Clarence Fanto: Has the deluge of all things COVID-19 numbed us?

The author says that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has labeled the pace and availability of reliable testing for COVID-19 as "unacceptable, period," and insisted that the country needed to do better.

LENOX — "Here comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown," warned Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones in their 1966 classic, whose lyric bedevils me these days. The nation appears to be suffering a near-nervous breakdown over COVID-19.

Who can blame anyone for going crazy from a daily barrage of lies, nonsense and contradictory evidence about the spread of the pandemic and the purported solutions just around the corner? Just a few examples from recent days:

- Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, who deserves kudos for partially closing down his state early in the pandemic, tests positive for COVID just hours before a scheduled chat with President Donald Trump. Later in the day, he is given a more reliable test, which yielded a negative result, meaning he had not contracted the disease.

The initial positive came from an antigen "rapid test," delivering results within 15 minutes. But, the fast test is far less accurate than the standard molecular test that DeWine took later. That kind of test is reliable but — except for VIPs — it usually takes three to five days or more to get results, rendering it questionable, if not nearly useless.

- In a July 21 televised briefing, the first on the pandemic held by the White House since April, the man in charge finally acknowledges that the virus "will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better." But, since then, Trump reverts to his typical falsehoods, claiming COVID will just fade away and that children are practically immune, contrary to widespread evidence of infections surging among youngsters.

- In a radio interview Thursday, Trump claims that a vaccine could "in some cases" be ready sooner than Nov. 3 (Election Day!), but "right around that time." Asked about this on the White House South Lawn a couple of hours later, the president says, "I'm optimistic that it'll be probably around that date. I believe we'll have the vaccine before the end of the year, certainly, but around that date, yes, I think so."

Asked if that would help him in his race against Joe Biden, the president responds: "It wouldn't hurt, it wouldn't hurt, but I'm doing it not for the election. I want it fast because I want to save a lot of lives."

- During an HBO interview by Jonathan Swan of Axios, Trump declares falsely that the U.S. is doing the best among all nations in combating the virus and, when challenged by Swan's response that 1,000 Americans a day are dying from COVID, replies that "it is what it is" and restates that the U.S. is doing a great job.

- Dr. Deborah Birx, in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, acknowledges to CNN's Dana Bash that the U.S. is in a "new phase" of the coronavirus and that "it is extraordinarily widespread. It's into the rural as equal urban areas." (I was impressed by Birx's candor, since I've considered her Pollyanna-ish in the past.) Predictably, Trump accuses her of caving to pressure from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and he terms the doctor and her prognosis "pathetic."

- Finally, and most disturbingly, Dr. Anthony Fauci tells a Harvard University School of Public Health forum that he has been receiving death threats and his family is being harassed, elaborating on his previous reports of personal threats.

This is what's actually pathetic — the nation's most prominent, widely admired and respected infectious disease specialist is targeted by conspiracy theorists who claim the pandemic is a "hoax."

Fauci, who maintains a remarkably sunny disposition, said this about COVID: "You know it brings out the best of people and the worst of people. And you know getting death threats for me and my family and harassing my daughters to the point where I have to get security is just, I mean it's amazing."

Citing a "degree of anti-science feeling in this country" and an "anti-expert" viewpoint fueled by a general mistrust of authority, Fauci urged the scientific community to do more to combat that mistrust.

While voicing "an abiding faith in the American spirit" and a belief that the country could pull together to slow the spread of the virus, he called the pace and availability of reliable testing as "unacceptable, period," and insisted the country needed to do better. "And for me to say anything different is distorting reality," he said.

He also refuted Trump's rosy view of the U.S. response to the pandemic, acknowledging that, "quantitatively," the U.S. is experiencing the worst outbreak in the world, with just under 5 percent of the world's population accounting for 20 to 25 percent of cumulative infections and deaths worldwide.

My bottom line: Maybe many Americans are numbed, desensitized and fatalistic about the virus, which had killed 160,157 people in the U.S. as of midday Friday. The deluge of unfathomably grim statistics may have dulled our sense of outrage.

"With any kind of consistent danger, people get used to situations like that," according to Elke Weber, a professor of psychology, energy and the environment at Princeton University. "When you live in a war zone, after a while, everyday risk becomes just baseline. Our neurons are wired in such a way that we only respond to change. And any state that's constant basically sort of gets washed out.

"People have just gotten used to being in this new state of danger, adapting to it, and therefore have not taken enough precautions anymore," she told NPR recently. "People are not very good with large numbers. We don't discriminate between 150,000 or 300,000 or 3 million."

At her suggestion, I'm thinking that the total death count in the U.S. is equivalent to all of Berkshire County being wiped out over a five-month period, plus 30,000 more people, equaling the combined population of North Adams, Adams, Williamstown and Lanesborough.

Now, if that isn't enough to give someone something like a nervous breakdown, I can't imagine what would be.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.