Oct 28, 2020

The state of COVID-19.

The state of COVID-19.

Plus, what actually happens if Roe v. Wade is overturned?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 13 minutes.

The latest on coronavirus. Plus, a question about Roe v. Wade being overturned.

Flyers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport wearing facemasks on March 6th, 2020 as the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads throughout the United States. Photo: Chad Davis / Flickr


Robert, a lawyer from Brooklyn, NY, and a couple of other sharp readers wrote in to suss out an important distinction in my writing yesterday. I wrote that “‘Originalist’ is used to describe justices who interpret Constitutional law based on what the language was intended to mean when written or adopted.” Robert said, “Instead of the word ‘intended,’ you should have said ‘understood.’ Originalists do not generally concern themselves with what a statute was ‘intended’ to mean by its adopters. Originalists instead try to determine the original public meaning of a statute. In other words, they attempt to figure out what the words of the statute would have meant to a reasonable person at the time of adoption.”

Reader feedback.

Yann from Nova Scotia, Canada, said, “I noticed in the Tree of Life story that you mentioned mental health issues as speaking ‘to a confluence of issues’ in America. Though I agree that people who commit mass shootings are experiencing mental health issues, it lacks nuance, or more so, lacks an understanding from the general public regarding mental health issues and how that relates to mass shootings. As I’m sure you know, individuals with mental illnesses are more than likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. And though individuals who commit mass shootings are experiencing mental health issues, this can lead to readers further associating mental illness as a cause of violence.”

I also got this email yesterday: “I just want to let you know that while I have found Tangle very informative, your unwillingness to endorse a candidate in the 2020 election is why I am unsubscribing. The differences between the two candidates could hardly be starker, and not endorsing either is quite frankly cowardly. This kind of false-equivalencey is one of the major problems with the media today, and I am disappointed that Tangle is contributing to it. Goodbye, and I hope you find the courage to stop being part of the problem.”

Happy election season!

Quick hits.

  1. Wisconsin Democrats and the Democratic attorney general of Michigan are now urging voters to turn in their absentee ballots in person via clerks’ offices or drop boxes. The change in messaging came after the Supreme Court barred the counting of mail-in ballots in Wisconsin that arrive after Election Day.
  2. Protests continued in West Philadelphia yesterday after Walter Wallace was killed by police on Monday. The 27-year-old had a knife in his hands that police ordered him to drop. His family said he was battling mental health issues that police were aware of. Video of the shooting went viral and sparked protests that have now spread to other cities in the U.S.
  3. Joe Biden is ahead 57-40 in the swing state of Wisconsin, according to a new Washington Post / ABC News poll. The poll results showed such a strong Biden advantage that some observers have speculated it’s a polling outlier.
  4. Hundreds of Trump supporters in Omaha, Nebraska, were left stranded in the cold after a Trump rally when busses couldn’t navigate crowded airport roads to pick them up. At least seven people were taken to hospitals.
  5. Tony Bobulinski, a former business associate of Hunter Biden’s, appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show last night and criticized Democrats for claiming his emails were part of a Russian disinformation campaign.
  6. Millions of government and GOP dollars have flowed into Trump properties since he became president, according to a new report from Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold. “Since his first month in office, Trump has used his power to direct millions from U.S. taxpayers -- and from his political supporters -- into his own businesses.”

What D.C. is talking about.

Coronavirus. In the last week, positive COVID-19 cases have begun surging again across the United States, setting new single-day records. We recorded a record-high 500,000 new cases in a single week. For some context: it took three months for us to record 500,000 total cases after the first confirmed case on January 21st, though testing at that time was rather limited.

As the cases have ticked up, new restrictions have spread across the U.S. to try to slow the spread. Newark, New Jersey, instituted a business curfew. In New York City, businesses in certain zip codes where the virus was surging closed down to slow the spread. In El Paso, there is a two week stay-at-home order. In Chicago, indoor dining has been halted. In Wisconsin, where the surge is happening faster than in most other states, there has been some closings of bars and restaurants across the state. The restaurant industry, which employs 15 million people (15 times what the airline industry does), continues to struggle, as many eateries try to survive on delivery, outdoor dining, and limited capacity.

