From The News (a.k.a. Dispatches From BizarroWorld)
So how are you getting along in BizzaroWorld? Truth is, my lifestyle hasn’t changed all that much. I get up on weekdays, do my programming work from home (which I do half the time anyway), then work on a music or software project for a few hours, then watch an episode of whatever Amazon or Netflix series currently has my interest. Same old, same old.
I do miss going to the gym. My daughter Sara and I usually work out twice per week. She’s 16 and can get by on youth, but I’m an old man whose body is less forgiving. I’m starting to feel a little soft. Chareva has assured me she has some manual-labor projects for me to tackle this weekend, so that will help.
The girls have concluded that their summer vacation began a month ago. At this point, I’m sure they’re right. I’d glad Sara elected to take the ACT in the fall instead of the spring. She scored rather well, and she’s been receiving recruiting letters from colleges we’ve never heard of, as well as many we have. We got a good chuckle from one college that thought it would entice her by bragging about its gender studies department. Suuuure, there’s a degree worth investing in.
Anyway, the news I’m focusing on in this post is all about the coronavirus, of course.
America leads the world in coronavirus cases and journalistic stupidity
I won’t link to any particular article, because heck, just pick one. You’ve seen the headlines: AMERICA NOW HAS MORE CASES THAN ANY OTHER COUNTRY, INCLUDING CHINA!
You are supposed to read those headlines and assume the virus has begun spreading like wildfire in the U.S. (and then, depending on which news source you’re consuming, blame Trump). If you have at least half a brain and are willing to use it, however, you’ll immediately grasp that the big jump in cases simply means widespread testing is finally underway. The more people we test, the higher the number of cases will go. That doesn’t mean more people are becoming infected. It means more infections are being identified.
Do we really have more covid-19 cases now than China? Well, that would assume two things: 1) We can trust any data coming from the Chinese government, and 2) China is testing at the same per-capita rate as the U.S. I wouldn’t bet on either.
Why testing wasn’t available earlier
BECAUSE OF TRUMP!!
Sorry, just had to do my impression of some lefties I know. Actually, John Stossel uploaded a video explaining how regulatory tangles prevented test kits and treatments from becoming available sooner. Let’s hope when this whole coronavirus panic is over, most of the regulatory streamlining he mentions becomes permanent.
Why I’m still not convinced this virus is particularly lethal
South Korea has been praised for its quick response to the virus and the extent of its testing efforts. Let’s do a little math using the figures from South Korea available in this report:
More than 376,000 people have been tested. So far 9,332 people have tested positive, and 139 have died. So … in South Korea, 2.4 percent of those tested are infected. I don’t know if they’re focusing their testing on those considered at greater risk. If so, the infection rate in the general population would likely be lower. Among those identified as infected, the death rate is 1.4 percent. Among the 376,000 people tested, the death rate is 0.037 percent, or one in every 2,705 people.
But that’s among those tested. The population of the entire country is more than 51 million, the vast majority of whom haven’t been tested. Within the entire population, coronavirus has killed one in every 369,784 people. For reference, run-of-the-mill influenza kills around 2,900 people per year in South Korea, according to this study.
So I’m still where I was a couple of weeks ago. I understand we don’t want the virus to spread, and I understand that it’s killing people. But lots of things kill people. Auto accidents kill roughly 100 people per day, but we don’t order everyone to stop driving. Around 3,500 Americans drown while swimming or boating each year, but we don’t order them to stay away from pools, rivers and lakes. Hell, according to this article, 4,866 people in Japan drowned in their bathtubs in 2014. Should we outlaw baths?
The point is, I’m concerned we may be social-distancing ourselves into a deep and destructive recession over a virus that’s getting a helluva lot of press coverage, but may not be much worse than ordinary influenza, and may be far less deadly than many day-to-day activities we wouldn’t dream of giving up.
And it turns out Dr. Anthony Fauci, who’s leading the federal effort to contain the virus, isn’t exactly convinced we’re looking at a repeat of the 1918 Spanish flu either. Here’s a quote from an article he wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine:
On the basis of a case definition requiring a diagnosis of pneumonia, the currently reported case fatality rate is approximately 2%. In another article in the Journal, Guan et al. report mortality of 1.4% among 1099 patients with laboratory-confirmed Covid-19; these patients had a wide spectrum of disease severity. If one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases, the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%. This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968) rather than a disease similar to SARS or MERS, which have had case fatality rates of 9 to 10% and 36%, respectively.
At least that’s what he wrote a month ago. If he’s changed his mind on the expected fatality rate, I’m not aware of him saying so.
No social-distancing in Sweden?
