business news in context, analysis with attitude

Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

•  In the US, there now have been 468,895 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, 16,697 deaths and 25,928 reported recoveries.

Globally, there have been 1,617,574 confirmed coronavirus cases, 96,919 deaths and 365,743 reported recoveries.

•  Bloomberg reports that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said yesterday that projections about potential deaths from the pandemic have been slashed, from between 100,000 and 250,000 at the low end to about 60,000.

"The falling projection," the story says, is "the result of aggressive social distancing behaviors Americans adopted to curb the spread of the virus."

"“The real data are telling us it is highly likely we are having a definite positive effect by the mitigation things that we’re doing, this physical separation,” Fauci said, adding, "I believe we are going to see a downturn in that, and it looks more like the 60,000, than the 100,000 to 200,000 … But having said that, we better be careful that we don’t say: ‘OK, we’re doing so well we could pull back'."

I am sure that there will be some who will argue that the reduced projections reflect a media that over-hyped the story and a political/medical mindset that over-reacted to the virus.  But that would be a load of crap.  If the media and the healthcare experts had not done what they continue to do, then we wouldn't be talking about the low end of the original projections, but the high end.  And if people don't take this seriously, and move too quickly to declare the crisis over and that it is time to return to normalcy, then we will suffer the consequences and they may be worse than anything we've seen so far.

•  CNN reports on the consideration being given by a number of retailers to the practice of taking customers' temperatures before they are allowed to enter their stores.

"If they decided to roll such a program to their workers, under the assumption that it would prevent infected individuals from being at their stores, I do not see a reason why that wouldn't be rolled out to customers as well," Dr. Luciana Borio, former director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council under President Donald Trump and former acting chief scientist at the FDA, tells CNN. "Even a modest benefit can be of value when our public health options are so limited in the absence of diagnostic tests, capacity for large scale contact tracing or a vaccine."

Some retailers - Walmart, for example - are saying that they would not make such a move without guidance to that effect from federal health officials.

But some already are doing it - like City Famers Market in Atlanta, where they are using non-invasive thermal cameras at the entrances to screen for temperatures, and then "discreetly" informing customers with temperatures and finding those people an "alternative" to walking through the store.  (Experts say that this is not a foolproof approach.)

No question that there are logistical challenges to this, and that some customers would resist.  But I have to be honest - I take my own temperature virtually every morning, and would have no problem if a retailer wanted to take it before allowing me to enter a store, or if an airline wanted to take it before allowing me on a plane.  It is in their best interests, in their other customers' best interests, and, in the end, my best interests.

It'll probably be some time before this becomes standard operating procedure, if at all … but that is going to depend on how the crisis continues to develop.  If effective testing is available to everyone, and mitigation efforts continue to be effective, then we might not get there.  But if we get complacent and see a bounce back in infections, we might get there faster than we'd like.

•  NPR has an interview with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who predicted a pandemic in a TED talk five years ago.


-  "It's pretty simple to say there should be a government website that you enter your symptoms, your profession, and it gives you a rating in terms of this very finite testing capacity we have to make sure that you always get results within 24 hours, that health care workers are getting those results very quickly, that it's not random based on where you are in the country or your relationship to the hospital. Rather, we're using that as the indicator of where we need to intensify distancing or where we can back off.

-  "What I'm saying, what Dr. [Anthony] Fauci is saying, what some other experts are saying, there's a great deal of consistency. We're not sure yet which activities should be resumed, because until we get a vaccine that almost everybody's had, the risk of a rebound will be there. ... As we follow the numbers into May and see if we can get them down to a very low level, then in parallel, this debate about which things have benefits to society and can be formatted so the infection risk is very low, which things should we resume? I do think manufacturing, construction, a lot of things we'll do, but large public gatherings may have to await until we have that vaccine."

And let's remember … it could be a year before we see a vaccine.  To use a cliche, this is a marathon, not a sprint.

