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Massive Case of Denial: COVID Surges in US, Tops 10M Globally, as Pence Touts “Remarkable Progress”

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As coronavirus cases top 10 million worldwide and spikes are being reported in 36 states, Vice President Mike Pence has touted “truly remarkable progress” on the pandemic. “This has just been a massive case of denial, of idiotic government policy, of the lack of any strategic planning, any really specific strategic goal,” Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Laurie Garrett says of the response to the pandemic. “We’re in very, very dire straits right now.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Coronavirus cases have now topped 10 million worldwide, with more than a half-million deaths. Brazil, second only to the United States in the number of cases and deaths, registered its highest number of infections in a week, as protests this weekend denounced the right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis.

On Friday, the United States reported the highest number of new cases in a single day since the start of the pandemic, as cases continue to surge. Confirmed infections have now topped 2.6 million in the United States, with over 126,000 reported deaths — a quarter of the deaths and infections in the world, though the U.S. has only under 5% of the world population — this all amidst worsening outbreaks in Florida, Texas and Arizona. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar warned the U.S. needs to act immediately.

HHS SECRETARY ALEX AZAR: The window is closing. We have to act. And people, as individuals, have to act responsibly. We need to social distance. We need to wear our face coverings if we’re in settings where we can’t social distance, particularly in these hot zones.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite this one warning, this dire warning, Secretary Azar defended President Trump in the same interview for his refusal to wear a mask, since Trump is regularly tested. During an appearance with Texas Governor Greg Abbott in Dallas, Vice President Mike Pence changed course from previous remarks and said, quote, “Wearing a mask is a good idea.” During the same visit, he attended a Dallas church Sunday, where he wore a mask as he sat in the front row as a choir of over a hundred people performed unmasked. Choruses are known as superspreading events. Over 2,000 people attended the event, many also not wearing a mask. On Friday, Pence touted the nation’s, quote, “truly remarkable progress,” even as the U.S. reported a record 40,000 new cases in the previous 24 hours. He also commented on new data showing an increase in young people becoming infected.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Inarguably, as we see where we are today as a nation, because of what the American people have done, because of the incredible work of our healthcare workers, because of a partnership with governors in every state, we did just that. We slowed the spread. We flattened the curve. We saved lives. …

And we hear this in Florida, we hear this in Texas and elsewhere, is that roughly half of the new cases are Americans under the age of 35, which is, at a certain level, very encouraging news, as the experts tell us, because, as we know so far, in this pandemic, that younger Americans are less susceptible to serious outcomes of the coronavirus. And the fact that we are finding more younger Americans who have contracted the coronavirus is a good thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Laurie Garrett, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of a number of books, including Ebola: Story of an Outbreak and The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, as well as Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health.

Laurie, welcome back to Democracy Now! There’s so much to unpack here. You have Vice President Pence speaking at the first public briefing of the coronavirus task force with the scientists, Birx and Fauci, on Friday, after two months not saying people should wear masks, talking about the “remarkable progress” of the United States, and then, on Sunday, after enormous criticism, finally wearing a mask in Dallas. Just talk about the state we are in. The globe has topped 10 million cases — a quarter of them are in the United States — as well as a half a million deaths — and again, a quarter of them are in the United States, when we have just over 4% of the population.

LAURIE GARRETT: Amy, I was thinking about that I think the first time I was on this show talking about COVID-19, it didn’t have a name yet. We just said “the coronavirus” or “Wuhan virus” at the time. And it was February, and I told you that best-case scenario was we would get out of this in 36 months. Well, it’s been — what? — five months since then, and I do think we have at least three years ahead of us.

This has just been a massive case of denial, of idiotic government policy, of the lack of any strategic planning, any really specific strategic goal. And I’m not just speaking of the United States. Almost the entire world has screwed this up. Even in Europe, where they’ve managed to bring their epidemic down after great pain and suffering, and in places like Japan, where they never really had a serious spike because they took such excellent, proactive steps, the whole world’s efforts and all the sacrifices that people have made elsewhere in the world are imperiled by our out-of-control pandemic.

And as you said, we represent about a quarter of the entire global burden. If you add in the next big three — Brazil, India and Russia — you make up half of the entire global total of this pandemic. And what that means is that unless we control our efforts in our country and in those other three, the whole world gets imperiled by reinfection and reinfection and reinfection, coming from American travelers, Brazilian travelers, Indian travelers, Russian travelers.