We should all pay close attention to the infection and death rates in Sweden for the simple reason that unlike most of the world, they’re not hunkering down at home.
While most of Europe is firmly locked down in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19, Sweden is taking a softer line, keeping primary schools, restaurants and bars open and even encouraging people to go outside for a nip of air.
This stands in stark contrast to the urgent tone elsewhere and has sparked heated debate whether Sweden is really doing the right thing.
The country has reported more than 2,299 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 41 deaths.
Let’s do some quick math. Sweden has a population of 10.12 million. I don’t care about the confirmed cases, because unless everyone is tested, we don’t know how many people currently have or previously had the virus. With 41 dead, that’s one death for every 246,829 Swedes. In the U.S. so far, there are currently 1,470 covid-19 deaths, which translates to about one death for every 222,448 people.
So the Swedes, who are not on lockdown, have a slightly lower per-capita death rate than the U.S., which is on full lockdown. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues.
Apparently the Swedish government has issued warnings, but people are ignoring them.
On Tuesday, the Swedish government announced that restaurants and bars would only be allowed to provide table service to avoid crowding, but stopped short of actually closing them. Health authorities also urged people to reconsider trips to visit relatives over Easter.
But for many, life is carrying on close to normal. Bars and restaurants were full at the weekend, and Stockholm’s city buses have been jam-packed at rush hour despite the social distancing recommendations.
Like I said, let’s keep an eye on Sweden. If their death rate doesn’t begin to climb beyond ours, we need to seriously wonder if all the stay-at-home orders are making a difference.
What if we’re trying to stop the spread of a virus that’s already been spread?
The link doesn’t work anymore, so I won’t bother with it, but I clipped this text from an article in the Financial Times:
The new coronavirus may already have infected far more people in the UK than scientists had previously estimated — perhaps as much as half the population — according to modelling by researchers at the University of Oxford.
If the results are confirmed, they imply that fewer than one in a thousand of those infected with Covid-19 become ill enough to need hospital treatment, said Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology, who led the study. The vast majority develop very mild symptoms or none at all.
Bingo. Rand Paul tested positive, but had no symptoms. Prince Charles had mild symptoms that could have easily been written off as an ordinary cold. We keep hearing about people who’ve tested positive but didn’t know they were infected. Keep that in mind.
The research presents a very different view of the epidemic to the modelling at Imperial College London, which has strongly influenced government policy. “I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model,” said Prof Gupta.
The Oxford study is based on a what is known as a “susceptibility-infected-recovered model” of Covid-19, built up from case and death reports from the UK and Italy. The researchers made what they regard as the most plausible assumptions about the behaviour of the virus.
The modelling brings back into focus “herd immunity”, the idea that the virus will stop spreading when enough people have become resistant to it because they have already been infected. The government abandoned its unofficial herd immunity strategy — allowing controlled spread of infection — after its scientific advisers said this would swamp the National Health Service with critically ill patients.
But the Oxford results would mean the country had already acquired substantial herd immunity through the unrecognised spread of Covid-19 over more than two months. If the findings are confirmed by testing, then the current restrictions could be removed much sooner than ministers have indicated.
Okay, it’s a model. Models can be wrong. But it got me thinking about this article, which I read a few days ago:
A “strange pneumonia” was circulating in northern Italy as long ago as November, weeks before doctors were made aware of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China, one of the European country’s leading medical experts said this week.
“They [general practitioners] remember having seen very strange pneumonia, very severe, particularly in old people in December and even November,” Giuseppe Remuzzi, the director of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, said in an interview with the National Public Radio of the United States.
“This means that the virus was circulating, at least in [the northern region of] Lombardy and before we were aware of this outbreak occurring in China.”
The current thinking among the scientific community is that the first infection in Lombardy was the result of an Italian coming into contact with a Chinese person in late January. However, if it can be shown that the novel coronavirus – officially known as SARS-CoV-2 – was in circulation in Italy in November, then that theory would be turned on its head.
One of Chareva’s relatives who works in an emergency room in Illinois told her the same thing: there was a sudden increase of patients with respiratory issues in November, but tests showed it wasn’t any of the ordinary flu strains. (The patients he saw all recovered, by the way.)
I’ve heard over and over that we weren’t prepared because nobody knew we’d end up with so many sick people. And yet I found several articles written in November or earlier warning that a nasty flu season was coming. Here’s one from Forbes:
The flu season is off to a particularly early start this year with seemingly more influenza activity last month than any other November since 2009, the year of the H1N1 flu pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of November 17-23, flu activity had appeared in all 50 states. Looks like the flu has already gone “viral,” so to speak.