•  Bloomberg reports on the ongoing frustrations of shopping online as demand grows:

"Across the country, millions of consumers are turning to Fresh Direct, Instacart Inc., Inc., Peapod and other services to fill their fridges via online delivery rather than brave going to a supermarket. But many are finding that the online grocery networks have been completely knocked flat by a triple whammy of unprecedented demand, unreliable inventory and unavailable employees. While early reports from the pandemic suggested that shuttered stores and shut-in consumers would be a boon for e-commerce, the sudden growth spurt has grocers scrambling to soothe harried shoppers and worried whether disgruntled first-time web shoppers will go back online once the crisis passes."

The story goes on:  "While some shoppers say they sympathize, others are not so kind, and conspiracy theories now abound on social media and Reddit forums about nefarious delivery algorithms, along with accusations that online grocers are giving longtime users short shrift to lure new customers on board. It doesn’t help that some workers at Instacart and Shipt, a delivery service owned by Target Corp. that delivers to its customers and those of other retailers, have walked off the job to protest what they claim are unsafe working conditions.  Some intrepid web developers have even created browser extensions -- bots, basically -- that will scour delivery slots and ping you when one opens up."

I don't think that e-grocery will continue at the current pace, but it is unlikely to go back to where it was pre-pandemic … too many people have found it to be a convenient way to obtain groceries for which there is no advantage in going to the store.

•  Fast Company has a story about how Utah has moved aggressively to test as many of the state's residents as possible for the Covid-19 coronavirus, taking an entirely different approach from many other states (that are hampered by the shortage of available tests to this point).

According to the story, "On a new 'Crush the Curve' website, everyone in the state is encouraged to answer questions about symptoms. Some answers trigger the system to recommend that someone gets tested and sends them a unique code to take to a testing location; when people have a positive test, the state tracks their contacts to do more testing. Utah will also soon also begin randomized testing to find asymptomatic carriers of the virus. It’s more like the approach used in South Korea - which quickly stopped the spread of coronavirus - than in other parts of the United States."

The story notes that "social distancing helps, but testing and tracing contacts of those who are infected is also a critical tool. Other states are already beginning to ask Utah about the program as they consider replicating it."

Some context from Fast Company:

"If widespread testing had happened much earlier in the U.S., it’s likely that we wouldn’t be facing the same economic devastation now. South Korea and the U.S. both reported their first cases in late January, but while South Korea quickly tested large numbers of people and was able to successfully limit the spread of the virus, the U.S. floundered. The CDC moved slowly and then sent out faulty tests in limited numbers. The FDA was slow to approve new tests. Even when Trump claimed that widespread testing was available, it wasn’t. Testing was so limited initially that the first community-spread cases were detected only when researchers went ahead without government approval."

•  From CNBC:

"Thousands of people will soon be able to drive to a nearby parking lot, swab their noses and find out within minutes if they have the coronavirus.

"CVS Health and Walgreens each opened one drive-thru testing location last month — but they’re now expanding the number of sites and opening them to the general public. Their first drive-thrus were restricted to first responders.

"Walgreens plans to open 15 more testing sites across seven states, starting this week. CVS opened up two new drive-thrus on Monday: one in Atlanta and one near Providence, Rhode Island. It also relocated its Massachusetts drive-thru to a site in Lowell that has capacity for five lanes.

"Both are also using a new tool: Abbott Laboratories’ ID Now, which can deliver test results in minutes."

•  The Financial Times  reports that "Amazon is building its own Covid-19 testing capabilities so it can monitor the health of its employees, as it contends with ongoing criticism surrounding its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 50 Amazon-owned facilities have confirmed cases in the US, many with multiple instances of the virus, according to data compiled by the Financial Times. The company on Thursday said it had begun assembling the equipment to build its first lab, and hoped to start testing on small numbers of its frontline workers, with a view to scaling it across the company."

•  Bloomberg reports that "smoking may raise the risk of Covid-19 by elevating enzymes that allow the coronavirus to gain access into lung cells, according to a new study.

"Smokers and people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may have elevated levels of an enzyme called ACE-2, which helps the virus enter cells in their lungs, where it replicates, a study published in the European Respiratory Journal Thursday showed.

"Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic conditions have emerged as factors that make people vulnerable to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that’s sweeping the world in a pandemic."

•  Bloomberg also reports that "the coronavirus may be 'reactivating' in people who have been cured of the illness, according to Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"About 51 patients classed as having been cured in South Korea have tested positive again, the CDC said in a briefing on Monday. Rather than being infected again, the virus may have been reactivated in these people, given they tested positive again shortly after being released from quarantine, said Jeong Eun-kyeong, director-general of the Korean CDC."

The story goes on:  "Fear of re-infection in recovered patients is also growing in China, where the virus first emerged last December, after reports that some tested positive again -- and even died from the disease -- after supposedly recovering and leaving hospital."

•  An MNB reader sent me a piece from the Los Angeles Times that I missed, that looked at the plight of the farm worker in California - who makes it possible for so many of us to get the food we eat, and yet are not being included in many of the healthcare efforts related to the pandemic.

An excerpt:

"More than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown in California. Stay-at-home orders in California exempt farmworkers as essential employees. But many are undocumented, lack health insurance and don’t qualify for unemployment insurance or federal COVID-19 relief, placing the state’s estimated workforce of 420,000 in a vulnerable position.

"The United Farm Workers union has called on agricultural employers to protect workers from the coronavirus by extending sick leave, eliminating wait periods for sick pay eligibility, increasing cleaning of frequently touched surfaces and offering assistance with child care amid school closures.

"Some employers have issued identification cards or letters for workers to show law enforcement if they are pulled over going to or from a job site. Some have taken further steps, including staggering lunch breaks to encourage social separation, assigning workers to every other row of crops, supplying extra hand-washing stations and expanding sick leave beyond the three days mandated by the state."

This sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, like the infrastructure that is the farmworker system could be at risk of falling apart because of pressures from the pandemic as well as changing immigration policies.

•  The San Antonio Express News reports that "Favor Delivery, an Austin company that H-E-B bought in 2018, is doubling its coverage area in Texas to provide delivery from more restaurants and stores, and expanding a program for senior citizens.

"The company is adding 75 new markets across the state, including south San Antonio, Floresville, La Vernia, Lytle, Fredericksburg and Kerrville, and expanding in areas where it already offered delivery.

"It also is hiring contract delivery drivers."

•  An indication of the impact that the pandemic has had on sales - Ahold Delhaize says that same-store sales at its US stores  were up 34 percent in March, compared to the same period a year ago.

•  Nice piece from KIRO-News in Seattle about how "workers at a Lacey Safeway are going above and beyond their typical job duties to help seniors stay safe.  After hearing residents at Bonaventure, a nearby senior living facility, needed help getting their groceries, Safeway workers immediately stepped up to the plate."

Every Tuesday, the story says, "Bonaventure workers pick up grocery lists from residents.  Wednesday night, Safeway workers shop. They spend hours selecting fruits and veggies, bagging groceries and labeling them with each person's room number.  Thursday, they cart the food out, load it up and send it off."

Good for them.  It is all about being part of the community.  And particularly necessary - and welcome - at facilities that have been particularly vulnerable for the spread of the coronavirus.

•  There are food retailers that traditionally have been closed on Easter Sunday that have announced that they will be open because of the pandemic.  There are retailers that traditionally have been open on Easter that this year will be closed or have reduced hours, as a way of giving their employees a break.

And then there is Roche Bros. in Massachusetts, which announced to its customers:

"Traditionally, we have closed on Easter Sunday to allow our associates to rest and enjoy their families. This year we will be closed on Easter Sunday, April 12th and Monday, April 13th to give all of our associates time to rest and decompress from the daily toll this has put on everyone. We will be back serving our Community on Tuesday, April 14th, just like we have through this entire crisis.

"We thank you for your understanding as we try to give our associates time to spend with their families. (While many of you may feel you’ve been in the house with your families too much lately, many of our associates have been working with limited days off.)"