There is a lot of important context to add to these numbers. For one, testing has increased across the country, which almost certainly accounts for better tallies of the rise in new cases. The COVID Tracking Project says cases are up 6.1% in the last week, while tests are up 6.2%. But this is also misleading. For instance, in Kentucky, Nevada, Iowa, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Arkansas, testing is down. But in each of those states, cases are up by anywhere from 7% to 35%. So while national testing and national cases are moving together, we’re also seeing surges in cases at the state level where testing has gone down, indicating we’re still missing a bunch of cases. Here are some charts from the COVID Tracking Project:

COVID-19 Tracking Project.

Many observers track hospitalizations as the most important metric. Here, too, the news could be worse but is also somewhat misleading. Current hospitalizations are rising, but not spiking in the same way they did early in the pandemic. This will be key to keep an eye on. The Mayo Clinic says many hospitalizations happen 10 to 12 days into an infection, so many of the 500,000 confirmed cases in the last week could soon turn more serious. The New York Times is reporting that hospitals across the country are already coming under strain, especially in areas that weren’t hit in the first waves of the pandemic. The number of people hospitalized is already up 46% from a month ago, and if that number continues to rise, our hospitals will once again become overwhelmed.

Whether the case rises and hospitalizations are moving together the same way they did early on in the pandemic is hotly debated. Some think that because of better testing, we’re just catching more cases that aren’t as serious. Others think it’s because the case spread is now largely happening among younger adults. And some worry that a new wave of hospitalizations is right around the corner. There have been some theories that the virus is mutating, though that’s not nearly as worrisome as it sounds. In fact, it’s more likely that mutations would be good for us than bad, as long as they’re happening slowly enough that potential vaccines and current therapeutic treatments can keep up. The COVID-19 death rate is also falling. This is likely thanks to a confluence of factors like younger patients, better drugs to treat the virus, and better care in serious cases.

What hasn’t changed is the way COVID-19 is permeating everything. It’s the number one issue in the 2020 election, it’s disrupting schools and education, decimating the restaurant industry, destroying the entertainment industry, and the latest spike is now weighing down stock futures, one of the few economic indicators that had been looking relatively strong over the last few months.

What the left is saying.

The left continues to blame the Trump administration for America’s poor response, and as we head into winter many are calling for measures like mask mandates in public spaces to slow the spread of the virus.

In The Washington Post, Megan McArdle wrote that the winter will bring new challenges: namely, people bringing the virus inside with them, and gatherings happening in enclosed places with poor ventilation where COVID-19 is most likely to spread. “In some ways, of course, we are much better prepared for this round,” she said. “We know more about COVID-19 than we did in the spring, when people were going into grocery stores unmasked. We’re not just better able to control transmission by avoiding the highest-risk activities but also able to mitigate our loneliness and anxiety by doing more of the things we’re reasonably sure are safe.”

At the same time, “all of this will become harder still, simply because people are exhausted,” she wrote. “On Sunday, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, told CNN’s Jake Tapper, ‘We are not going to control the pandemic.’ And the White House is not the only place that has given up. People who heard dire warnings in March, which then failed to materialize, may not be inclined to listen to similar warnings now, meaning both authorities and individuals will be slow to react. People who have tapped out savings may be forced into riskier circumstances, from working customer-facing jobs to moving in with relatives. Folks who have been social distancing for months will find it more difficult to keep it up. And people who have been putting off vital necessities, from health care to educating their kids, will find it harder to keep themselves safe at home.”

Michael Gerson published an article on the “four most profound failures” of the Trump administration during the pandemic. The first, he wrote, was the failure to produce an accurate test and then the choice to not replace the inconsistent tests with the World Health Organization’s test, which had been effective overseas. “Testing was not available,” a senior official told Gerson. “We would have learned weeks earlier that this was out there in the country. We lost at least a month.”

