I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has had it with people who think COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, not a big deal. I asked him how he processes that viewpoint as someone who has devoted his life to science.
“You have (over 250,000 COVID-19) deaths, 11 million infections and 70,000 people in the hospital. Flu doesn’t even come close,” Fauci said Wednesday during our USA TODAY Editorial Board meeting.
“When you ask me about frustration, which borders on pain, it’s that either people don’t want to look at the data or they look at the data and they say it’s fake. No, it isn’t fake. … This is a global issue. I tell the people who deny or think that this is nothing, do you mean that every single country in Europe is doing the same thing, is making things up? They’re not. I mean, it’s so obvious.”
It’s unusual, but understandable, to see Fauci so exasperated. He’s working around the clock to save lives, but the numbers keep getting worse. Crowds at one of President Donald Trump’s campaign rallies chanted for Fauci to be fired.
He understands the fear out there. He said he doesn’t want to shut down the nation. He knows the psychological and economic consequences of that “but we at least have got to be consistent in doing some fundamental things.”
Those fundamental things he repeats: Wear masks uniformly; adhere to physical distancing; avoid group settings, particularly indoors; try to do things, as weather allows, outdoors; and wash your hands frequently.
“I have a night off from the hospital. As I’m on my couch with my dog I can’t help but think of the Covid patients the last few days. The ones that stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real,” a South Dakota nurse tweeted Saturday.
“They tell you there must be another reason they are sick,” nurse Jodi Doering said. “They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that ‘stuff’ because they don’t have COVID because it’s not real. Yes. This really happens.”
Fauci said stories like this leave him beyond frustrated, because as a person of science, he’s guided by data. “I keep saying ‘look at the data.’ “
Here’s a start:
There are now more than 250,000 deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19. Globally, there are more than 56.7 million cases and 1.35 million deaths. The U.S. makes up 4.3% of the world’s population and 19% of the global fatalities.
We are in the middle of a virus spike. The U.S. has seen 16 days of at least 100,000 new cases a day.
New coronavirus cases in nursing homes are at an all-time high. There were 10,279 COVID-19 cases during the week of Nov. 1, according to federal data. The previous high was 9,903 cases in late July.
Hospitalizations across the nation have exploded, with almost 80,000 Americans now receiving inpatient treatment. Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warns that “simple, depressing math” shows hospitalizations will pass 100,000 within a month, placing dangerous pressure on the health care system.
Health reporter Ken Alltucker wrote about small town hospitals being overrun by COVID-19 this week. “The challenge with COVID, particularly in the Upper Midwest, is small town hospitals are struggling to find available ICU beds at larger metro hospitals,” he said. “Hospital administrators I talked to in North Dakota and the Texas Panhandle told me their staffs now must call hospitals in up to four or five states to find an available bed.
“Some experts believe the problem is exacerbated by general skepticism of COVID in rural areas – people are less likely to wear masks.”
Alltucker talked to Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University School of Medicine professor of preventive medicine and an infectious disease specialist. Schaffner told him that “in Tennessee, a state health officer visited rural communities to discuss how the coronavirus vaccine will be distributed when it’s expected to be available next year. Most residents didn’t wear masks at the indoor meetings.”
The more rural you get, Schaffner said, “the more disdainful people are, the more doubting and skeptical they are about the whole COVID story.”
Political affiliation also still impacts how Americans view the virus, Alia Dastagir reported this week. Even as we pass 250,000 dead, many Republicans and Democrats disagree over the threat of COVID-19 and the steps necessary to curb it.
“When the pandemic first hit, experts saw little difference between Democrats and Republicans – everyone was concerned about COVID-19,” she said. “But beliefs began to diverge dramatically when politicians grew louder than the health experts.”
Experts initially thought that as the pandemic worsened, spreading across all states, the partisan gap would begin to close, Dastagir reported. “They believed the reality of what was happening in people’s cities and towns would trump political identity, unifying the nation in its fight against a deadly threat.
“It hasn’t. And it may never.”
Why? The views people express signal which political group they belong to, political scientists told Dastagir. If what it means to be a Republican now is to not worry about COVID-19 and not wear a mask, then people who identify as Republican may feel they must embrace that.
She talked to Shana Gadarian, a political psychologist at Syracuse University tracking American attitudes toward the pandemic, who agreed: “The maintenance of that identity might mean that you have to discount all of that other information that you’re seeing.”
Which brings us back to Fauci, and his frustration: “We’ve got to say, ‘OK, folks, enough is enough with this political divisiveness, with this claiming that people are making things up. Get rid of these ridiculous conspiracy theories and realize this is a public health crisis.'”
He calls the division “mind-boggling.”
“This is real,” he said, “and if the divisiveness is so severe that people don’t think it’s real when people are flooding hospitals and dying at a rate that we haven’t seen with a disease of this type in 102 years, I hope that’s enough of a stimulus for us to drop back as a nation and say, ‘Hey, folks, we got to start talking to each other about what this divide is between us.'”
Dr. Anthony Fauci calls it “mind-boggling” that people still say the coronavirus pandemic is made up.
So I’m taking the doctor’s advice. Let’s talk about this. Why is there a divide between Americans’ views on COVID-19? If you think coronavirus concern is overblown, I’d be interested to hear why. You can write to me at EIC@usatoday.com. I’m interested in truly understanding those whose thinking hasn’t changed over the pandemic, those who believe COVID-19 is not as serious as the media or medical professionals report.
If understanding – and ultimately bridging — the divide helps save lives, we should all be doing just that.
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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Anthony Fauci COVID: US must accept how dangerous coronavirus is, react