For weeks, even months, we’ve been hearing about dangerous new mutations of the coronavirus, and they’ve been identified in cases in the U.S. There’s a UK strain, a South African strain, a Brazilian strain, and still others, which differ in seemingly minor ways. Nevertheless, these variants are said to be more infectious. It’s also been reported that the South African and Brazilian strains might resist antibodies from prior infections from earlier strains.
There is a great deal of concern about the new variants. A search for “COVID-19 variants” turns up plenty of scary articles. However, there is some evidence that the new variants arenot as dangerous as alarmists contend. The resistance to specific antibodies does not necessarily imply resistance to protection by T-cells. As Youyang Gu points out, even if a new strain becomes “dominant”, that does not imply that cases will reverse their decline. This study indicates that the Pfizer vaccine is protective against both the UK and South African strains, and there is evidence that other vaccines offer adequate protection as well (and see here).
The charts demonstrate that the new strains haven’t arrested or reversed the declines in infections witnessed worldwide since early January. That doesn’t mean the mutations haven’t made a difference: perhaps the declines would have been faster in their absence. And we don’t know what the future will hold as the virus in various forms becomes endemic. Still, it’s reassuring to see that the increased transmissibility of the new strains hasn’t overcome factors that have contributed to the recent declines, which in all likelihood are related to increasing immunity in the population with a minor assist from vaccinations (thus far). As Lamb wryly notes about the recent declines in transmission: “Just saying”.
Intelligent public policy is all too often undermined by policy makers incapable of properly assessing risks. The Biden Administration is setting new standards in this regard with its so-called “return to school” effort. It’s difficult to know how much of it is sheer stupidity and how much is pandering to teachers unions. Equal parts is probably a reasonable approximation.
The public teachers unions have consistently opposed reopening since remote learning began last spring, despite reams of data showing the safety of school environments. Even the CDC agrees! Oh, but wait: the CDC just issued new guidelines for reopening, which among other things require six feet of distancing rather than the three feet Director Rochelle Walensky claimed was adequate just a few months ago. Obviously, this reduces the number of students many existing school buildings can accommodate.
COVID transmission in schools is “extremely rare”. And in addition, remote education is sorely lacking in effectiveness. Teachers who truly care about educating their students should be giving the unions an earful. Not only has learning been compromised, but remote learning has increased the achievement gap between the best students and those in the lower part of the distribution.
Private schools have been open and as the map above shows, public schools in a number of states are largely open to in-person learning. Where that’s not the case, public school buildings are often still being used by children. They’re under the supervision of adults, but not teachers! As Matt Welch says:
“… many of the empty school buildings in largely closed districts are not in fact empty—they are filled with kids, being supervised by adults, just not adults who belong to teachers unions.”
Incidentally, many adults with children now at home, rather than in school, have been forced to leave the labor force, and many of them are women. As Michael Watson asks, why are advocates of working women so silent on this point? And this is to say nothing of the health care workers diverted, during a pandemic, from patient care by the need to manage children at home.
In December, Joe Biden promised to reopen “most” K – 12 schools within his first one-hundred days in office. Shortly after his inauguration, that promise became “most” K – 8 schools. As Welch notes, now the goal has been made a bit more precise, and it’s a complete sham: the Administration wants at least half of schools to be “open” for in-person learning at least one day a week! But we’re already well ahead of that! (And see here.)
On top of that, the federal government is playing the interloper here: reopening is not a federal decision. Ah, but Biden wants $130 billion in federal money earmarked to aid schools in their reopening efforts. Anthony Fauci has decided the stimulus is necessary for schools to reopen, his latest in a series of embarrassing policy flip-flops. The funds targeted at schools would be spent in a variety of ways, including PPE, COVID tests, new ventilation systems, and enhancement of remote learning to accommodate smaller (and distanced) in-person class sizes. Some of the funds are likely to make their way into teacher pay and to shore up pensions. One thing is certain: the unions want that money, and they will come back for more!
The unions also argue that teachers should be prioritized for vaccines, which would place them ahead of groups facing drastically higher risks. This is flat-out callous, insane, and evil. Again, the risk of COVID to teachers and children is low, while the elderly population faces staggeringly higher risks. Vaccinating teachers ahead of the elderly would cost many thousands of lives on balance.
This article from Education Next by Darrell Bradford describes the conditions for reopening demanded by teachers unions as the culmination of several years of activism. The unions contributed mightily to Joe Biden’s election campaign, of course. Their overwrought posture on teacher safety aside, the unions’ obstinance on the question of reopening is intended as leverage in the legislative push for Biden’s school aid package. Here’s Bradford:
“In other words, if you’ve wondered what a national teacher strike might look like and what might cause teachers across the country to arrest local economies and subject millions of students to instruction that may lock in deep learning losses, it’s just like this.”
The schools are safe, remote learning is substandard, and isolation is damaging to children’s’ emotional well being. Union demands for continuing limitations on in-person learning and requirements for reopening are not just unreasonable, but dastardly. That the Biden Administration is crafting its reopening policy and spending initiatives to appease the unions is motivated more by politics than the interests of children and their families. It’s time for parents and other true advocates to let their school administrators, elected representatives, and government officials know that the unions do not have their children’s interests at heart. And well-informed teachers should demand that their union representatives stop playing politics with the educational goals to which they’ve devoted their careers.
In early December I said that 2020 all-cause mortality in the U.S. would likely be comparable to figures from about 15 years ago. Now, Ben Martin confirms it with the chart below. Over time, declines in U.S. mortality have resulted from progress against disease and fewer violent deaths. COVID led to a jump in 2020, though some of last year’s deaths were attributable to policy responses, as opposed to COVID itself.
Here’s an even longer view of the trend from my post in December (for which 2020 is very incomplete):
As Martin notes sarcastically:
“Surprising, since the US is undergoing a ‘century pandemic‘ – In reality it is an event that’s unique in the last ‘15 years’”
The next chart shows 2020 mortality by month of year relative to the average of the past five years. Clearly, excess deaths have occurred compared to that baseline.