The second was that Trump “actively and deceptively played down the extent and seriousness of the crisis.” The third was “the Trump administration’s early decision to shift burdens and blame to the states.” The fourth “was the administration’s undermining of expertise… These anti-experts have provided bad advice and sought to sabotage rival sources of information.”

“The covid-19 crisis does not have a single cause, but it has revealed Trump as he is,” Gerson wrote. “His leadership skills are nonexistent. He is not talented, effective or even particularly cunning. He is simply outmatched, and eager to shift the blame. In the past eight months, the United States has led the world in deaths from COVID-19. Trump has led the world in the production of alibis. His failures of wisdom and judgment have imposed massive, tragic costs on our country. And justice will be served if they cost him reelection.”

What the right is saying.

The right has argued that the most recent surge in virus cases is alarming, but has also argued that another shutdown is not the answer. Some have joined the call for mask mandates while others have said the Trump administration deserves more credit than it’s getting for how it handled COVID-19.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board argued that the rise in cases is inevitable as the weather gets colder, but the U.S. is still much better prepared to handle this wave of the pandemic.

“Cases are more geographically dispersed than in the spring and summer, rising even in states with strict restrictions and mask mandates,” the board wrote. “This includes New York and its neighbors whose governors were hailed for supposedly controlling the virus. The increase has been most acute in upper Midwest states that weren’t hit as hard earlier. Some of the increase is due to more testing, which is detecting more asymptomatic cases. Most concerning are hospitalizations, which are up by about 40% since mid-September though are still 30% or so below spring and summer peaks.”

Still, the board argued, deaths are trending lower because the American public is doing a much better job protecting the most vulnerable Americans. “Individuals over age 85 are 630 times more likely to die than those between 18 and 29, says the CDC. This is why the epidemiologists who wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, which has been signed by tens of thousands of doctors and scientists, advise a focus on protecting the elderly. They also warn that government lockdowns lead to worsening heart-disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and more mental illness. Nearly a third of the so-called excess deaths in the U.S. this year have been attributed to causes other than Covid, including cardiovascular disease and uncontrolled diabetes… Masks can also help at the margins, and wearing them to protect others indoors and in crowds is public-spirited and important until a vaccine is widely available, which may be as early as this spring.”

Speaking of masks, Scott Gottlieb made the case for them in a Wall Street Journal op-ed of his own. An advisor to the Trump campaign and the former FDA Commissioner under Trump, Gottlieb said, “It’s time to consider a limited and temporary national mask mandate.”

“As deaths rise this winter, policymakers will have to take new steps to slow the rate of spread. There is no support for reprising this spring’s stay-at-home orders,” he wrote. “Masks would help. As a practical matter, it’s easier to wear a mask in the winter than the summer. A mandate can be expressly limited to the next two months. The inconvenience would allow the country to preserve health-care capacity and keep more schools and businesses open. Studies show widespread use of masks can reduce spread. But even if masks are only incrementally helpful, they are among the least economically costly and burdensome options for reducing spread.”

In City Journal, pathologist and conservative policy advisor Roger Klein argued that “a closer look at the administration’s record reveals a much more successful response to Covid than critics are willing to acknowledge.” Klein argued that comparing the U.S. response to other nations was unfair, given the differences in how we count cases, infections and deaths. Instead, he argued, just look at the concrete steps: the Trump administration produced a surplus of ventilators, expanded telehealth services, facilitated more than 125 million tests, and pushed states to reopen their economies, and Operation Warp Speed for a vaccine is making “remarkable progress.”

“The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic—a new disease with no previous exposure—is among the greatest infectious-disease challenges that the United States and the world have faced in a century,” he wrote. “Given the circumstances and challenges, the Trump administration has vigorously confronted a national crisis over which it has limited control.”

