Covid 9/17: It’s Worse

Last week we learned there is plausibly a simple, cheap and easy way out of this entire mess. All we have to do is take our Vitamin D. In case it needed to be said, no. We are not taking our Vitamin D. There’s definitely some voices out there pushing it, including the nation’s top podcaster Joe Rogan, but I don’t see any signs of progress.

Instead, as school restarts, the outside gets colder and pandemic fatigue sets in, people’s precautions are proving insufficient to the task. This week showed that we have taken a clear step backwards across the country. 

I see three ways for things not to get steadily worse for a while. Either a vaccine arrives, which is unlikely, something else new (that we see little sign of) arrives to change behavior for the better, or this week was a blip. It’s only one week of data, it follows labor day, and it is wise not to move too quickly to extrapolation. The effect size seems too large, though, and too distributed among outcomes, to be coincidence.

In terms of news, it was a quiet week. There was some bluster, but little substance.

Let’s run the numbers. They’re not good.

Positive Test Counts

July 23-July 291102196790324066726008
July 30-Aug 5910026446221294523784
Aug 6-Aug 12930426193118848621569
Aug 13-Aug 19808876338415699820857
Aug 20-Aug 26675456654013232218707
Aug 7-Sep 2550007540112741421056
Sep 3-Sep 9472737243910640821926
Sep 10-Sep 16450507526411581223755

This doesn’t look too bad on its own. Whether it’s good, bad or very bad news depends on whether testing is improving. If testing were still ramping up, it could easily count as good news, even with the worrying reversal in the South. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Testing actually declined this week to 4.63 million tests, the lowest value since the first week of July.

Alas, the positive test percentages:

DateUSA testsPositive %NY testsPositive %Cumulative Positives
July 16-July 225,456,1688.6%454,9951.1%1.20%
July 17-July 295,746,0567.9%452,8891.0%1.34%
July 30-Aug 55,107,7397.8%484,2451.0%1.46%
Aug 6-Aug 125,121,0117.3%506,5240.9%1.58%
Aug 13-Aug 195,293,5366.2%548,4210.8%1.68%
Aug 20-Aug 264,785,0566.0%553,3690.7%1.77%
Aug 27-Sep 25,042,1135.5%611,7210.8%1.85%
Sep 3-Sep 94,850,2535.3%552,6240.9%1.93%
Sep 10-Sep 164,632,0055.8%559,4630.9%2.01%

This was very surprising to me. It would not have been too surprising to see things level off around previous levels. But to have it also reverse so suddenly indicates a major change. The default hypothesis is that the reopening of schools is finally taking its toll, now that it has had time to accumulate sufficient compound damage. If that’s the case, we’re in for at least several more weeks of things getting worse.

What’s weirder is that the death counts are headed in the wrong direction, despite what were clearly positive trends in leading indicators several weeks ago.

Deaths by Region

July 9-July 1513805392278650
July 16-July 2214696743106524
July 23-July 2917077004443568
July 30-Aug 518317194379365
Aug 6-Aug 1217386634554453
Aug 13-Aug 1915768504264422
Aug 20-Aug 2615037453876375
Aug 27-Sep 212457593631334
Sep 3-Sep 911417712717329
Sep 10-Sep 1611599543199373

Labor day weekend was too far in the past to provide much of an excuse here. The Midwest and Northeast are clearly headed in the wrong direction. The South and West could claim this is a backlog issue and things are still fine, especially the West, but it does not look good. If that’s what happened while leading indicators were improving, what’s going to happen over the next few weeks? 

Extra No Good Very Bad Numbers: Meanwhile In Europe

I’ve mostly limited the scope of this column to the United States, but it needs to be pointed out that much of Europe looks like it’s got its own second wave at this point. Spain and France are already there, and the U.K. is well on its way. Germany is holding steady so far and we can hope that holds. When you don’t eradicate, vigilance can never end. Then eventually it does, or the seasons change and tip things over the edge as behaviors adjust to that.