Using the range of deaths by month over the past 20 years (the blue-shaded band in the next chart), the 2020 figures don’t look quite as anomalous.
Finally, Martin shows total excess deaths in 2020 relative to several different baselines. The more recent (and shorter) the baseline time frame, the larger the excess deaths in 2020. Compared to the five-year average, 364,000 excess deaths occurred in 2020. Relative to the past 20 years, however, 150,000 excess deaths occurred last year. While those deaths are tragic, the pandemic looks more benign than when we confine our baseline to the immediate past.
Moreover, a large share of these excess deaths can be attributed to non-COVID causes of death that represent excesses relative to prior years, including drug overdoses, suicide, heart disease, dementia, and other causes. As many as 100,000 of these deaths are directly attributable lockdowns. That means true excess deaths caused by COVID infections were on the order of 50,000 relative to a 20-year baseline.
As infections subside from the fall wave, and as vaccinations continue to ramp up, some policy makers are awakening to the destructive impacts of non-pharmaceutical interventions (lockdown measures). The charts above show that this pandemic was never serious enough to justify those measures, and it’s not clear they can ever be justified in a free society. Yet some officials, including President Biden and Anthony Fauci, still labor under the misapprehension that masks mandates, stay-at-home orders, and restaurant closures can be effective or cost-efficient mitigation strategies.
The pandemic outlook remains mixed, primarily due to the slow rollout of the vaccines and the appearance of new strains of the virus. Nationwide, cases and COVID deaths rose through December. Now, however, there are several good reasons for optimism.
The fall wave of the coronavirus receded in many states beginning in November, but the wave started a bit later in the eastern states, in the southern tier of states, and in California. It appears to have crested in many of those states in January, even after a post-holiday bump in new diagnoses. As of today, Johns Hopkins reports only two states with increasing trends of new cases over the past two weeks: NH and VA, while CT and WY were flat. States shaded darker green have had larger declines in new cases.
A more detailed look at WY shows something like a blip in January after the large decline that began in November. Trends in new cases have clearly improved across the nation, though somewhat later than hoped.
While the fall wave has taken many lives, we can take some solace in the continuing decline in the case fatality rate. (This is not the same as the infection mortality rate (IFR), which has also declined. The IFR is much lower, but more difficult to measure). The CFR fell by more than half from its level in the late summer. In other words, without that decline, deaths today would be running twice as high.
Some of the CFR’s decline was surely due to higher testing levels. However, better treatments are reducing the length of hospital stays for many patients, as well as ICU admittance and deaths relative to cases. Monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma have been effective for many patients, and now Ivermectin is showing great promise as a treatment, with a 75% reduction in mortality according to the meta-analysis at the link.
Reported or “announced” deaths remain high, but those reports are not an accurate guide to the level or trend in actual deaths as they occur. The CDC’s provisional death reports give the count of deaths by date of death (DOD), shown below. The most recent three to four weeks are very incomplete, but it appears that actual deaths by DOD may have peaked as early as mid-December, as I speculated they might last month. Another noteworthy point: by the totals we have thus far, actual deaths peaked at about 17,000 a week, or just over 2,400 a day. This is substantially less than the “announced” deaths of 4,000 or more a day we keep hearing. The key distinction is that those announced deaths were actually spread out over many prior weeks.
A useful leading indicator of actual deaths has been the percentage of ER patients presenting COVID-like illness (CLI). The purple dots in the next CDC chart show a pronounced decline in CLI over the past three weeks. This series has been subject to revisions, which makes it much less trustworthy. A less striking decline in late November subsequently disappeared. At the time, however, it seemed to foretell a decline in actual deaths by mid-December. That might actually have been the case. We shall see, but if so, it’s possible that better therapeutics are causing the apparent CLI-deaths linkage to break down.
A more recent concern is the appearance of several new virus strains around the world, particularly in the UK and South Africa. The UK strain has reached other countries and is now said to have made appearances in the U.S. The bad news is that these strains seem to be more highly transmissible. In fact, there are some predictions that they’ll account for 30% of new cases by the beginning of March. The South African strain is said to be fairly resistant to antibodies from prior infections. Thus, there is a strong possibility that these cases will be additive, and they might or might not speedily replace the established strains. The good news is that the new strains do not appear to be more lethal. The vaccines are expected to be effective against the UK strain. It’s not yet clear whether new versions of the vaccines will be required against the South African strain by next fall.
Vaccinations have been underway now for just over a month. I had hoped that by now they’d start to make a dent in the death counts, and maybe they have, but the truth is the rollout has been frustratingly slow. The first two weeks were awful, but as of today, the number of doses administered was over 14 million, or almost 46% of the doses that have been delivered. Believe it or not, that’s an huge improvement!
About 4.3% of the population had received at least one dose as of today, according to the CDC. I have no doubt that heavier reliance on the private sector will speed the “jab rate”, but rollouts in many states have been a study in ineptitude. Even worse, now a month after vaccinations began, the most vulnerable segment of the population, the elderly, has received far less than half of the doses in most states. The following table is from Phil Kerpen. Not all states are reporting vaccinations by age group, which might indicate a failure to prioritize those at the greatest risk.
It might not be fair to draw strong conclusions, but it appears WV, FL, IN, AK, and MS are performing well relative to other states in getting doses to those most at risk.
Even with the recent increase in volume, the U.S. is running far behind the usual pace of annual flu vaccinations. Each fall, those average about 50 million doses administered per month, according to Alex Tabarrok. He quotes Youyang Gu, an AI forecaster with a pretty good track record thus far, on the prospects for herd immunity and an end to the pandemic. However, he uses the term “herd immunity” as the ending share of post-infected plus vaccinated individuals in the population, which is different than the herd immunity threshold at which new cases begin to decline. Nevertheless, in Tabarrok’s words:
“… the United States will have reached herd immunity by July, with about half of the immunity coming from vaccinations and half from infections. Long before we reach herd immunity, however, the infection and death rates will fall. Gu is projecting that by March infections will be half what they are now and by May about one-tenth the current rate. The drop will catch people by surprise just like the increase. We are not good at exponentials. The economy will boom in Q2 as infections decline.”
