S. battle and potentially endangering the sick or elderly, while boosting the overall tally of cases.

The Democratic National Committee highlighted a new milestone — 6 million known infections — on Monday by dubbing the federal response “one of the worst failures of leadership in American history.”

“Six million cases. 183,000 dead. But God forbid Donald Trump take any responsibility,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said. “This president still has no plan to end this pandemic, no plan to contain the spikes we’re seeing across the country, no plan to rebuild our economy and put Americans back to work safely.”

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who will face Mr. Trump in November’s election, highlighted the world-leading death toll in a speech in Pittsburgh.

“More than 180,000 lives in just six months, [and] an average of 1,000 people dying every day in the month of August,” Mr. Biden said. “Do you really feel safe under Donald Trump?”

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