A December article in Infection Control Today offered this warning:
The 2019/2020 influenza season is expected to be a rough one. Flu activity in Australia, often used as a litmus test for the United States, left many alarmed at what we might see this winter … Based upon the surveillance data in both Australia and America, the early indicators point to a severe influenza season for 2019/2020.
Could some of those cases have been Covid-19? I looked online to see if people who were infected and recovered can still test positive. Nope, not after two to three weeks. Which got me wondering … since most people have either no symptoms or mild symptoms, and since coronavirus wasn’t on anybody’s radar back in November, is it possible the virus was circulating earlier than we currently believe? Is it possible millions of us were infected, but most of us barely noticed? Are we shutting down the world economy to prevent the spread of a virus that’s already been spread?
I don’t know. And since we can’t go back and retroactively test people who may have been exposed in November or December and recovered, we’ll probably never know.
But coronavirus has to be way worse than ordinary flu because hospitals are being overwhelmed and that hasn’t happened before!
I hear you. In fact, I did some research online and found articles about hospitals being overwhelmed, governors declaring a state of emergency, doctors having to treat patients in temporary tents because all the hospital beds were occupied, etc. But the articles were from 2018. Yup, 2018.
We’ll start with a United Press International article:
Hospitals across the United States are scrambling to treat a mass influx of flu patients.
They have asked staff to work overtime and some have set up triage tents and canceled elective surgeries to handle the flood of patients.
“We are pretty much at capacity, and the volume is certainly different from previous flu seasons,” Dr. Alfred Tallia, professor and chair of family medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Brunswick, N.J., told Time. “I’ve been in practice for 30 years, and it’s been a good 15 or 20 years since I’ve seen a flu-related illness scenario like we’ve had this year.”
Alabama, which declared a state of emergency in response to the flu epidemic last week, is facing a similar situation. Virginia’s hospitals are also overwhelmed by an increasing number of flu cases coming into the emergency room.
In New Jersey, emergency rooms are at full capacity and hospitals are restricting visitors, especially those with children, to help control the flu’s spread.
I’ll say it again: that article is from 2018. Here’s another from CBS:
Health officials in Southern California are warning the public that the current flu season is so intense that some hospitals are rerouting patients due to their increasingly limited capacity. From Laguna Beach to Long Beach, emergency rooms were struggling to cope with the overwhelming cases of influenza and had gone into “diversion mode,” during which ambulances are sent to other hospitals, CBS Los Angeles reports.
Here’s another from Modern Health Care:
In the middle of one of the heaviest flu seasons in years, hospitals must contend with both financial and clinical challenges.
The surge has left many hospitals overwhelmed, forcing some to set up triage tents outside of emergency departments. Others have resorted to emergency protocols such as postponing elective surgeries and limiting the number of visitors. Such activity is likely to hurt the bottom line, even though volume is increasing.
And yet another 2018 article from The Los Angeles Times:
The huge numbers of sick people are also straining hospital staff who are confronting what could become California’s worst flu season in a decade.
Hospitals across the state are sending away ambulances, flying in nurses from out of state and not letting children visit their loved ones for fear they’ll spread the flu. Others are canceling surgeries and erecting tents in their parking lots so they can triage the hordes of flu patients.
From Time Magazine in 2018:
In Fenton, Missouri, SSM Health St. Clare Hospital has opened its emergency overflow wing, as well as all outpatient centers and surgical holding centers, to make more beds available to patients who need them. Nurses are being “pulled from all floors to care for them,” says registered nurse Jennifer Braciszewski, and are being offered an increased hourly rate to work above and beyond their normal schedules. Many nurses have also become sick, however, so the staff is also short-handed.
From the Texas Tribune in 2018:
Big-city hospitals in Texas have been overwhelmed this week by an influx of flu patients, and state health officials say influenza activity is widespread across the state.
At Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, waiting rooms turned into exam areas as a medical tent was built in order to deal with the surge of patients. A Houston doctor said local hospital beds were at capacity, telling flu sufferers they might be better off staying at home. Austin’s emergency rooms have also seen an influx of flu patients.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Hospitals overwhelmed, more patients than hospital beds, hospitals having to treat people in temporary tents, medical centers postponing elective procedures to free up staff to care for the influx of sick people, etc., etc. Once again, that was in 2018.
What, you don’t remember that? Probably not, because it didn’t become the every-hour-of-the-day news story, and we didn’t shut down the country to avoid infecting each other.
As I pointed out in my last post, if government officials held news conferences and reported all the deaths from influenza every time it comes around, we’d probably feel the same sense of panic all the nonstop news about the coronavirus is spreading.
It was a nasty flu that went around in 2017-2018. When all the data comes in, we may find out the coronavirus wasn’t much worse.
Stay well, my friends.