Covid swamps Trump Country

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With help from Myah Ward

THE TRUMP BUMP — On the pandemic’s first peak in early April, the states that voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton accounted for 67 percent of new Covid-19 cases. For the newest peak, which we’re still climbing, the states that voted for President Donald Trump have an even larger share: They accounted for 73 percent of new cases on June 28.

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Welcome to POLITICO Nightly: Coronavirus Special Edition. Renu is off today, and Nightly will also be off July 3-6. It will return Tuesday, July 7. Reach out with tips: [email protected] or on Twitter at @renurayasam.

The Global Fight

RYAN HEATH’S EUROPEAN ‘VACATION’ Can you still travel to Europe from the United States? In theory it’s banned, but if you’re willing to read the fine print, the answer could be yes.

I’m an Australian by birth, and lived in Brussels until 2019. After eight years of waiting, I was granted Belgian citizenship last month. My problem: no documents to prove it, and a European Union ban on foreign visitors. And even if I somehow managed to get in, I might not get out: Belgium banned its citizens from leaving, to get the virus further under control. But Belgium relaxed that restriction this month, so I decided to seize my chance to get my citizenship documents before the doors slammed shut again.

That required four international flights in a 48-hour dash to Europe last week. My advantage over the tens of thousands who made similar dashes home in March after Trump’s ban on European travel to the U.S.: Most people have been scared off flights now.

First lesson: There’s no common understanding of what it takes to control Covid-19, and we’re all absorbed in our internal national debates instead of creating common global practices. The most obvious point of difference: masks.

To enter Europe, I flew direct from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport to Amsterdam. (My booking said Delta, but the plane and staff were from KLM, the Dutch airline.) After self-declaring that I was Covid-free, I wrapped my face in a bandana, took a plastic bag of cookies and Coca-Cola from the flight attendant and knocked myself out with a sleeping pill. Having a row of three seats to myself in coach helped.

Most of the flight passed without incident, until a man several rows away removed his mask, prompting the man in the seat behind to snap at him, leading to an argument the flight attendant had to break up.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport was a different mask situation. Like JFK it was a near ghost town, but unlike JFK the staff were mostly mask-free.

In New York City, I’ve grown used to wearing my mask whenever I leave my apartment. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence — bucking Trump — have emphasized there is no stigma associated with masks.

In Europe, the attitude seems to be a kind of Covid autopilot. As if to say: We already did the hard work of national lockdowns, so now we’ll coast through a mask-free summer.

The only masked airport staffer I saw in Amsterdam didn’t see the irony of pulling down her mask to yell at passengers standing too close to each other — making herself the most likely super-spreader in line.

Dutch border guards waved me into Europe, no questions asked. For my flight to Brussels, we took a bus from the flight gate to the plane. The driver taped-off a three-yard space around his seat for protection, but his concern didn’t extend to his passengers. We were crammed in the bus while he drove in luxurious isolation. The most shameful part: We all accepted the double standard in silence.

In Belgium — the country with the highest declared per capita Covid-19 death rate in the world: 840 deaths per million, more than double the U.S. with 389 deaths per million — I walked through a temperature scanner but faced no other airport checks for Covid.

Still scarred by the relentless U.S. infection numbers I started by keeping my mask on. But as the Belgians laughed their way through brunch and stared at me as I paid for my meal in my mask, that mask started to slip. Dinner took place mask-free in between discrete plastic screens erected between the booths at a local brasserie.

Covid-19 helped me in my mission to get a Belgian identity card: The country’s famous red tape is now slashed, allowing me to fly out within 24 hours of requesting my ID.

The trip home took 23 hours instead of the usual eight, including a stopover in Copenhagen, Denmark. The airline insisted we could have only one piece of carry-on luggage on the nearly empty plane “for Covid reasons.” Yet aside from one business class passenger everyone else was crammed into six rows in the middle of the plane.

In Copenhagen, armed with a three-line letter from a news source saying we were meeting for coffee, I skirted a Danish ban on most European and all U.S. visitors. I didn’t see a mask outside of the airport.