That sounds good, but Tabarrok also quotes a CDC projection of another 100,000 deaths by February. That’s on top of the provisional death count of 340,000 thus far, which runs 3-4 weeks behind. If we have six weeks of provisionals to go before February, with actual deaths at their peak of about 17,000 per week, we’ll get to 100,000 more actual deaths by then. For what it’s worth, I think that’s pessimistic. The favorable turns already seen in cases and actual deaths, which I believe are likely to persist, should hold fatalities below that level, and the vaccinations we’ve seen thus far will help somewhat.
There are currently two vaccines in limited distribution across the U.S. from Pfizer and Moderna, but the number and variety of different vaccines will grow as we move through the winter. For now, the vaccine is in short supply, but that’s even more a matter of administering doses in a timely way as it is the quantity on hand. There are competing theories about how best to allocate the available doses, which is the subject of this post. I won’t debate the merits of refusing to take a vaccine except to say that I support anyone’s right to refuse it without coercion by public authorities. I also note that certain forms of discrimination on that basis are not necessarily unreasonable.
The vaccines in play all seem to be highly effective (> 90%, which is incredible by existing standards). There have been a few reports of side effects — certainly not in large numbers — but it remains to be seen whether the vaccines will have any long-term side effects. I’m optimistic, but I won’t dismiss the possibility.
Despite competing doctrines about how the available supplies of vaccine should be allocated, there is widespread acceptance that health care workers should go first. I have some reservations about this because, like Emma Woodhouse, I believe staff and residents at long-term care facilities should have at least equal priority. Yet they do not in the City of Chicago and probably in other areas. I have to wonder whether unionized health care workers there are the beneficiaries of political favoritism.
Beyond that question, we have the following competing priorities: 1) the vulnerable in care homes and other elderly individuals (75+, while younger individuals with co-morbidities come later); 2) “essential” workers of all ages (from police to grocery store clerks — decidedly arbitrary); and 3) basically the same as #2 with priority given to groups who have suffered historical inequities.
#1 is clearly the way to save the most lives, at least in the short-run. Over 40% of the deaths in the U.S. have been in elder-care settings, and COVID infection fatality ratesmount exponentially with age:
To derive the implications of #1 and #2, it’s more convenient to look at the share of deaths within each age cohort, since it incorporates the differences in infection rates and fatality rates across age groups (the number of “other” deaths is much larger than COVID deaths, of course, despite similar death shares):
The 75+ age group has accounted for about 58% of all COVID deaths in the U.S., and ages 25 – 64 accounted for about 20% (an approximate age range for essential workers). This implies that nearly three times as many lives can be saved by prioritizing the elderly, at least if deaths among so-called essential workers mimic deaths in the 25 – 64 age cohorts. However, the gap would be smaller and perhaps reversed in terms of life-years saved.
Furthermore, this is a short-run calculation. Over a longer time frame, if essential workers are responsible for more transmission across all ages than the elderly, then it might throw the advantage to prioritizing essential workers over the elderly, but it would take a number of transmission cycles for the differential to play out. Yes, essential workers are more likely to be “super-spreaders” than work-at-home, corporate employees, or even the unemployed, but identifying true super-spreaders would require considerable luck. Moreover, care homes generally house a substantial number of elderly individuals and staff in a confined environment, where spread is likely to be rampant. So the transmission argument for #2 over #1 is questionable.
The over-riding problem is that of available supply. Suppose enough vaccine is available for all elderly individuals within a particular time frame. That’s about 6.6% of the total U.S. population. The same supply would cover only about 13% of the younger age group identified above. Essential workers are a subset of that group, but the same supply would fall far short of vaccinating all of them; lives saved under #2 would then fall far short of the lives saved under #1. Quantities of the vaccine are likely to increase over the course of a few months, but limited supplies at the outset force us to focus the allocation decision on the short-term, making #1 the clear winner.
Now let’s talk about #3, minority populations, historical inequities, and the logic of allocating vaccine on that basis. Minority populations have suffered disproportionately from COVID, so this is really a matter of objective risk, not historical inequities… unless the idea is to treat vaccine allocations as a form of reparation. Don’t laugh — that might not be far from the intent, and it won’t count as a credit toward the next demand for “justice”.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that minorities have 3x the fatality rate of whites from COVID (a little high). Roughly 40% of the U.S. population is non-white or Hispanic. That’s more than six times the size of the full 75+ population. If all of the available doses were delivered to essential workers in that group, it would cover less than half of them and save perhaps 30% of minority COVID deaths over a few months. In contrast, minorities might account for up to two-thirds of the deaths among the elderly. Therefore, vaccinating all of the elderly would save 58% of elderly COVID deaths and about 39% of minority deaths overall!
The COVID mortality risk to the average white individual in the elderly population is far greater than that faced by the average minority individual in the working age population. Therefore, no part of #3 is sensible from a purely mathematical perspective. Race/ethnicity overlaps significantly with various co-morbiditiesand the number of co-morbidities with which individuals are afflicted. Further analysis might reveal whether there is more to be gained by prioritizing by co-morbidities rather than race/ethnicity.
Megan McArdle has an interesting column on the CDC’s vaccination guidelines issued in November, which emphasized equity, like #3 above. But the CDC walked back that decision in December. The initial November decision was merely the latest of the the agency’s fumbles on COVID policy. In her column, McArdle notes that the public has understood that the priority was to save lives since the very start of the pandemic. Ideally, if objective measures show that identifiable characteristics are associated with greater vulnerability, then those should be considered in prioritizing individuals who desire vaccinations. This includes age, co-morbidities, race/ethnicity, and elements of occupational risk. But lesser associations with risk should not take precedence over greater associations with risk unless an advantage can be demonstrated in terms of lives saved, historical inequities or otherwise.
The priorities for the early rounds of vaccinationsmay differ by state or jurisdiction, but they are all heavily influenced by the CDC’s guidelines. Some states pay lip service to equity considerations (if they simply said race/ethnicity, they’d be forced to operationalize it), while others might actually prioritize doses by race/ethnicity to some degree. Once the initial phase of vaccinations is complete, there are likely to be more granular prioritizations based on different co-morbidities, for example, as well as race/ethnicity. Thankfully, the most severe risk gradient, advanced age, will have been addressed by then.
