Despite vaccine optimism, coronavirus crisis intensifies in US

Five months ago today, Mike Pence took a victory lap on the administration's coronavirus response. In hindsight, that was tragically unwise.
Image: COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit Within A Houston Hospital Cares For Patients As Cases Continue To Rise
Medical staff members prepare to perform a treatment on a patient suffering from Covid-19 in the intensive care unit at the United Memorial Medical Center on Nov. 14, 2020, in Houston.Go Nakamura / Getty Images

Much of the world has been waiting for good news on the vaccine front, and this morning, as NBC News reported, we're starting to see some.

Biotech company Moderna said Monday that early analysis from its Phase 3 trial shows its Covid-19 vaccine is 94.5 percent effective at preventing the infection, offering hope of a second breakthrough in as many weeks.... Moderna also said its vaccine does not require ultracold storage, unlike the candidate announced by Pfizer that has to be stored at temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 Fahrenheit) or below, easing concerns about how to efficiently distribute vaccines to billions of people around the world.

As is always the case with announcements like these, some caution is in order. These results have been released by the company, for example, not as a result of peer-reviewed research.

That said, it certainly appears to be an important breakthrough. Now all we have to do is get through the next several months while we wait for a possible vaccine to be produced, distributed, and administered.

And on this front, there are far fewer reasons to be optimistic. For one thing, the incoming Biden administration will take office in about nine weeks, and public-health experts agree that the outgoing Trump administration's refusal to allow for a smooth transition is likely to have adverse effects for all of us.

For another, while the light at the end of the tunnel may be visible, the ongoing crisis needs attention immediately. The overall case total has topped 11 million; daily infections are soaring; fatalities are increasing; and many hospitals are being pushed to the breaking point.

It's against this backdrop that Donald Trump has given up working on the coronavirus pandemic, and hasn't even bothered to attend a meeting of his own White House task force in "at least five months."

I'm reminded of the Wall Street Journal op-ed Vice President Mike Pence wrote exactly five months ago today. The message from the Indiana Republican -- the head of the White House's coronavirus taskforce -- was simple: thanks to Donald Trump, "we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy."

We've revisited the vice president's pitch from time to time, but it's striking to see just how much conditions in the United States have deteriorated since Pence took a June victory lap.

"While talk of an increase in cases dominates cable news coverage, more than half of states are actually seeing cases decline or remain stable."

There are currently zero states seeing a decline in coronavirus cases.

"Cases have stabilized over the past two weeks, with the daily average case rate across the U.S. dropping to 20,000 -- down from 30,000 in April and 25,000 in May."

We're currently seeing about 150,000 cases per day -- and that average keeps going up. It's a total that's more than seven times larger than the one Pence bragged about five months ago today.

"[I]n the past five days, deaths are down to fewer than 750 a day, a dramatic decline from 2,500 a day a few weeks ago -- and a far cry from the 5,000 a day that some were predicting.

While it's true that fatality totals aren't as severe as the staggering figures seen in April, the daily average for Americans dying of COVID-19 is roughly double now as compared to the day the vice president's op-ed was published.

What's more, with the total number of American fatalities topping 240,000, we've crossed Trump's own threshold for failure.

"The media has tried to scare the American people every step of the way, and these grim predictions of a second wave are no different. The truth is, whatever the media says, our whole-of-America approach has been a success."

Within weeks of Pence's boast about the absence of a second wave, the number of U.S. coronavirus cases reached a brutal second peak that was even higher than the totals from April. And though that subsided in time, we're now in the midst of a third peak, which, looking at daily case totals, is worse than the first two combined.

It's likely that Pence and others on Team Trump, when crafting the WSJ op-ed in June, felt genuine optimism. They were willing to write the opinion piece, and put the vice president's credibility on the line, because they assumed it wouldn't be easily discredited soon after.

They were wrong. To borrow a phrase, the truth, whatever the White House says, is that the administration's approach has been a failure.