Winter is Coming and So Are the Debates

As Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump prepare to face off tonight, the states that voted for Trump in 2016 are being hit hardest by COVID-19.

Winter is coming and with it the threat of another spike in COVID-19 cases. But more immediate is tonight’s 2020 presidential debate where we can expect the threat of this looming spike to feature prominently.

GPG checked back in to see which states are seeing the largest increase in new cases. Over the past week (9/21-9/27), eight of the top 10 states in terms of new cases went red in 2016. That includes Texas with nearly 50,000 new cases. Further, we see battleground states like Florida, Georgia and North Carolina among the top 10.

If we look back to the first week of April we see the hardest hit states were those that went for Clinton in 2016, with only five of the top 10 going red.

While Trump may be wanting to defeat despair about the coronavirus as Democrats hammer him for his handling of it in battleground states, voters’ experiences with the outbreak may impact their political outlook–and ultimately their ballots.

Democrats Focus SCOTUS Argument on Health Care

Now that President Trump has nominated appellate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Democrats find themselves with limited powers to stop her confirmation. Instead they are focusing on the impact they believe her confirmation could have on the health care for Americans. 

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer summed up the argument on Twitter: “The American people should make no mistake: A vote by any Senator for Judge Amy Coney Barrett is a vote to eliminate health care for millions in the middle (of) the COVID-19 pandemic. Democrats are fighting for Americans’ health care.”

With a case involving the Affordable Care Act slated to come before the Supreme Court shortly after the election, Barrett’s confirmation could give conservatives the votes to gut President Obama’s signature law.

According to a letter Schumer sent to his Senate colleagues, “All the data show that with COVID raging, the number one priority for the American people is health care — its affordability, accessibility and quality,”  Schumer wrote in the note obtained by POLITICO. “We must focus like a laser on health care because Judge Barrett’s record is so clear on this issue.”

Based on the current schedule as spelled out by Senate Republicans, the Judiciary Committee will convene hearings October 12 and approve Barrett by October 22, setting up a vote by the full Senate by the end of October. 

Where the Pandemic Isn’t

Nearly six months since the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine predicted that every East African country would have more than 10,000 cases, only three of the 19 are reporting that many.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of health care infrastructure, a history of corruption and a growing economic relationship with China in many African countries led the global community to predict Africa would be the continent hardest hit by COVID-19.

But with over 1.2 billion people, Africa has just over 1.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 35,182 deaths. The United States, on the other hand, with 7.4 million confirmed cases and 209,502 deaths, has more than five times as many cases and six times as many deaths as the entire continent of Africa–with just a quarter of the population.

Where did the predictions go so wrong? While it’s possible many cases have gone unrecorded due to a lower rate of testing across the continent, that’s not the only reason for such low case numbers.

Over the past 60 years, many African nations have established pandemic response infrastructure due to outbreaks such as Ebola and HIV/AIDs. Countries like Rwanda, for example, have instituted aggressive testing, contact tracing and government-supported quarantine and acted early, treating citizens with candor and allowing them to prepare.

As former Rwandan Minister of Health Dr. Agnes Binagwaho put it, “Rwanda has the highest rate of trust from the population to the health care and vaccination system in the world… we have also brought the services to where the people are living at the community level and also ensured that there will be no stock shortages.”

As the total number of global coronavirus deaths surges past 1 million, these measures could serve as a model for the rest of the world.

Test and Ticket to Ride

Since January, the coronavirus has halted more than 90% of international flights. A survey from the International Air Transport Association found that 40% of recent travelers plan to wait at least six months after the virus is contained to fly again.

To restore confidence among flight passengers, United Airlines announced it will offer customers COVID tests, the first U.S. carrier to do so.

United will start optional tests for customers traveling between San Francisco and Hawaii on October 15th. Passengers will have the option to take a test prior to boarding their flight, and a negative test would allow them to bypass the mandatory quarantine period of 15 days for travelers entering Hawaii.

Customers, who will be responsible for the cost of the test, can choose between a rapid test ($250) administered at the airport or a self-collected mail-in test ($80) prior to their departure.

Until a vaccine is approved and has widespread availability, preflight testing might be the best solution to give people confidence when traveling. Systematic COVID tests of all flyers before departure could also help to influence countries to reopen their borders.

With Ginsburg’s Death, Virus Relief Chances Wane

While the nation mourns and plans for a state viewing in the Capitol are unveiled, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death also is casting a great deal of uncertainty over all three branches of government. When it comes to the pandemic, one thing seems immediately clear: A significant deal on COVID legislation seems much less likely

Serious discussions over the next relief package had been at a stalemate since early August, but pressure to get something done appeared to be growing. Each side had recently indicated some willingness to slightly modify its last proposal on the negotiating table, including President Trump saying positive things about a $1.52 trillion bipartisan proposal.