One last point: the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both require two doses. Alex Tabarrok points out that first doses appear to be highly effective on their own. In his opinion, while supplies are short, the second dose should be delayed until all groups at substantially elevated risk can be vaccinated…. doubling the supply of initial doses! The idea has merit, but it is unlikely to receive much consideration in the U.S. except to the extent that supply chain problems make it unavoidable, and they might.
My pre-Thanksgiving optimism about a crest in the fall wave of the coronavirus has been borne out for the Midwest and Mountain states in the U.S. These regions were the epicenter of the fall wave through October and most of November, but new cases in those states have continued to decline. Cases in a number of other states began to climb in November, however, contributing to a continuing rise in total new cases nationally. Some of these states are still in the throes of this wave, with the virus impacting subsets of the population that were relatively unscathed up till now.
My disclaimer: COVID is obviously a nasty virus. I don’t want to get it. However, on the whole, it is not a cataclysm on the order of many pandemics of the past. In fact, excess deaths this year will add just over 10% to projections of total deaths based on a five-year average. That level puts us in line with average annual deaths of about twenty years ago. And many of those excess deaths have been caused by our overreaction to the pandemic, not by the virus itself. As my endocrinologist has said, this is the greatest overreaction in all medical history. Unfortunately, a fading pandemic does not mean we can expect an end to the undue panic, or pretense for panic, on the part of interventionists.
This post will focus largely on trends in newly diagnosed COVID cases. I have been highly critical of our testing regime and COVID case counts because the most prominent diagnostic test (PCR) falsely identifies a large number of uninfected individuals as COVID-positive. However, case numbers are widely tracked and it’s fairly easy to find information across geographies for comparison. Deflate all the numbers by 30% if you want, or by any other factor, but please indulge me because I think the trends are meaningful, even if the absolute level of cases is inflated.
I’ll start with the good news and work my way down to states in which cases are still climbing (all of the following charts are from @Humble_Analysis (PLC)). The first chart is for the Great Plains, where cases peaked a little before Thanksgiving and have continued to fall since then. That peak came about six weeks after it began in earnest and cases have faded over the last four weeks.
Next we have the Mountain states, where again, cases peaked around Thanksgiving, though Idaho saw a rebound after the holiday. You’ll see below that a number of states had a distinct drop in new cases during the week of Thanksgiving. There was somewhat of a pause in testing during that week, so the subsequent rebounds are largely due to a “catch-up” at testing sites, rather than some kind of Thanksgiving-induced spike in infections.
Back to the Mountain region, the peak came an average of about six or seven weeks into the wave, but the duration of the wave appears to have been longer in Montana and Wyoming.
Here are the Southern Plain states, where cases plateaued around Thanksgiving (though cases in Missouri have clearly declined from their peak). In this region, case counts accelerated in October after a slow climb over the summer.
The situation is somewhat similar in the Midwest. where cases have generally plateaued. There were some post-Thanksgiving rebounds in several states, especially Tennessee. The wave began a little later in this region, in mid- to late October, and it is now seven to eight weeks into the wave, on average.
Here are the Mid-Atlantic states, which may be showing signs of a peak, though North Carolina has had the greatest caseload and is still climbing. These states are about seven weeks into the wave, on average.
The Northeast also shows signs of a possible peak and is about seven weeks into the wave, except for Rhode Island, which saw an earlier onset and the most severe wave among these states.
And finally we have the South, which is defined quite broadly in PLC’s construction. It’s a mixed bag, with a few states showing signs of a peak after about seven weeks. However, cases are still climbing in several states, notably California and Florida, among a few others.
Oregon and Washington were skipped, but they appear as the Pacific NW in the following chart, along with aggregations for all the other regions. Maine is Part of the “Rural NE”, which was also skipped. The fall wave can be grouped roughly into two sets of regions: those in which waves began in late September or early October, and those where waves began in early to mid-November. The first group has moved beyond a peak or at least has plateaued. The latter group may be reaching peaks now or one hopes very soon. It seems to take about seven weeks to reach the peak of these regional waves, so a late December peak for the latter group would be consistent.
Justin Hart has a take on the duration of these waves, but he does so in terms of the share of emergency room (ER) visits in which symptoms of COVID-like illness (CLI) are presented. CLI tends to precede case counts slightly. Hart puts the duration of these waves at eight to ten weeks, but that’s a judgement call, and I might put it a bit longer using caseloads as a guide. Still, this color-coded chart from Hart is interesting.
If this sort of cyclical duration holds up, it’s consistent with the view that cases in many of the still “hot” states should be peaking this month.
Aggregate cases for the U.S. appear below. The growth rate of new cases has slowed, and the peak is likely to occur soon. However, because it combines all of the regional waves, the duration of the wave nationwide will appear to be greater than for the individual regions. COVID-attributed deaths are also plotted, but they are reported deaths, not by date of death (DOD) or actual deaths, as I sometimes call them. Deaths by DOD are available only with a lag. As always, some of the reported deaths shown below occurred weeks before their reported date. Actual deaths were still rising as of late November, and are likely still rising. However, another indicator suggests they should be close to a peak.
A leading indicator of actual deaths I’ve discussed in the past now shows a more definitive improvement than it did just after Thanksgiving, as the next chart shows. This is the CLI share discussed above. An even better predictor of COVID deaths by actual DOD is the sum of CLI and the share of ER patients presenting symptoms of influenza-like illness (ILI), but ILI has been fairly low and stable, so it isn’t contributing much to changes in trend at the moment. There has been about a three-week lead between movements in CLI+ILI and COVID deaths by DOD.
(The reason the sum, CLI+ILI, has been a better predictor than CLI alone is because for some individuals, there are similarities in the symptoms of COVID and the flu.)
