More bad news — and solutions from unlikely places

Rabbit Hole Distillery in Louisville is one of several around the nation converting their operations to produce hand sanitizer.


So here’s the latest: the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 1,300 points Wednesday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. increased by more than 4,000, President Trump ordered Navy hospital ships into New York Harbor and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio came closer to a shelter-in-place order to citizens of the nation’s largest city.

New York’s unemployment insurance office took more than 21,000 calls. A week ago, it took 2,000. Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin warned Republican senators that without a significant stimulus package, national unemployment could hit 20 percent, levels not seen since the Great Depression. The number of Americans filing new unemployment claims last week passed 70,000, and that figures to grow this week.

Ford, GM and Fiat-Chrysler shut down their Detroit factories. Honda and Toyota will begin closing down U.S. factories next week. Nissan will close U.S. plants starting Friday.

In Kentucky, those who work in the restaurant business are wondering what comes next, and they’re joined by those in a great many service industries, hair and nail salon workers, daycare workers and many more.

Very quickly, a health crisis is turning into a financial crisis. It’s hard to take in. Whether you’re a well-off boomer watching the 401k evaporate or a just-graduated worker wondering what just happened, your reality changed on Wednesday, and it’s hard to know when it will change back.

A virus that we can’t see and don’t completely understand is threatening to overwhelm our hospitals, but hasn’t yet. Some grocery store shelves are empty and department stores with established, American names, like Macy’s and JC Penny, have gone dark.

And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in an assessment presented to congress and president Trump last week, said that the COVID-19 virus could take 18 months to run its course in this country.

So, yes, things have been better.

But here’s the turn. This nation, throughout history, has been its best when circumstances are at their worst.

At a time when this country is perhaps as polarized as it has been at any point outside of the Civil War, we now have little choice but to stick together and slog our way out of this. History has a way of making that happen.

Telling us how, and batting leadoff, is Andy Slavitt. If you have read these pieces of mine from the start, you know that they’re not intended to be political. I’ve quoted Republicans (Pres. Trump, members of his administration, Sen. Mitch McConnell) and Democrats (Gov. Andy Beshear, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo).

I really don’t care what side of the aisle anyone is on, if they make sense, I want to share it.

Slavitt is the former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service. When healthcare.gov launched with multiple problems, he’s the guy the Obama administration asked to repair it.

He has great insight into medical matters, and though he’s on the other side of the political aisle from the current administration, he’s rooting for its success in these matters, and knows many of the players in leadership.

1). STRAIGHT TALK, THEN PEP TALK. Slavitt is a must-follow on Twitter. On Wednesday, he laid out some bleak projections, which you can read at his Twitter account. I related a lot of bleakness to you above.

But after that, he gave people some hope, and he rallied people around the demonstrated American talent for tackling a problem, once fixed on a goal, and making things happen.

Here’s what he said, quotes lifted from a series of Tweets:

“This is what you might call a, um, focusing moment for the country,” he said. “That means every scientist, every factory, every genius, every philanthropist will be working on this. And they are. Hackathons, new tests, new models, they will emerge. We don’t have enough ventilators? Smart people will figure out how to make more. They already are. Don’t have enough masks? Every factory in the country will be on it. The Defense Production Act will clear the way. You will keep hearing about new problems. They will sound endless. Not enough fine mesh. Someone will figure out a new way. Right now, we are in the, ‘Holy sh-t, we didn’t plan for this’ stage. We will move to the, ‘We are all over this f-ing virus’ stage.”

The brunt of Slavitt’s message right now is that because the American healthcare apparatus doesn’t have what it needs in the short term, staying at home is imperative. It’s our only defense against overwhelming that apparatus. As we swing into gear, if people will heed that call, things could improve.

2). THE DEFENSE PRODUCTION ACT. This law, passed in 1950, allows the president to require private business to fulfill orders for national defense. It allows him to allocate services, materials and facilities for defense purposes. And it gives him broad control over the civilian economy to coordinate efforts for defense purposes.

It has been used sporadically since the Korean War, here and there by the defense department to develop emerging technologies. It was used some in the Cold War, and in 2011 by Pres. Obama to force telecommunications companies to provide detailed equipment outlines to the Commerce Department. Trump used it to provide critical technology to the space industrial base.

But this could be the widest application of the provision, perhaps in its history.

Already, the Ford and GM auto companies are in talks with the White House to make ventilators.

3). AS AN EXAMPLE OF AMERICANS PULLING TOGETHER, Slavitt noted that a distillery in Duluth, Minn., has converted its operations to making hand sanitizer.

But you don’t have to go to Minnesota to hear that kind of story. Rabbit Hole Distillery in Louisville is doing the same thing.

“In times like this it is important that everyone, especially companies with strong U.S. roots, like ours, prioritize good corporate citizenship and step up in the name of the greater good,” Pernod Ricard North America Chairman and CEO Ann Mukherjee said. “I am glad that we were able to form this public/private partnership and repurpose our spirits production facilities to meet a pressing, national need.”