My take.

One of the most dispiriting things to me about COVID-19 is what an irrationally divisive issue it has become. There’s much to say about the Trump administration’s response, and I find some of the less orthodox arguments (like Roger D. Klein’s) at least a little compelling. There are things the Trump administration has done well, and if we get a safe and widely available vaccine in the Spring of 2021, I’ll be the first to acknowledge what an incredible achievement that is — and it will absolutely change my overall grade of the administration’s response. But that’s still a very big “if.” I’ve written here before, several times, that the Trump administration’s response has been abysmal. That must be contextualized with the fact that coronavirus has stymied competent world leaders and governments across the globe, too.

We could argue back and forth about what the Trump administration has done well (ventilator supply, more access to telehealth services, fast-tracking a vaccine) and what it has done poorly (testing rollout, coordinating state responses, failure to provide enough PPE, failure to amplify the guidance of experts). What is indisputable to me is perhaps the most important thing of all: that Trump himself has not modeled the simplest, most effective behavior, has framed it as a red vs. blue state issue, has mocked some of the easiest ways to combat the virus, and has repeatedly used the largest platform in the world to spread misinformation and undermine his own medical agencies about COVID-19. To put it simply, he’s been unforgivably reckless.

But arguing about all of this also seems tedious when we consider where we are. We’re six days from an election where Trump’s response to COVID-19 will certainly be on the ballot. We’re also in the middle of a surge in cases, and we don’t really have time to argue about how stupid Trump’s comments in April about bleach were, or how clueless his comments about “turning the corner” this week are. What we’re doing now clearly isn’t working, and unless we are once again willing to accept 1,000 to 2,000 people dying every single day we have to change something.

Gottlieb’s argument for a mask mandate makes sense. Remember: this is coming from a Trump campaign advisor, a Republican, and — most importantly — an actual public health expert. We should hope folks across America listen to his advice. He makes a strong argument that a mask mandate has the best odds of slowing the virus while also not wreaking more havoc on an already crushed economy, which is no small thing. There is a huge cost to shutdowns, even though we never actually “shut down” in the first place. Still, the cost of widespread restrictions on our health and the economy is self-evident. It’s also true that some of the people advocating most enthusiastically for a rerun of those restrictions are the same people who can work comfortably from home on their laptops without facing financial ruin.

With the holidays coming, it’ll be most important for families who choose to gather to take the necessary precautions to do so safely. There’s so much low-hanging, easy-to-grab fruit here: spend the two weeks before Thanksgiving or Christmas isolating before you go home. Wear a mask if you fly, and use hand sanitizer in the airport. Get a test before seeing family. Spend as much time outside as you can, or indoors with the windows open to improve ventilation if you can’t be outside. Avoid crowded bars and restaurants. Wear masks publicly. Limit the number of people you interact with.

None of this stuff is difficult or intrusive or a violation of your freedoms — it’s just plain old common sense, based on the world we’re living in and the advice of experts, and it’s the least we can all do to protect ourselves and each other while the nation waits for a vaccine.

As Gottlieb said: “The goal should be to make masks a social and cultural norm, not a political statement. There are lots of things we do because there is a community expectation of civil behaviors: No shoes, no service. Clean up after your dog… Mandating masks has become divisive only because it was framed that way by some politicians and commentators… Everyone banding together to wear masks, for a limited time, will be the least costly way for society to weather a difficult winter.”

Your questions, answered.

Q: Now that ACB is confirmed, what does "overturn Roe" actually mean? I've heard a lot of different things about what's likely to happen next, ranging from abortion will be completely outlawed to the states will get to make their own legislation. To be honest, I don't think I really have a grasp on what the state of things was like before Roe, so would overturning Roe mean that we'd go back to that? If so, what would that look like?