The chart shows that CLI peaked right around the Thanksgiving holiday (and so did CLI+ILI), but it remained on something of a plateau through the first week of December before declining. Some of the last few days on this chart are subject to revision, but the recent trend is encouraging. Allowing for a three-week lead, this indicates that peak deaths by DOD should occur around mid-December, but we won’t know exactly until early to mid-January. To be conservative, we might say the latter half of December will mark the peak in actual deaths.
The regional COVID waves this summer and fall seem to have run their course within 10 – 12 weeks. Several former hot spots have seen cases drop since Thanksgiving after surges of six to seven weeks. However, there are several other regions with populous states where the fall wave is still close to “mid-cycle”, as it were, showing signs of possible peaks after roughly seven weeks of rising cases. The national CLI share peaked around Thanksgiving, but it did not give up much ground until early December. That suggests that actual deaths (as opposed to reported deaths), at least in some regions, will peak around the time of the winter solstice. Let’s hope it’s sooner.
Successive waves within a region seem to reach particular subsets of the population with relatively few reinfections. The 10 – 12 week cycle discussed above is sufficient to achieve an effective herd immunity within these subsets. But once again, a large share of the vulnerable, and a large share of COVID deaths, are still concentrated in the elderly, high-risk population and in care homes. The vaccine(s) currently being administered to residents of those homes are likely to hasten the decline in COVID deaths beginning sometime in January, perhaps as early as mid-month. By then, however, we should already see a decline underway as this wave of the virus finally burns itself out. As vaccines reach a larger share of the population through the winter and spring, the likelihood of additional severe waves of the virus will diminish.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, the reasons for the contagion’s fade to come have mostly to do with reaching the effective herd immunity threshold within afflicted subsets of the population (sub-herds). Social distancing certainly plays a role as well. Nearly all of that is voluntary, though it has been encouraged by panicked pronouncement by certain public officials and the media. Direct interventions or lockdown measures are in general counter-productive, however, and they create a death toll of their own. Unfortunately, the fading pandemic might not rein-in the curtailment of basic liberties we’ve witnessed this year.
In this short post I’m trying to do my part to put our pandemic experience in perspective. Lord knows, I was on the low side in my U.S. case-load “guesstimate” last March, as well as the number of deaths induced by COVID. (A number of others, using highly sophisticated models, erred more severely in the opposite direction.) I also failed to anticipate the strength of the later seasonal waves we’ve experienced — I was excessively optimistic as the first wave ebbed. But now, as the fall wave is showing some signs of topping out, what can we say about the pandemic in historical perspective? I came across an interesting chart that sheds some light on the question.
In terms of all-cause mortality, we’ve clearly seen a bump upward this year. Take a look at the chart below. It shows deaths per million (DPM) of population (from all causes). Try clicking on it if it’s hard to read, or turn your phone sideways. See the little blip on the lower right? That’s our pandemic year through August. The blip made 2020, at least through August, look something like a normal year of the early 2000s.
The visible spike early in 2020 was the spring wave, which was concentrated on the east coast. Of course, the fall wave will yield another spike, probably a bit higher than the first. Nevertheless, against the historical backdrop, this chart shows that the magnitude of our current public health crisis is relatively minor.
If you scan to the left from 2020, you can see that DPM this year would have appeared normal around 2005. Remember how bad it was back in aught-five…. all the death? Yeah, me neither. That’s perspective.
The chart also reflects several mild flu seasons over the past few years. Because the flu, like COVID-19, tends to hit the elderly and infirm the hardest, the “soft” DPM numbers over the past few years support the theory that the population included a fair amount of so-called “dry tinder” for COVID as we entered the year.
One other note on the chart: the DPMs are “age-adjusted”, meaning that age groups are weighted for comparisons across countries with differing age distributions (not what we’re doing here). In this case, the DPM values are weighted based on the population in the year 2000.
It’s amazing how so many have bought into the narrative that the current pandemic is historically bad. Yes, our DPMs are high relative to the last decade, but a significant number of those deaths were caused not by COVID, but by our own overreaction to the virus. That’s something else I failed to anticipate in the spring. It’s something we can put behind us now, however, if only we’re willing to put our experience in perspective. Unfortunately, many public officials, along with their public health advisors, continue to promote the deluded view that the virus can only be stopped by stopping our lives, our educations, our earnings, our health, and our sanity.
The other day a friend told me “your data points always seem to miss the people points.” He imagines a failure on my part to appreciate the human cost of the coronavirus. Evidently, he feels that I treat data on cases, hospitalizations, and deaths as mere accounting issues, all while emphasizing the negative aspects of government interventions.
This fellow reads my posts very selectively, hampered in part by his own mood affiliation. Indeed, he seems to lack an appreciation for the nuance and zeitgeist of my body of blogging on the topic… my oeuvre! This despite his past comments on the very things he claims I haven’t mentioned. His responses usually rely on anecdotes relayed to him by nurses or doctors he knows. Anecdotes can be important, of course. But I know nurses and doctors too, and they are not of the same mind as his nurses and doctors. Anecdotes! We’re talking about the determination of optimal policy here, and you know what Dr. Fauci says about relying on anecdotes!
Incremental Costs and Benefits
My friend must first understand that my views are based on an economic argument, one emphasizing the benefits and costs of particular actions, including human costs. COVID is dangerous, but primarily to the elderly, and no approach to managing the virus is free. Here are two rather disparate choices:
Mandated minimization of economic and social interactions throughout society over some time interval in the hope of reducing the spread of the virus;
Laissez faire for the general population while minimizing dangers to high-risk individuals, subject to free choice for mentally competent, high-risk individuals.
To be clear, #2 entails all voluntary actions taken by individuals to mitigate risks. Therefore, #1 implies a set of incremental binding restrictions on behavior beyond those voluntary actions. However, I also include in #1 the behavioral effects of scare mongering by public officials, who regularly issue pronouncements having no empirical basis.
The first option above entails so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) by government. These are the elements of so-called lockdowns, such as quarantines and other restrictions on mobility, business and consumer activity, social activities, health care activities, school closures, and mask mandates. NPIs carry costs that are increasing in the severity of constraints they impose on society.