Pernod Ricard owns four U.S. distilling brands, and all four have converted to hand sanitizer production. One more thing – Pernod Ricard is a French company.

But this is an example of the kind of effort that will see a need, and fill it. Action, and solutions, can come from anywhere.

McConnell praised the effort.

“I am proud of Kentucky job creators who are stepping up during this national emergency to help keep communities and families safe,” McConnell said. “America remains strong and resilient, and the commitment of Pernod Ricard USA and the workers at Rabbit Hole Distillery to help face this challenge is the kind of generous response we need to stay that way.”

4). THE NUMERS AS OF 11 PM. I will try to stay consistent, reporting these numbers at the same time each evening (even though this particular edition of the digest is published the next morning). The following numbers are from Johns Hopkins University and from the COVID Tracking Project. The list current count, and increase from the day prior.

– 218,743 world confirmed cases (+36,558)

– 9,345 in US (+4,684)

– 8,810 global deaths (+1,665)

– 130 US deaths (+18)

– KY: 35 cases (+14), 1 death

– IN: 39 cases (+15), 2 deaths

5.) A WORD ABOUT HOARDING. There’s a difference between stockpiling – making sure you have enough – and hoarding, having more than you need. A good bit of both has been going on lately, and grocers have stepped in to try to alleviate the problem by setting limits for certain items.

The problem is that every time bad news hits, people head out to “stockpile” some more. It’s going to be critical in all of this that people get what they need, but not more than they need.

Hoarding isn’t just a problem today. It was a problem after the great stock market crash in 1929. President Franklin Roosevelt addressed it in his very first Fireside Chat. He had declared a bank holiday in 1933, and was about to re-open them. But he spoke to the American people via radio in a way that no president, really, ever had. He had the ability to connect with the people, and to reassure them. And he went to work trying to do that in his first talk with them.

“Let me make it clear to you that the banks will take care of all needs except of course the hysterical demands of hoarders — and it is my belief that hoarding during the past week has become an exceedingly unfashionable pastime in every part of our nation.,” he said.

That statement was followed by an organized effort to stop people from hoarding what cash they had. But in that one statement, he went a long way to, as he put it soon after in his speech, “the phantom of fear.”

I can tell you that we’re not likely to get any such fireside chat from anyone today. We just need to be mindful in our habits. Think of someone else.

6). ONE ASPECT I DON’T CARE MUCH FOR in all of this is that, in the midst of a testing shortage, somehow every NBA team has been tested. Or celebrities that are exhibiting few, if any, symptoms, or who aren’t among the at-risk populations, seem to have gotten tested.

I don’t begrudge anyone who needs the COVID-19 test from getting it. And maybe these high-profile folks are just more visible because the results of their tests are reported. But there is a major need for testing in the general public, and the optics of entire sports teams being tested aren’t the best at the moment.

President Trump was asked on Wednesday whether the well-connected hadn’t gotten to the front of the line, in some instances.

“You’d have to ask them that question,” he said. “Perhaps that’s been the story of life. That does happen on occasion, and I’ve noticed where some people have been tested fairly quickly.”

Anyway, I’m not the only one who found it interesting. The New York Times has a story on it here.

7). A BIT OF SPORTS. Today was to have been the first full day of March Madness. The tournament was cancelled, and on Wednesday, Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra gave some insight as to why the event was called off, instead of being postponed, as many coaches, including Louisville’s Chris Mack, would have preferred.

Tyra said the NCAA called things off when it realized it wasn’t going to be able to get enough COVID-19 tests to insure that athletes weren’t being exposed to other sick athletes during competitions.

Once that was determined, Tyra said, the NCAA felt it had little choice.

8). MORE STIMULUS AID ON THE WAY. The U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed an aid package put together by the House, and now is at work on its own. The so-called phase three coronavirus relief bill is expected to include provision to send checks to American taxpayers immediately. The threshold, according to reports, is those making less than $75,000 for individuals and less than $150,000 for couples.

The senate is said to be modeling this provision of the bill on the rebate checks sent out by Pres. George W. Bush in the 2008 economic crisis.

This bill is also expected to include more aid for small business and other impacted industries. The price tag is expected to top $1 trillion.

9). A FEW STORIES TO WATCH. At WDRB.com, a few interesting stories you might want to take a look at.

— Amid this flu outbreak, sales of guns and ammunition have soared in Kentucky: [Read here]

— Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear says he’s done with political battles until the virus crisis is averted: [Read here]

— Louisville Metro Corrections is releasing non-violent inmates to prevent virus spread: [Read here]

— If you’re missing WDRB Sports, our daily sportscast is appearing on the department’s YouTube Channel. [Watch here]

10). TODAY’S INSPIRATION COMES FROM Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m amazed that the First Lady of the U.S. somehow found time to write a newspaper column six days a week, beginning when she was quite busy with her own official duties in 1935 and lasting for the next 27 years. It was only when she became too ill to continue that she stopped.

I think some of her words are appropriate today, especially: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”