Journalists from across the country have reported that police officers are wearing masks less often than protesters. “The state is the one with the duty to protect public health,” Alexandra Phelan, a professor of global-health law at Georgetown University, told us earlier this week. Regardless of what the police think of the protests, she said, it is their obligation under international and domestic law to keep the protesters safe, including minimizing the health risk from viral spread.

There are too many variables to know exactly what the summer has in store for the outbreak in America, including what effect the protests will have. There are some signs of hope. Masks are in use around the country. Outdoor transmission seems to be fairly unlikely in most settings. And testing availability has improved. According to data from the COVID Tracking Project, the United States can now conduct 3 million tests a week. The public-health system is discovering and diagnosing a much greater percentage of cases than it did in the early days of the outbreak. Morgan Stanley estimated that the transmission rate in the U.S. was just above 1; this suggests that there has not been explosive growth in the number of active cases in recent weeks.

But that estimated rate also implies that cases are not rapidly declining. And the slow growth reflects the time before the full data from states’ recent moves to reopen their economy became available—before large swaths of the public returned to work, and before the mass protests and jailings began.

Few people believe that the U.S. is doing all it can to contain the virus. A brief glance at Covid Exit Strategy, a site that tracks state-by-state progress, reveals that most states are not actually hitting the reopening marks suggested by public-health experts. Yet state leaders have not stuck with the kinds of lockdowns that suppressed the virus in other countries; nobody has suggested that cases must be brought to negligible levels before normal activity can resume. No federal official has shared a plan for preventing transmission among states that have outbreaks of varying intensity. The Trump administration did not use the eight weeks of intense social distancing to significantly expand our suppression capacity.

What our colleague Ed Yong called “the patchwork pandemic” appears to have confused the American public about what is going on. The virus is not following one single course through the nation, but, like a tornado, is taking a meandering and at times incomprehensible path through cities and counties. Why this workplace but not another? Why this city or state but not others?

Chart tool by; data from the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic

The virus has not mapped neatly onto American political narratives, either. While some questions remain about their accounting, Georgia and Florida—where leaders opened up early and residents seemed relatively defiant of public-health advice—have seen relatively flat numbers, while California, which took a more conservative approach, has seen cases grow. The state most poised for major trouble seems to be Arizona, where the outbreak is spreading very quickly. Not only is the state (which lifted its stay-at-home order on May 16) setting new records for positive tests and people in the hospital, but the percentage of tests that are coming back positive is also growing. So much for warm weather and sunshine alone stamping out viral transmission, as some had hoped: Phoenix saw only a single day’s high under 90 degrees during May. The state’s age demographics also haven’t played an obvious role: The state is slightly younger than the U.S. as a whole.

Chart tool by; data from the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic

Americans have not fully grasped that we are not doing what countries that have returned to normal have done. Some countries have almost completely suppressed the virus. Others had large outbreaks, took intense measures, and have seen life return to normal. Americans, meanwhile, never stayed at home to the degree that most Europeans have, according to mobility data from Apple and Google. Our version of the spring lockdown looked more like Sweden’s looser approach than like the more substantial measures in Italy, or even the United Kingdom and France. Swedish public-health officials have acknowledged that this approach may not have been the best path forward.

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