I am married to an American, but I expected a grilling upon check-in for my flight back to the U.S., so I brought not just my passport but my marriage certificate. Neither seemed to impress the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at Newark International, who whisked me into an interview room. The agent checking my file studied opinion polling in college and after 20 minutes of pleasant election chat, he agreed I was a political journalist married to an American, and therefore an exception to Trump’s European travel ban.

I agreed to self-quarantine for 14 days and made it out of the baggage area just in time for yet another work Zoom call.

Palace Intrigue

PENCE’S WEEKEND SHIFTS — A televised coronavirus task force briefing on Friday, organized at the vice president’s direction on a day’s notice, revealed an undercurrent of fear behind the scenes of the federal government. Over the weekend, Pence stepped up his urgency. The striking shift in the vice president’s tone — from zealously defending Trump’s push to reopen the U.S. economy to complimenting governors today for halting their states’ reopenings — underscores his thorny position as he works to balance his and Trump’s political futures. Inside the Department of Health and Human Services, Gabby Orr, Adam Cancryn, Nancy Cook and Dan Diamond write, officials have agonized over Pence’s recent messages on coronavirus, saying that his ever-sunny tone could confuse Americans about the actual risks of the outbreak.

First In Nightly

RIPPLE EFFECTS — Top Trump administration officials say drug overdose deaths are surging, driven by increased substance use due to anxiety, social isolation and depression. A White House drug policy office analysis shows an 11.4 percent year-over-year increase in overdose fatalities for the first four months of 2020, confirming experts’ early fears that precautions like quarantines and lockdowns combined with economic uncertainty would exacerbate the addiction crisis, health care reporter Brianna Ehley writes.

“The pandemic has caused my level of concern to go up,” White House Drug Czar Jim Carroll told POLITICO in an interview, acknowledging overdose deaths were already starting to rise in the past year after posting the first decline in three decades, in 2018. The surge is prompting the drug policy office and federal agencies to convene regular meetings to size up how the pandemic has disrupted the opioid response.

The pandemic put on hold a billion-dollar research program focused on new forms of addiction treatment, as part of a broader freeze on non-Covid work at the National Institutes of Health.

Talking to the Experts

Nightly’s Myah Ward talked about the mutating coronavirus with Mark R. Schleiss, a professor of pediatrics at The University of Minnesota Medical School and an investigator at the university’s Institute for Molecular Virology. This conversation has been edited.

Is coronavirus mutating?

Yes. But I think the real question is, is it mutating in any way that’s surprising or unusual for an RNA virus? And the answer to that is no, it's not. Part of being a good, card-carrying member of the RNA virus club is that you mutate.

The mutations are actually incredibly useful for us in understanding how this virus has circulated around the globe. Most of the viral infections that swept across the eastern seaboard — New York, Boston, Washington — earlier this spring, those are direct introductions of the infection from Europe. And we know that because the virus mutates, and so we can track those mutations and study how the virus disseminates around the world.

How does mutation affect vaccine development?

Every big pharma group has a vaccine that’s in various stages of preclinical development or clinical trials. Almost all of those are templated on the original sequence from the West Coast, from China.

We have an urgent need to have a vaccine immediately. But we also need to start planning about what a strategy is going to be for immunizing against this over the next 20 years. I think that vaccination is ultimately going to be like the flu shot. It’s going to be probably annual, and it’s probably going to be adjusted and tweaked over time.

What about the chatter that suggests a strain in Europe might be worse than the one in China, for example? Or that there’s a different virus on the West Coast than the East Coast? Is there any truth to that?

It’s definitely true that the origins of the virus in China spread in both directions around the globe, and what we encountered on the West Coast had some genetic differences from what we encountered on the East Coast.

Can people be reinfected with different strains of the virus?

I think it’s happening. There are two issues. One is, are you getting reinfected with a new strain that’s really different from the first strain you got? But the second thing is that even if the virus didn't change at all — which would be impossible — there’s still a lot of uncertainty about the duration of immunity. So do you keep an antibody on board for the rest of your life? Do you lose it over time? There are lots of papers coming out that people who have been infected and been sick, don't make a very good antibody response and it's not very long lasting. Those papers to me are a little surprising because they fly in the face of what we believe to be true for most viral infections.