Given all our advances, one hopes that this won’t come with too many deaths even if the infection numbers get out of control. 

Numbers told the story main this week. The rest is more of a round up.

United Arab Emirates Joins Vaccine Club

Best news of the week: UAE announces emergency approval for use of COVID-19 vaccine. One more country, albeit a relatively small one, sees the light and rolls the favorably weighted dice.

Here’s to you, UAE. Except that you don’t drink, and neither do I. So hats off, instead.

Football Coach Gives Us Some Straight Talk

I didn’t know I could love Coach O even more, but the results are in and it turns out I absolutely can do that. The man tells it like it is. LSU coach Ed Orgeron — ‘Most’ of team has contracted coronavirus

That’s the SEC. Here, it just means more. 

The problem is not that the team has some players who have caught Covid-19. The problem is that the team has players that haven’t caught Covid-19! They might catch it in the future. So we need to have backups ready for those players. 

My assumption is that LSU’s campus is full of college kids who don’t care if they get Covid-19, so a ton of them got Covid-19 right away, and none of this has anything to do with football. I saw stories saying it was all over the dorms. 

Or you could take the other approach, look like you’re acting all responsible, and be the fun police without actually making anyone safer. I’m looking at you, PAC-12. But I’m not looking at you, Big 10, because unlike most people these days, I believe in forgiveness.

Play Ball!

You are the Big 10 conference. Cause you had a bad day. A really bad day. Even worse than when they added Rutgers and Maryland. You’ve taken one down. Cancelled your entire season, like many other things, over nothing.

You sing a sad song, hopefully while socially distanced, to turn it around.

Then you realize you’ve made a huge mistake. You get your shirt together. You mumble something about a ‘proper daily testing regime.’ 

And you’re set to resume football on October 24.  

It’s going to be a tight schedule. By waffling, they’ve made it so that an outbreak that causes delays could endanger several teams and their ability to play a full season – there’s only room for one off week. And like others, they made the mistake of scheduling that off-week rather than holding it in reserve to handle a crisis. 

But what matters is, they’re back, and we’re playing. The PAC-12 is still not back. They’re really pushing the scheduling window to its breaking point, but they’re working on it. Besides, we all know they were going to get excluded from the playoff regardless, like they do every year, so it doesn’t matter that much if they play further into December or even January. 

More football. Ergo, more peace.  

Burn Baby Burn

The west coast of the United States is more than a little on fire. The air is not fit for humans to breathe. The sky is frequently the wrong color. Photos of this past month’s sky and its resemblance to something that isn’t part of a post-apocalyptic wasteland have been unfavorably compared to photographs from the Blade Runner 2045 movie. It’s pretty bad out there. Presumably this is having an effect on Covid-19, but it’s not obvious which way – if everyone does everything indoors that’s bad, but if they can’t even go outside to get to other people, that’s good for the moment, I guess? 

The bigger point is that once again we have two distinct versions of ‘scientific consensus’ about what’s going on with these fires. From what I can tell, here’s the situation.

California used to naturally burn periodically, on its own. It wasn’t great, it was bad enough to sometimes make the air bad, but it kept things in balance. 

For about a century, California has been aggressively putting out every fire it can find. There has effectively been the mentality of a ‘war on fire.’ This has led to an accumulation of a massive amount of fuel. 

We know that the way to deal with this is controlled burn. But when someone starts a controlled burn, they get punished for it. They have to file environmental impact statements (because the fire will damage the air today, and that’s no good, even though we now see the alternative), deal with lots of regulations and so on. If something goes wrong, they get the blame and the lawsuits. It’s much easier to just not burn, so mostly people don’t burn. Certainly no one private does controlled burns, and the public does maybe 30,000 acres a year even with extra efforts. But the historical average was millions of acres, so we’re doing essentially nothing.

Thus, lots of giant fires.