So we have a duty not just to ourselves and to Americans, that we hopefully care about, senior Americans in nursing homes we hopefully care about, but we have a duty to the whole planet, and in particular to countries that don’t have the resources we have, that don’t have the capacity to conquer their own outbreaks, whether they’re desperately poor or they lack an entire infrastructure of health or both. So, Amy, we’re in very, very dire straits right now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about what has to be done. You have that quote of the vice president talking about young people. At the beginning, there was no sense of what was happening to young people, because everyone was told to shelter at home, and it was the sickest people and the dying who were going to the hospital. But now there’s much more chance, though there was in places like Germany and China to get information from them, to learn about what’s happening to young people and the spike in the infections in young people. And when you address this, if you can talk about the different kinds of effects? You’ve got the respiratory effects that we all know about, lungs filling up, that can be seen, but then you also have what looks like the vascular effects, kids stroking out, you know, having strokes, getting blood clots. Talk about the two different ways of presenting, and what this means.

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, it’s more than two, Amy, actually. This virus affects the entire body. And the more we look at it and the longer we have this epidemic go on, so that we see more and more cases, it’s looking like just about every single organ system in the entire human body is affected by this virus, directly or indirectly.

I think because the initial presentations in China were all about pneumonia, we tended to think of it as a respiratory disease, but really profoundly, it’s a cardiovascular disease. The entire cardiovascular system is affected by infection with this virus. And we’re beginning to understand that some people who have seemingly asymptomatic or very mild infections may in fact have long-lasting problems in their bodies that result from having been exposed to the virus, so that it’s a whole host of factors.

I mean, we know the virus can infect the brain. And the long-standing repercussions of a neurological infection can be quite profound, including long-term depression, loss of smell, loss of taste, certain hearing problems, visual problems and certain kinds of cognitive issues.

We see the entire blood vascular system is affected. Blood vessels can be constricting. You can see people having strokes, having tachycardia events, having a host of different issues related to plaque buildup or not. Interestingly, taking statins seems to be helpful, so that implies that some of the same mechanism that are involved with cholesterol buildup and plaque formation as a contributor to heart disease may somehow have a similar role with this virus.

And the renal problems, the kidney problems, are really profound. Many people who have recovered and are out of hospital, after weeks of struggling with this virus, have permanent kidney damage.

And we’re beginning more and more to realize that, you know, this isn’t like having the flu — you get over it, you have a couple weeks where you’re still a little shaky, and then, boom, you know, after that period of time, you’re A-OK. This is not like that. People are having permanent damage. Even Guillain-Barré syndrome, the neurological partial paralysis syndrome that affects the limbs, has turned up with this virus.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about the means of prevention and what it means that President Trump has equated wearing a mask with being weak, wearing a mask — and not wearing a mask with being a Trump supporter. You now have the Republicans, like Mitch McConnell, wearing a mask. Liz Cheney tweeted her father, Dick Cheney, the former vice president, wearing a mask, saying real men wear masks. So the Republican Party is getting it, especially as Florida and Texas, their numbers just skyrocket. But President Trump insists on not wearing a mask and says testing should be slowed down because it just — you find more cases that way, and if you didn’t test, you wouldn’t find those cases.

LAURIE GARRETT: Look, Amy, let’s be clear. This whole situation in the United States is a failure to develop a federal strategy. So we have no real overarching strategic plan that creates a webbing between the various states so that we don’t have a situation where states are competing against each other or undercutting one another, as is now the case and has been for months now.

And the problem is that without a federal strategic plan and without real, genuine federal targets, the president is simply using the whole COVID issue to coincide with his reelection needs. So, he doesn’t think he gets reelected if he appears on camera all the time wearing a mask. He doesn’t think that’s a good look for a president who’s trying to come across like a real winner, like somebody who built the economy and conquered the virus and made life better again for Americans. What does the mask imply? Well, it implies there’s a threat out there, and that threat hasn’t been conquered by the fearless leader.

I just feel that the president has — you know, maybe three, four months ago, it was possible to say, “Well, maybe there’s more to this than the president’s reelection. Maybe there’s some strategic issues in the background that we don’t know about, that the White House is considering.” But this far down the road, looking at the situation in Texas, in Arizona, in Florida, in Arkansas, in Oklahoma, in South Carolina — we can go down the list — it’s 30 states on the rise, with at least 10 of them really spectacularly on the rise.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain why masks are so important? It may be obvious, but at the beginning, perhaps they were playing it down because the country didn’t have enough masks even for the healthcare workers. But why the simple process of putting on a mask can mean that you’re saving tens of thousands of lives across the country? And then talk about: Do you think states, like Florida, California, Texas, Arizona, should be shutting down, sheltering in place? They had defied the CDC guidelines, Florida and California, not only to a plateau, to flatline, but — to flatten the curve, rather, but to wait a few weeks to see that the rate was going down.

LAURIE GARRETT: Early in the epidemic, when we thought this was a very similar virus to SARS, I actually said you don’t need to wear a mask outdoors. It didn’t work for SARS. It won’t work for this. It’s really not relevant. But I’ve learned my lesson, and I think the whole entire medical and scientific community have learned a lesson.