And before I proceed, remember this: tallying all fatal COVID cases is really irrelevant to the policy exercise. Nothing we do, or could have done, would save all those lives. We should compare what lives can be saved from COVID via lockdowns, if any, with the cost of those lockdowns in terms of human life and human misery, including economic costs.
NPIs involve a loss of economic output that can never be recovered… it is gone forever, and a loss is likely to continue for some time to come. That sounds so very anodyne, despite the tremendous magnitude of the loss involved. But let’s stay with it for just a second. The loss of U.S. output in 2020 due to COVID has been estimated at $2.5 trillion. As Don Boudreaux and Tyler Cowen have noted, what we normally spend on safety and precautionary measures (willingness-to-pay), together with the probabilities of losses, implies that we value our lives at less than $4 million on average. Let’s say the COVID death toll reaches 300,000 by year-end (that’s incremental in this case— but it might be a bit high). That equates to a total loss of $1.2 trillion in life-value if we ignore distinctions in life-years lost. Now ask this: if our $2.5 trillion output loss could have saved every one of those 300,000 lives, would it have been worth it? Not even close, and the truth is that the sacrifice will not have saved even a small fraction of those lives. I grant, however, that the economic losses are partly attributable to voluntary decisions, but goaded to a great extent by the alarmist commentary of public health officials.
The full depth of losses is far worse than the dollars and cents comparison above might sound. Output losses are always matched by (and, in value, are exactly the same as) income losses. That involves lost jobs, lost hours, failed businesses, and destroyed careers. Ah, now we’re getting a bit more “human”, aren’t we! It’s nothing short of callous to discount these costs. Unfortunately, the burden falls disproportionately on low-income workers. Our elites can mostly stay home and do their jobs remotely, and earn handsome incomes. The working poor spend their time in line at food banks.
Yes, government checks can help those with a loss of income compete with elites for the available supply of goods, but of course that doesn’t replace the lost supply of goods! Government aid of this kind is a palliative measure; it doesn’t offset the real losses during a suspension of economic activity.
Decimated Public Health
The strain of the losses has been massive in the U.S. and nearly everywhere in the world. People are struggling financially, making do with less on the table, depleting their savings, and seeking forbearance on debts. The emotional strains are no less real. Anxiety is rampant, drug overdoses have increased, calls to suicide hotlines have exploded, and the permanence of the economic losses may add to suicide rates for some time to come. Dr. Robert Redfield of the CDC says more teenagers will commit suicide this year than will die from COVID (also see here). There’s also been a terrifying escalation in domestic abuse during the pandemic, including domestic homicide. The despair caused by economic losses is all too real and should be viewed as a multiplier on the total cost of severe NPIs.
More on human costs: a health care disaster has befallen locked-down populations, including avoidance of care on account of panic fomented by so-called public health experts, the media, and government. Some of the consequences are listed here. But to name just a few, we have huge numbers of delayed cancer diagnoses, which sharply decrease survival time; mass avoidance of emergency room visits, including undiagnosed heart attacks and strokes; and unacceptable delays in cardiac treatments. Moreover, lockdowns worldwide have severely damaged efforts to deal with scourges like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.
The CDC reports that excess mortality among 25-44 year-olds this year was up more than 26%, and the vast bulk of these were non-COVID deaths. A Lancet study indicates that a measles outbreak is likely in 2021 due to skipped vaccinations caused by lockdowns. The WHO estimates that 130,000,000 people are starving worldwide due to lockdowns. That is roughly the population of the U.S. east coast. Again, the callousness with which people willfully ignore these repercussions is stunning, selfish and inhumane, or just stupid.
Can we quantify all this? Yes we can, as a matter of fact. I’ve offered estimates in the past, and I already mentioned that excess deaths, COVID and non-COVID, are reported on the CDC’s web site. The Ethical Skeptic (TES) does a good job of summarizing these statistics, though the last full set of estimates was from October 31. Here is the graphic from the TES Twitter feed:
Note particularly the huge number of excess deaths attributable to SAAAD (Suicide, Addiction Abandonment, Abuse and Despair): over 50,000! The estimate of life-years lost due to non-COVID excess deaths is almost double that of COVID deaths because of the difference in the age distributions of those deaths.
Here are a few supporting charts on selected categories of excess deaths, though they are a week behind the counts from above. The first is all non-COVID, natural-cause excess deaths (the vertical gap between the two lines), followed by excess deaths from Alzheimer’s and dementia, other respiratory diseases, and malignant neoplasms (cancer):
The clearest visual gap in these charts is the excess Alzheimer’s and dementia deaths. Note the increase corresponding to the start of the pandemic, when these patients were suddenly shut off from loved ones and the company of other patients. I also believe some of these deaths were (and are) due to overwhelmed staff at care homes struck by COVID, but even discounting this category of excess deaths leaves us with a huge number of non-COVD deaths that could have been avoided without lockdowns. This represents a human cost over and above those tied to the economic losses discussed earlier.
Degraded Education and Health
Lockdowns have also been destructive to the education of children. The United Nations has estimated that 24 million children may drop out of school permanently as a result of lockdowns and school closures. This a burden that falls disproportionately on impoverished children. This article in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network notes the destructive impact of primary school closures on educational attainment. Its conclusions should make advocates of school closures reconsider their position, but it won’t:
“… missed instruction during 2020 could be associated with an estimated 5.53 million years of life lost. This loss in life expectancy was likely to be greater than would have been observed if leaving primary schools open had led to an expansion of the first wave of the pandemic.“
Lockdowns just don’t work. There was never any scientific evidence that they did. For one thing, they are difficult to enforce and compliance is not a given. Of course, Sweden offers a prime example that draconian lockdowns are unnecessary, and deaths remain low there. This Lancet study, published in July, found no association between lockdowns and country mortality, though early border closures were associated with lower COVID caseloads. A French research paper concludes that public decisions had no impact on COVID mortality across 188 countries, U.S. states, and Chinese states. A paper by a group of Irish physicians and scientists stated the following:
“Lockdown has not previously been employed as a strategy in pandemic management, in fact it was ruled out in 2019 WHO and Irish pandemic guidelines, and as expected, it has proven a poor mitigator of morbidity and mortality.”