We then hire a combination of overpriced unionized labor that demands overtime pay so good they occasionally start the fires themselves, and prison labor we barely pay at all that’s now unavailable because of fear of Covid-19. And we use them to fight all the fires, including ones that don’t threaten anything of value and thus would be net positive to allow those to continue. So we have anything like the resources necessary to stop this.

Also, climate change is a thing, which is also making things somewhat worse. 

So what do the Democratic politicians and most media outlets say? 

That this is “a climate damn emergency” and that the “scientific consensus” is that this is all the result of climate change. 

Thus. Everyone involved gets to act all righteous and feel like they’re scoring points in the political wars. They make Sacrifices to the Gods that, even if they work as intended, only mean that things will continue to get worse but ever so slightly slower. That’s their response to this “emergency.” 

Because if it’s all due to climate change, they don’t have to actually do anything that might stop the fires. Like more controlled burns, or devoting more or smarter resources to protecting what needs protecting. The things that might help anyone actually alive today not need to flee across the country. 

I bring this up because the parallel to how those same media and political sources deal with Covid-19 should be obvious. Claim they know what the “science” says. Blame things that don’t matter. Actively interfere with the things that might help, massively slow or block any useful action while denying its possibility or effectiveness. Call for gigantic long term sacrifices that offer little tangible gain. While simultaneously claiming it would have been impossible to actually prevent the problem or mitigate its effects. 

Label anyone who says otherwise “anti-science” and irresponsible and just awful. 

Covid-19 is not some outlier. These people lie. About everything. All the time. 

Not every time. They do sometimes tell the truth, when it suits them. But if anything, that only makes it more difficult. As the old joke goes, it’s easy to tell the truth from Pravda, because everything in Pravda is a lie. But The New York Times is trickier, because sometimes it tells the truth.

Vaccine Responsibility

The main Covid-19 nominal headlines this week were about vaccines. Trump continues to promise a vaccine by late October. The head of the CDC says that’s not going to happen. Trump says the head of the CDC is ‘confused.’ The CDC walks the comments back. On net, this showed some attempt by the CDC to not kowtow to Trump, but then a kowtow, so on net seems like a wash.

Gates and Fachi and others continue to say not to expect a vaccine. All this back and forth. 

For those worried, yes, the halted vaccine trial from last week has resumed and never had a good reason to pause. 

The net visible news on this was presumably bad, as indicated by the Good Judgment Project which has us down to a 59% chance of 25 million doses administered by the end of March. 

It’s all talk. None of this substantially changed my view of the current state of the vaccine research. 

A vaccine will be available in October if Trump is able to override the CDC and FDA, and make it happen by fiat to help its reelection chances. If it can’t do that, the vaccine will wait a few more months at minimum, and then we’ll see what happens. I continue to think distribution would be the right thing to do and the objections are deeply wrong, and of course that none of that has anything to do with why Trump is going to try to overrule those objections.

The other big comment from the head of the CDC was that ‘masks could be more effective than the vaccine.’ Which is the kind of thing one says when one thinks it is more important to look like a Very Serious and Responsible Person, who is saying Very Serious and Responsible Things, and is properly encouraging vigilant mask usage. We wouldn’t want people to think that something else might help them. Think of what they might do!

Trump pushed back hard on that as well, as he would regardless of the statement’s truth value. The same way the statement was made without regard to its truth value, beyond finding a way to show it could possibly be technically correct. If that.

I grow weary of it all. It’s the fatigue setting in. The same bluster. The same warnings that it will not be over until the Proper Authorities say it’s over. The same downplaying and dismissals by the White House. No authorities we can trust. Round and round and round we go. When it stops, I’m trying to guess, and the prognosis doesn’t look great.

Going Forward

We’re getting close to the election. I did a look at the betting odds, and found some instances of small free money available for those interested. As time goes by, focus will shift away from Covid-19 as a health problem, and towards the upcoming election and its details. Everything will more and more be in that light and only that light, from all sides. My guess is that this will decrease the amount of meaningful virus news, and we’ll be more focused on the pure numbers. 