— Liz, Durham, North Carolina

Tangle: The easiest way to explain this is to explain what Roe v. Wade actually did. Essentially, the Supreme Court ruled that a right to abortion was protected by the 14th amendment, which covers the right to privacy. The decision gave women a legal right to abortion at any stage in their pregnancy but allowed states different levels of abortion regulation in the second and third trimesters. Laws in 46 states were impacted when the ruling was handed down in 1973.

If Roe v. Wade were overturned, legal abortion access would go unchanged in a little more than half of all U.S. states. But for many Americans in the south, and some in the midwest, it would almost certainly lead to legal abortion being inaccessible. Caitlin Knowles Myers, a Middlebury professor who studied the potential impact of overturning Roe v. Wade, summed it up well to The New York Times: “A post-Roe United States isn’t one in which abortion isn’t legal at all. It’s one in which there’s tremendous inequality in abortion access.”

This Times analysis is one of the deepest I’ve seen on the issue. Currently, there is an abortion clinic in every state. Most women live within an hour’s drive of at least one. If Roe v. Wade were overturned, abortion would likely become illegal in as many as 22 of those states. 41% of women who are “of childbearing age” would see their nearest abortion clinic close, The Times estimated. The average distance needed to travel to find a clinic “would be 280 miles, up from 36 miles now.”

The impact this would have on abortions is another issue that’s hotly contested. The study Myers conducted said 100,000 fewer legal abortions would happen a year with Roe v. Wade overturned, but the number of total abortions it would prevent is impossible to know. New clinics would likely pop up on state borders where abortion was still legal to improve access in states where it wasn’t. And women who want abortions could still order abortion pills by mail or obtain illegal surgical abortions.

Basically: if Roe v. Wade were overturned, state laws would rule supreme, and 10 states have already passed “trigger” laws that automatically ban all abortions without Roe. Another 12 states would seem poised to do the same, and the result would be vastly different abortion laws based on what state you live in.

A story that matters.

Judge Emmet Sullivan, a district court judge in Washington D.C., has ordered the United States Postal Service to reverse mail collection limits imposed by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. In an unusually detailed order, Sullivan said the agency must inform workers by Wednesday morning that the “USPS leader's July guidelines limiting late and extra trips to collect mail are rescinded.”

"USPS personnel are instructed to perform late and extra trips to the maximum extent necessary to increase on-time mail deliveries, particularly for Election Mail," Sullivan wrote. "To be clear, late and extra trips should be performed to the same or greater degree than they were performed prior to July 2020 when doing so would increase on-time mail deliveries.


  • 64-34. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump among women in Wisconsin, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll.
  • 51-44. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in Michigan, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll.
  • 5.4 million. The average nightly viewers for Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in the month of October, the highest ever for a cable news program.
  • 17.4 million. The number of people who watched Sunday’s 60 Minutes interview between Lesley Stahl and Donald Trump, the biggest audience for 60 Minutes since 2018, when they interviewed Stormy Daniels.
  • 73 million. The number of people that have already voted, more than half the 2016 vote total, according to the U.S. Election Project.
  • 45%.The percentage of American voters who blame Trump and Republicans in Congress for the lack of a COVID-19 relief deal, according to Morning Consult.
  • 40%. The percentage of American voters who blame Democrats in Congress for the lack of a COVID-19 relief deal, according to Morning Consult.
  • 15%. The percentage of American voters who said they don’t know who to blame for the lack of a COVID-19 relief deal, according to Morning Consult.

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Have a nice day.

Scientists say they have discovered a 1,600-foot tall “skyscraper” barrier reef inside Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The discovery of the so-called “detached” reef is the first of its kind in 120 years and is the first time we’ve heard some good news about coral reefs in a while. The reef is taller than the Empire State building and an astonishing mile wide at its base. It was discovered using 3D seabed mapping off the coast of Australia by The Schmidt Ocean Institute. In much less cool news, the Schmidt Ocean Institute is the same group of people who recently discovered a 150-foot long sea creature called a Siphonophore at the floor of the ocean, the longest sea creature ever discovered.

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