But the COVID debate has gone silent since Ginsburg’s death, with all oxygen in the White House and Congress being consumed by the opening on the Supreme Court.

Democratic leaders have less negotiating room to work something out with the White House and congressional Republicans on COVID when they are fighting over the Senate’s procedures and the future of the Supreme Court. And Republicans likely could conclude the court fight is more important to voters than expending energy on compromising over the type of big COVID package Democrats are demanding.

Ginsburg’s death also obviously has other implications, including in the medium term on the presidential and congressional elections this November. Over the longer term, it could add fuel to efforts to reshape the legislative process and make it easier for a majority in the Senate to pass controversial legislation. And most critically, it could shift the Supreme Court to the right in a way that will vastly impact American life for many years to come.

Competitive Races in Hard-Hit States Earn Attention and Funds

How might Justice Ginsburg’s death alter the outcome of the 2020 election–one in which Americans have already begun voting?

As of Sunday, progressive fundraising platform ActBlue reported it had received more than $100 million in donations to Democratic candidates and campaigns since 8pm Friday, the most donations it has raised in any single day.

Analysis of Twitter conversation shows Senate races in South Carolina, Arizona and Kentucky were top of mind following Ginsburg’s death. And while we don’t know exactly how donations fell across campaigns, the candidates mentioned most in tweets also mentioning ActBlue included Senate candidates in South Carolina, Arizona, Kentucky, Texas, Mississippi, Iowa, South Carolina, Maine, Georgia and Kansas.

As we try to understand the implications of Ginsburg’s death and consequent fundraising on the upcoming election, we should consider:

  • Prior to Justice Ginsburg’s death, a plurality of voters said the economy, followed by coronavirus, are the most important issues in deciding their vote.
  • Among the key states where ActBlue donations help to support Democratic candidates, news cases of COVID are highest in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.
  • Before Justice Ginsburg’s death, most voters trusted Biden over Trump to fill the next Supreme Court vacancy, and Democrats were more influenced by the Supreme Court at the polls than Republicans.
  • Early polling since Justice Ginsburg’s death shows eight-in-ten Democrats and five-in-ten Republicans want the winner of the Nov. 3 election to fill the vacancy.

Experts Wonder Whether Weather Matters

Now that autumn is here, people are again asking what impact the changing weather will have on the virus’s spread. The experts don’t have answers yet, but the number of new daily confirmed cases is on the rise and winter will bring a new set of challenges that may make things much worse.

In the early months of the pandemic, scientists speculated warm summer air would hinder the spread of coronavirus. But it didn’t, and researchers found COVID-19 does not show a consistent response to the warmer temperatures and increased humidity summer brings.

Besides the onset of “indoor weather” (there is already a shortage of outdoor heat lamps) and an increase in travel around the holidays (Thanksgiving might look different this year), winter brings the seasonal spread of influenza (fewer than half of Americans get a seasonal flu shot) that could overwhelm a health system still recovering from the disarray caused by COVID-19.

In March, while the COVID-19 pandemic spread across nearly every continent, the Southern Hemisphere braced for a winter flu season that never came. Scientists attribute the record-low numbers of flu cases to the travel restrictions, business and school closures, and social distancing measures put in place to curb the spread COVID-19. Public health experts are hopeful the United States and other northern countries will be spared as well.

However, if lockdowns and social distancing measures are not in place, the flu will spread more readily, leading to the alarming prospect of a flu season on top of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hope for a vaccine has had a chilling effect towards actions people could already be taking to slow the spread of coronavirus. President Trump says a vaccine will be ready within a matter of weeks, but health experts say the country should prepare for a winter without access to vaccination and get ready to hunker down and prepare for the road ahead.

Covering an Unprecedented Election

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation about vote by mail, and early signs of foreign interference, this year’s general election is shaping up to be one of the most challenging in American history.

The cross-partisan National Task Force on Election Crises offers recommendations to policymakers, the press and the public to better understand and prepare for different election outcomes this November.

With the media playing a critical role in helping voters understand the potential challenges of this election cycle and the laws and procedures that govern our electoral process, the Task Force offered expert insights to national, state and local press in a virtual media summit last week.

Their guidance for how journalists can prepare to cover this election:

  • “Don’t bow to pressure. Don’t bow to critics. Prepare yourself, your family and most importantly your readers and viewers for the fact that you probably won’t know who the president is until December or January.” —Ron Fournier, former D.C. Bureau Chief, Associated Press
  • “Focus on the things that are being done to know the election is right. Focus on the physical control mechanisms, the procedural validations. It’s an amazing opportunity to give the American public a civics lesson this year.” —Jennifer Morrell, Partner, Elections Group
  • Emphasize early action: Don’t wait to register. Don’t wait to check your registration. Don’t wait to request, don’t wait to return. Don’t wait until November 3. Vote early.” —Tammy Patrick, Senior Advisor, Elections, Democracy Fund

More resources from the Task Force can be accessed here.