Meanwhile, the virus will ignore all that, because the virus doesn’t care.

This blog does its best to stay out of politics despite discussing politicized issues. It would many times have said something about ‘a plague on both your houses’ except that seems a little on the nose. I have a strong preference on outcomes, which readers can presumably guess – but saying it outright wouldn’t convince anyone. You have all the information you need, to decide which candidate you prefer. Vote accordingly. If you are in a swing state and can afford to cast your vote in person, do so, to facilitate a quick, clear and peaceful resolution of the election – the Covid-19 risk involved will be minimal, and it helps reduce the tail risk from a disputed election. 

I’ll also start another experiment this week. If you see news you think should make next week’s summary, throw it into the comments, with links if possible, and we’ll see if together we can cover things a little easier. I see no reason not to try that out. I’ll check both the LessWrong version of this post and the original for such comments. 

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12 Responses to Covid 9/17: It’s Worse

  1. myst_05 says:

    While the current infection rates could certainly be a lot better, aren’t they practically speaking sustainable in the long term? As per, only three states have a shortage of ICU beds, so 47 states could realistically continue with the current levels of infections without overflowing their hospitals.

    I feel like America has set an unrealistic goal for itself (0 deaths?), rather than accepting a certain threshold (say, less than 1000 deaths per day and no ICU shortages) and sticking to it.

    • TheZvi says:

      They’re sustainable in the sense that the current number of people would die every week indefinitely and life would go on. But life wouldn’t go on, we’d be stuck doing all this distancing forever. That’s the thing – there’s no real middle ground. Either you do the work and go near zero, or you don’t and you need to do the work anyway except forever, or you let it burn out.

      The reason I don’t like seeing numbers going up like they did this week, is there’s no reason to expect the going up to stop.

  2. unsure you saw this the last time, you definitely like your opinion on it, even though it isn’t exactly “news”:

    • TheZvi says:

      Ah, yes. Tried to watch a bit, then sped it up, then sped it up more, then stopped. I don’t believe this is a good source. Your description provided clear signs he was cherry-picking comparisons and such to fit the story he wanted to tell, and that matched what I saw.

      • Andrew M says:

        One of his points seems inarguable, though: the second wave seems noticeably less deadly than the first. I have no satisfactory explanations for this and I think this warrants more analysis. The second wave in France is much worse than the first one, 2-3x as many daily cases already, however, there are 10x *less* daily deaths.

        He proposes that the epidemic had “burned through” the susceptible population despite quarantine measures, and now that the lockdowns are de-facto over we can see that the true death rate is much smaller.

        As an alternative, this may show that the viral load is crucial in determining the outcome and that masks reduce it a lot (quick google shows that France is taking masks very seriously). I don’t see the same effect in countries that haven’t decisively exited the first wave yet. *Something* has an x20-30 effect on COVID mortality, and it’s pretty interesting to find out what.

      • TheZvi says:

        I mean, we’re all on board with the second wave being less deadly than the first. Not as much as the headline numbers suggest because we weren’t testing early on, but decidedly so (I’d say probably more like 5x-10x rather than 20x-30x). Still a lot. Some of that is better treatment. Some of that is masks and viral load. Some of that is better protecting the vulnerable, slash the most vulnerable already having it. I do agree it’s surprisingly big.

        If he has a written version I could check it out via a skim. I find video a very poor format for most purposes – he could easily have good insights, but if I have to wade through a video to get to them and it doesn’t hold my interest slash clearly has severe flaws, that’s that.

  3. Chris says:

    Not news, but I’d be curious how you think this intersects with your view of Current Times.

  4. myst_05 says:

    Interesting article on the forest fires that might interest you

  5. Pingback: Covid 9/24: Until Morale Improves | Don't Worry About the Vase

  6. Pingback: Day Bidet #16 – Brave Ole World

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