One of the chief arguments in favor of lockdowns is the fear that asymptomatic individuals circulating in the community (and there are many) would spread the virus. However, there is no evidence that they do. In part, that’s because the window during which an individual with the virus is infectious is narrow, but tests may detect tiny fragments of the virus over a much longer span of time. And there is even some evidence that lockdown measures may increase the spread of the virus!
Lockdown decisions are invariably arbitrary in their impact as well. The crackdown on gyms is one noteworthy example, but gyms are safe. Restaurants don’t turn up in many contact traces either, and yet restaurants have been repeatedly implicated as danger zones. And think of the many small retailers shut down by government, while giant competitors like Wal-Mart continue to operate with little restriction. This is manifest corporatism!
Then there is the matter of mask mandates. As readers of this blog know, I think masks probably help reduce transmission from droplets issued by a carrier, that is, at close range. However, this recent Danish study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that cloth masks are ineffective in protecting the wearer. They do not stop aerosols, which seem to be the primary source of transmission. They might reduce viral loads, at least if worn properly and either cleaned often or replaced. Those are big “ifs”.
To the extent that masks offer any protection, I’m happy to wear them within indoor public accommodations, at least for the time being. To the extent that people are “scared”, I’m happy to observe the courtesy of wearing a mask, but not outside in uncrowded conditions. To the extent that masks are required under private “house rules”, of course I comply. Public mask mandates outside of government buildings are over the line, however. The evidence that those mandates work is too tenuous and our liberties are too precious too allow that kind of coercion. And private facilities should be subject to private rules only.
So my poor friend is quite correct that COVID is especially deadly to certain cohorts and challenging for the health care community. But he must come to grips with a few realities:
The virus won’t be defeated with NPIs; they don’t work!
NPIs inflict massive harm to human well-being.
Lockdowns or NPIs are little or no gain, high-pain propositions.
“The lockdowns and other restrictions on economic and social activities are astronomically costly – in a direct economic sense, in an emotional and spiritual sense, and in a ‘what-the-hell-do-these-arbitrary-diktats-portend-for-our-freedom?’ sense.”
This doctor has a message for the those denizens of social media with an honest wish to dispense helpful public health advice:
“Americans have admitted that they will meet for Thanksgiving. Scolding and shaming them for wanting this is unlikely to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, though it may earn you likes and retweets. Starting with compassion, and thinking of ways they can meet, but as safely as possible, is the task of real public health. Now is the time to save public health from social media.”
I hope readers share my compulsion to see updated COVID numbers. It’s become a regular feature on this blog and will probably remain one until infections subside, vaccine or otherwise. Or maybe when people get used to the idea of living normally again in the presence of an endemic pathogen, as they have with many other pathogens and myriad risks of greater proportions, and as they should. That might require more court challenges, political changes, and plain old civil disobedience.
So here, then, is an update on the U.S. COVID numbers released over the past few days. The charts below are attributable to Don Wolt (@tlowdon on Twitter).
First, reported deaths began to creep up again in the latter half of October and have escalated in November. They’ve now reached the highs of the mid-summer wave in the south, but this time the outbreak is concentrated in the midwest and especially the upper midwest.
Reported deaths are the basis of claims that we are seeing 1,500 people dying every day, which is an obvious exaggeration. There have been recent days when reported deaths exceeded that level, but the weekly average of reported deaths is now between 1,100 and 1,200 a day.
It’s important to understand that deaths reported in a given week actually occurred earlier, sometimes eight or more weeks before the week in which they are reported. Most occur within three weeks of reporting, but sometimes the numbers added from four-plus weeks earlier are significant.
The following chart reproduces weekly reported deaths from above using blue bars, ending with the week of November 14th. Deaths by actual date-of-death (DOD) are shown by the orange bars. The most recent three-plus weeks always show less than complete counts of deaths by DOD. But going back to mid-October, actual weekly deaths were running below reported deaths. If the pattern were to follow the upswings of the first two waves of infections, then actual weekly deaths would exceed reported deaths by perhaps the end of October. However, it’s doubtful that will occur, in part because we’ve made substantial progress since the spring and summer in treating the disease.
To reinforce the last point, it’s helpful to view deaths relative to COVID case counts. Deaths by DOD are plotted below by the orange line using the scale on the right-hand vertical axis. New positive tests are represented by the solid blue line, using the left-hand axis, along with COVID hospitalizations. There is no question that the relationship between cases, hospitalizations, and deaths has weakened over time. My suspicions were aroused somewhat by the noticeable compression of the right axis for deaths relative to the two charts above, but on reviewing the actual patterns (peak relative to troughs) in those charts, I’m satisfied that the relationships have indeed “decoupled”, as Wolt puts it.
Cases are going through the roof, but there is strong evidence that a large share of these cases are false positives. COVID hospitalizations are up as well, but their apparent co-movement with new cases appears to be dampening with successive waves of the virus. That’s at least partly a consequence of the low number of tests early in the pandemic.
So where is this going? The next chart again shows COVID deaths by DOD using orange bars. Wolt has concluded, and I have reported here, that the single-best short-term predictor of COVID deaths by DOD is the percentage of emergency room visits at which patients presented symptoms of either COVID-like illness (CLI) or influenza-like illness (ILI). The sum of these percentages, CLI + ILI, is shown below by the dark blue line, but the values are shifted forward by three weeks to better align with deaths. This suggests that actual COVID deaths by DOD will be somewhere around 7,000 a week by the end of November, or about 1,000 a day. Beyond that time, the path will depend on a number of factors, including the weather, prevalence and immunity levels, and changes in mobility.
I am highly skeptical that lockdowns have any independent effect in knocking down the virus, though interventionists will try to take credit if the wave happens to subside soon for any other reason. They won’t take credit for the grim lockdown deaths reaped by their policies.
Despite the bleak prospect of 1,000 or more COVID-attributed deaths a day by the end of November, the way in which these deaths are counted is suspect. Early in the pandemic, the CDC significantly altered guidelines for the completion of death certificates for COVID such that deaths are often improperly attributed to the virus. Some COVID deaths stem from false-positive PCR tests, and again, almost since the beginning of the pandemic, hospitals were given a financial incentive to classify inpatients as COVID-infected.