Would these mutations change anything about how the virus might attack someone, or what symptoms they might have?

There's no convincing molecular data that says that the viruses are more or less pathogenic.

The only mutation that seems to have been associated with increased pathogenicity — that is to say, increased ability to make you sick — is a mutation that is being called in the scientific community and medical community the D614G mutation.

Are we seeing that strain of the virus everywhere, or is it concentrated in certain regions?

It’s being seen really all over the world now. I think that for every D614G, there are 10,000 other variants out there. Nobody notices them because they don’t seem to change the ability of the virus to cause disease. It’s a bad disease anyway even without that mutation.

A broader, more important point is not to worry about necessarily this specific mutation because even viruses without the mutation can kill you. And we need to practice social distancing and public health measures until we can figure out how to get this all under control.

Ask The Audience

Nightly asks you: How has the pandemic changed your July 4 holiday? Send us your answer using our form, and we’ll include some of them in our Thursday edition.

Around the Nation

STATES STEP BACK The reopenings state and local leaders hoped would make summer slightly more normal have been paused or, in particular hot spots, rolled back. A brief snapshot of the areas nationwide hitting the brakes:

No indoor dining in New Jersey: Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said he will not allow restaurants to reopen for indoor dining this week as originally planned, following spikes of coronavirus cases in other states that have reopened on a more aggressive timeline, Katherine Landergan writes. “We must hit pause on the resumption of indoor dining, which was to resume this Thursday,” Murphy said during his daily briefing in Trenton. “Given the current situation in numerous other states, we do not believe it is prudent at this time to push forward, in effect, with what is a sedentary indoor activity.”

NYC may follow suit: New York Playbook co-author Erin Durkin writes the city may delay allowing indoor dining amid signs it poses a risk of spreading the coronavirus, Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo said today. The city is set to enter the third phase next Monday of its reopening, which was scheduled to include indoor dining. But both New York leaders say they are seriously considering nixing the reopening of indoor restaurants and bars.

Jacksonville masks up: Jacksonville, where the Republican National Convention is slated to be held in August, instituted a city-wide mask order today to stem the spread of coronavirus. The order requires indoor-mask wearing only — not an outside mandate that other local governments in Florida have passed. As the number of cases in the city and state rise, Jacksonville’s Republican Mayor Lenny Curry, his staff and health care experts have been discussing a mask order for more than a week, two sources said. A final turning point for Curry came after the decisions by the Coast Guard and Navy, which has two facilities in Jacksonville, ordering indoor mask-wearing.

On Our Radar

WHITE HOUSE: TRUMP STILL NOT BRIEFED — Trump’s top spokesperson said the president still has not received an intelligence briefing on reports that a Russian intelligence unit offered bounties to the Taliban to kill coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, and she also contradicted the president’s assertion that such intelligence had been deemed not credible, Caitlin Oprysko writes.

“There is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters today during a news briefing when explaining why Trump had not been briefed yet, disputing reports from multiple news outlets that the intelligence had been included in Trump’s daily briefing. In fact, McEnany asserted, there are “dissenting opinions” from some in the intelligence community about the allegations, first reported by The New York Times over the weekend, though she said their veracity is still being evaluated. She did not specify who within the intelligence community has disputed the intelligence.

Covid-2020

ALTAR EGO — A month ago, Trump pushed governors to let churches reopen. Now several coronavirus clusters are tied to houses of worship across the country. White House reporter Gabby Orr explains in the latest POLITICO Dispatch why churches can be super-spreaders — and why Trump is in a bind as he tries to keep evangelical voters on his side.

Nightly Number

Parting Words

LA’S STRUGGLES NOT CONFIDENTIAL — Los Angeles County’s cases surged past 100,000 today, with 2,903 new cases — the largest single-day number of new infections. Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom has mandated the closing of bars, wineries, tasting rooms and breweries in Los Angeles and six other counties. Could restaurants be next?

Half of inspected restaurants and bars in LA are failing to comply with Covid-19 protocols, Eater Los Angeles reports.

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