U.S. Declared COVID Victory Too Soon

Europe has the disease under control while it's still spreading like wildfire here.

The radically different approaches to the novel coronavirus by the European Union and the United States are, predictably, yielding wildy different outcomes.

Max Nissen, writing for Bloomberg (“A Horrifying U.S. Covid Curve Has a Simple Explanation“):

The alarming chart below has been making the rounds. It illustrates the poor job the U.S. has done in containing Covid-19 compared to the European Union, a bigger region of independent countries that suffered an earlier outbreak. Why the big difference? What is America doing wrong?

There are a lot of possible answers to those questions. A sluggish initial response and failure to ramp up testing let the virus spread far and wide in the U.S. And instead of coordinating a coherent and aggressive national response, President Donald Trump has consistently downplayed the threat of the infection and left decisions to insufficiently supported states. As a result, decisions over lockdowns and reopenings have been chaotic and have ignored the guidelines put forth by federal public health officials. 

Amid all of this, one particular difference stands out between the American and European approaches. Many states were happy to reopen after simply “bending the curve” — that is, slowing upward growth and ensuring spare hospital capacity. These states went on to expand economic activity at an elevated plateau with lots of ongoing transmissions. In contrast, European countries mostly waited to reopen until they crushed the curve or reached its far slope, with substantially lower incidence or dramatic reductions in the viral spread. It’s not the only explanation for a growing gap, but it’s a compelling one.

Italy is something of an exception, having opened with a comparatively high case count. However, the country was recovering from a particularly large and concentrated outbreak, and its incidence was on a steep downward trajectory. Its average daily count was below 20 cases per million within a week of its initial limited opening, a metric none of the most troubled states have managed since early April. 

So why is low incidence so crucial to successful reopening? It’s simple math. More virus circulating in a community means more opportunities for it to spread. It makes every precaution individuals and officials take a bit less effective, and every activity riskier. This doesn’t necessarily translate to immediate outbreaks, as people came out of lockdown quite cautiously. But as activity expands to include things such as indoor service at bars, a high base level of infection becomes increasingly likely to cause problems. 

Persistently high case levels amid a substantial reopening also make it far more challenging to identify and isolate a high percentage of infected individuals — again, a numbers problem. At a certain point, there are too many cases and contacts to have a hope of tracing them

That the number of cases was going to rise as we started re-opening was inevitable. And it would have been unreasonable to expect everyone to remain in lockdown indefinitely until a vaccine is found and distributed.

But full lockdown and reckless reopening weren’t the only alternatives. And, indeed, many states, including my own, have gradually phased out restrictions—while also mandating wearing of masks in public spaces—without seeing a spike in the disease.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Donald Trump, Health
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DrDaveT says:

    There’s something screwy in the numbers shown — how can California’s peak be lower than the level at reopen?

    As with most pandemic-related funding, differences in testing policies make comparisons by case rate extremely problematic. Hospitalizations and deaths tell a more easily interpreted story, where the data are available. Part of Trump’s culpability here is doing what he can to make sure we just don’t have the data we need to manage this situation.

  2. Teve says:

    “I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down please,’ “

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    If you look at the profiles from the NYT’s article How the Virus Won, The Acela corridor states have profile resembling Europe’s. These states have reopened slowly checking the infection rate before moving to the next stage. Bars and restaurants are open outside and 50% inside. Summer in the NE is mild compared to the south and west so people aren’t wanting to be inside.

  4. JohnMcC says:

    Or there is Paul Krugman’s opinion which I share: “America didn’t give up on Covid 19. Republicans did.” Somehow we engineered both a horrible recession and a horrible epidemic under R-party leadership. Sort of like having the bombing of Manhattan and Washington D.C. and a Viet Nam style quagmire.

    It’s both a dessert topping AND a floor polish!

  5. Argon says:

    “But full lockdown and reckless reopening weren’t the only alternatives”

    Correct. Many states tried half-assed, ‘not even close to stay at home’ programs with reckless partying and ‘nothing to see here’ wishful thinking after that. That option went very much as expected.
    The President and his MAGA thralls (aka Today’s GOP) achieved the worst possible outcome: We took initial, devastating, economic and personal hits to limit the virus AND subsequently squandered nearly all that effort. What a gutless abdication of leadership & responsibility. Not that there are also a number of Democrat leaders who also responded too late (de Blasio remains a nincompoop), but at least some seemed to have learned a bit.

  6. Argon says:

    @Sleeping Dog: “Summer in the NE is mild compared to the south and west so people aren’t wanting to be inside.”

    That region really needs to remain very cautious and closely monitor for any increase of community transmission. Also have to continue best practices for contacts. August and September are when they may see the emergence of a second wave. If anything ‘good’ can be said of what’s happening in the South & Southwest is that it’s reinforcing awareness in people that you cannot drop your guard. That if you aren’t careful, the shit gets out of hand quickly.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    We have become the world hotspot of Covid-19 because Trump wanted the economy to get him re-elected. He prioritized his political future over the lives of Americans. Trump is directly responsible for tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

    He’s utterly corrupt and he’s a traitor.

  8. Mikey says:

    America didn’t declare victory over shit. Republicans just gave up and decided a few hundred thousand dead was a reasonable price to pay for being able to go to the fucking bar.

    Don’t get me started on the anti-mask imbeciles. Fuck them double.

  9. charon says:

    Masks make a big difference to the likelihood of transmission.

    Politicizing masks into a culture war/Conservative v. libs thing is a big part of the difference.

  10. Kathy says:

    It’s an odd thing to declare victory when one is losing.

    Trump has taken more action to protect the statues of dead traitors than to protect the lives of living people.

  11. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Stupid has a price. And stupid leadership–always costs more than you want to pay. Always.

  12. An Interested Party says:

    We have become the world hotspot of Covid-19 because Trump wanted the economy to get him re-elected. He prioritized his political future over the lives of Americans. Trump is directly responsible for tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

    Don’t forget the role of Republicans in enabling his bad behavior…they are just as guilty as he is and they too have blood on their hands…

  13. Monala says:

    @Mikey: Did you see the video of several Florida citizens yelling at lawmakers and doctors about masks? The propaganda is strong! One said that they’re guilty of crimes against humanity because wearing masks will kill you, another called mask wearing “of the Devil,” and on and on.

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jim Brown 32: Not only more than you want to pay; stupid leadership often costs more than you can afford, too. 🙁