You know, back in February and early March, we didn’t realize how deeply contagious this virus is. And it’s contagious in two ways that involve your mask, wearing a mask. The first is the kind of propellant that comes from coughing or sneezing and [coughs], and you’re creating a plosive, sort of propelling droplets forward. In that situation, the droplets may actually be visible to the naked eye; they may not even be microscopic. But the good news is, they will go out, but they’re contained within heavy water droplets, so gravity takes over, and they fall to the ground.

The much worse, which is what’s carried by asymptomatic carriers and people with very mild infections, involves no coughing, involves just normal patterns of speech, as I am doing right now, involves normal breathing, involves the kind of slightly accelerated breathing that comes with being a jogger or having some kind of exercise. And in those situations, you’re propelling virus in microscopic-size water droplets that cannot be seen, and they are not as gravitationally affected. They will go outwards and linger and get caught in air streams and move around within an enclosed space for hours and hours and hours on end. And in that way, you, as an individual walking without a mask on into a store, into a restaurant, into a friend’s house, and standing there having normal speech, are basically contaminating the atmosphere of the space. And as long as their windows are closed or it’s not a good air flow-through space, the contamination will remain for a considerable amount of time. So, you don’t even know you’re infected. You don’t know you’re a carrier. You have no particular symptoms. You’re 25 years old. You feel fearless. What could possibly threaten you? But you just managed to threaten a whole group of people you got in contact with.

I mean, Amy, you probably have been following the case of the Harper’s bar in East Lansing, Michigan. They opened up when Michigan started opening up. It was legal, what they were doing. The bar was a very popular hot spot in that college town, packed with twenty-somethings. Everybody took their masks off, you know, or they had them dangling from one ear, you know, as like a fashion statement. A lot of drinking. And now, last count, more than 80 people have been contact traced to having COVID directly because they went to that bar. Well, the only way to deal with that situation is to shut the whole bar down, disinfect the entire place, open all the windows, put fans in, blow the place clean.

And this is what we’re dealing with all over the entire United States now, is situations where people refuse to wear a mask. They take it as a political — you know, “Don’t tread on me, baby. I have a right in America. You can’t tell me what to do.” Well, it’s true. I can’t tell you. I can’t walk in and make you put on your seatbelt, unless I’m a cop. I can’t make you wear a motorcycle helmet, unless I’m a cop. But both of those are things that affect only you. You know, everybody in your car won’t die because you didn’t wear a seatbelt, but you will die.

But this is a situation where we’re asking you to be a good citizen and give a damn about the people around you. And if you can’t do that, if you can’t manage to care about them the way you would, say, with secondhand smoking, or you would with various kinds of pollution that you might use, pesticide you spray on your front lawn as the wind blows it into your neighbor’s windows — if this is your attitude — your neighbors can just go ahead and have that pesticide because you felt like killing ants on your front lawn — then you’re not a good American, and you’re not a good Christian, and you’re not a good spiritual being. You’re a jerk.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of testing. While President Trump says everyone can get a test, I have a friend right here who just got a test, took seven days to get the results of that test. There is no way to make plans or to operate in a way of opening up when it takes that long, if you’re lucky enough to get one. In Texas, people waited hours and hours and hours. In Arizona, the lines were off the charts just to get one test. But, in fact, public health professionals are saying you should be getting many tests as you try to reopen the country. What is wrong? Why aren’t they spending — they spend a trillion dollars on bailouts for the wealthiest people in the United States. What about tests and masks?

LAURIE GARRETT: Oh dear, this is so complicated. Those of you who haven’t already may want to go online and watch the segment on last night’s 60 Minutes about why all the antibody tests are a mess. These are the tests, sometimes called serology tests, that measure whether you ever have been infected, not whether you are right now. And then the nucleic acid tests are meant to determine whether you have virus in your body at this moment.

The FDA has essentially, you know, thrown up its hands and let the market get flooded with garbage. There are so many tests out there that just simply don’t work or give completely inaccurate, unreliable results, that states have spent millions and millions of dollars buying bogus products, because, again, we have no federal strategy, no federal system of being a gatekeeper in determining which tests really work and then distributing them as needed to the states. So the states have been in this Wild Wild West situation of competing against not only other states, but other countries, with less than honest, shady dealers in places like southern China or in the Philippines and all over the world, and being sold just utter crap.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how can that be turned around?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, you need a federal government that gives a darn about taking the reins in this epidemic. And I’m sorry, but this government shows absolutely no signs of doing so.

AMY GOODMAN: Laurie Garrett, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

When we come back, we’ll look at the police killing of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old African American massage therapist who was attacked almost a year ago by Aurora, Colorado, police, as he said to them, “I’m an introvert. I’m different.” We’ll speak with his family’s attorney. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Violinists Ashanti Floyd and Lee England Jr. joining others at a Justice for Elijah McClain protest over the weekend in Aurora, Colorado, a violin vigil because Elijah played the violin.

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“Atrocious”: Police Killed Elijah McClain in 2019. Why Did It Take Colorado So Long to Launch Probe?

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