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EDITORIAL: Cases rise, but virus deaths have yet to follow

With coronavirus cases again rising in Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak made face coverings mandatory. He had resisted the move for weeks but relented on Wednesday to announce the new policy. Even those who have been reluctant to wear masks should find the edict much more palatable than a second lockdown.

The requirement applies to indoor public spaces and outdoor gatherings at which people are in close proximity. There are exceptions for those eating and drinking in bars and restaurants, children and people with health issues that could be exacerbated by a mask.

The governor’s move comes as the virus infections are spiking in several areas, including California, Arizona, Texas and Florida. Much of this is due to more testing, but that isn’t enough to explain the crest in its entirety. There was never any doubt that, as lockdowns eased, case counts would go up.

These hot spots are indeed of concern, particularly as more patients fill hospitals in places such as Houston. But Nevada still has ample ICU and medical capacity, and its percentage of positive tests — now running at about 5.7 — remains far below April levels. And the focus on case levels overshadows an important fact: The number of U.S. deaths has declined significantly even when accounting for a two-week lag between infections and fatalities.

“In Florida, the median age of newly identified patients plummeted from 65 in early March to 35 last week,” Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine notes. “In California, according to an analysis released last week, 44 percent of newly diagnosed cases involved people 34 or younger, up from 29 percent a month earlier. The share of new cases involving people older than 50, meanwhile, fell from 46 percent to 30.5 percent.”

Other states have seen the same. This explains why deaths have been on a downward trend.

“The changing age distribution of cases helps explain why the nationwide tally of daily COVID-19 deaths, which has fallen dramatically since April,” Mr. Sullum explains, “continued to decline long after states began lifting their lockdowns at the end of that month.”

The CDC announced Thursday it now estimates that for every positive test, there are 10 cases that go unreported — mostly in young people. That’s hugely significant for the virus’s true fatality rate.

“This could reflect a number of things, including the fact that people actually are hearing and understanding the messages, including the message that people who are at higher risk need to take more precautions,” said Dr. Jay Butler of the CDC. “So, it’s possible that we’re seeing a smaller proportion of infections in older people because there actually is less exposure.”

That’s good news. In the meantime, Gov. Sisolak’s mask mandate should remind Nevadans that the virus still lurks and vigilance remains necessary.

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