It’s also important to remember that while any true COVID fatality is premature, they are generally not even close to the prematurity of lockdown deaths. That’s a simple consequence of the age profile of COVID deaths, which indicate relatively few life-years lost, and the preponderance of co-morbidities among COVID fatalities.
Again, COVId deaths are bad enough, but we are seeing an unacceptable and ongoing level of lockdown deaths. This is now to the point where they may account for almost all of the continuing excess deaths, even with the fall COVID wave. It’s probable that public health would be better served with reduced emphasis on COVID-mitigation for the general population and more intense focus on protecting the vulnerable, including the distribution of vaccines.
The fall wave of the coronavirus has brought with it an increase in COVID hospitalizations. It’s a serious situation for the infected and for those who care for them. But while hospital utilization is rising and is reaching tight conditions in some areas, claims that it is already a widespread national problem are without merit.
National and State Hospital Utilization
The table below shows national and state statistics comparing beds used during November 1-9 to the three-year average from 2017 – 19, from Justin Hart. There are some real flaws in the comparison: one is that full-year averages are not readily comparable to particular times of the year, with or without COVID. Nevertheless, the comparison does serve to show that current overall bed usage is not “crazy high” in most states, as it were. The increase in utilization shown in the table is highest in IA, MT, NV, PA, VT, and WI, and there are a few other states with sizable increases.
Another limitation is that the utilization rates in the far right column do not appear to be calculated on the basis of “staffed” beds, but total beds. The U.S. bed utilization rate would be 74% in terms of staffed beds.
Average historical hospital occupancy rates from Statista look like this:
Again, these don’t seem to be calculated on the basis of staffed beds, but current occupancies are probably higher now based on either staffed beds or total beds.
As of November 11th, a table available at HealthData.gov indicates that staffed bed utilization in the U.S. is at nearly 74%, with ICU utilization also at 74%. As the table above shows, states vary tremendously in their hospital bed utilization, a point to which I’ll return below.
COVID patients were using just over 9% of of all staffed beds and just over 19% of ICU beds as of November 11th. One caveat on the reported COVID shares you’ll see for dates going forward: the CDC changed its guidelines on counting COVID hospitalizations as of November 12th. It is now a COVID patient’s entire hospital stay, rather than only when a patient is in isolation with COVID. That might be a better metric if we can trust the accuracy of COVID tests (and I don’t), but either way, the change will cause a jump in the COVID share of occupied beds.
Interpreting Hospital Utilization
Many issues impinge on the interpretation of hospital utilization rates:
First, cases and utilization rates are increasing, which is worrisome, but the question is whether they have already reached crisis levels or will very soon. The data doesn’t suggest that is the case in the aggregate, but there certainly there are hospitals bumping up against capacity constraints in some parts of the country.
Second, occupancies are increasing due to COVID patients as well as patients suffering from lockdown-related problems such as self-harm, psychiatric problems, drug abuse, and conditions worsened by earlier deferrals of care. We can expect more of that in coming weeks.
Third, lockdowns create other hospital capacity issues related to staffing. Health care workers with school-aged children face the daunting task of caring for their kids and maintaining hours on jobs for which they are critically needed.
Fourth, there are capacity issues related to PPE and medical equipment that are not addressed by the statistics above. Different uses must compete for these resources within any hospital, so the share of COVID admissions has a strong bearing on how the care of other kinds of patients must be managed.
Fifth, some of the alarm is purely case-driven: all admissions are tested for COVID, and non-COVID admissions often become COVID admissions after false-positive PCR tests, or simply due to the presence of mild COVID with a more serious condition or injury. However, severe COVID cases have an outsized impact on utilization of staff because their care is relatively labor-intensive.
Sixth, there are reports that the average length of COVID patient stays has decreased markedly since the spring (it is hard to find nationwide figures), but it is also increasingly difficult to find facilities for post-acute care required for some patients on discharge. Nevertheless, if improved treatment reduces average length of stay, it helps hospitals deal with the surge.
Finally, thus far, the influenza season has been remarkably light, as the following chart from the CDC shows. It is still early in the season, but the near-complete absence of flu patients is helping hospitals manage their resources.
St. Louis Hotspot
The St. Louis metro area has been proclaimed a COVID “hotspot” by the local media and government officials, which certainly doesn’t make St. Louis unique in terms of conditions or alarmism. I’m curious about the data there, however, since it’s my hometown. Here is hospital occupancy on the Missouri side of the St. Louis region:
It seems this chart is based on total beds, not staffed beds, However, one of the interesting aspects of this chart is the variation in capacity over time, with several significant jumps in the series. This has to do with data coverage and some variation in daily reporting. Almost all of these data dashboards are relatively new, so their coverage has been increasing, but generally in fits and starts. Reporting is spotty on a day-to-day basis, so there are jagged patterns. And of course, capacity can vary from day-to-day and week-to-week — there is some flexibility in the number of beds that can be made available.
The share of St. Louis area beds in use was 61% as of November 11th (preliminary). COVID patients accounted for 12% of hospital beds. ICU utilization in the St. Louis region was a preliminary 67% as of Nov. 11, with COVID patients using 29% of ICU capacity (which is quite high). Again, these figures probably aren’t calculated on the basis of “staffed” beds, so actual hospital-bed and ICU-bed utilization rates could be several percentage points higher. More importantly, it does not appear that utilization in the St. Louis area has trended up over the past month.
At the moment, the St. Louis region appears to have more spare hospital capacity than the nation, but COVID patients are using a larger share of all beds and ICU beds in St. Louis than nationwide. So this is a mixed bag. And again, capacity is not spread evenly across hospitals, and it’s clear that hospitals are under pressure to manage capacity more actively. In fact, hospitals only have so many options as the share of COVID admissions increases: divert or discharge COVID and non-COVID patients, defer elective procedures, discharge COVID and non-COVID patients earlier, allow beds to be more thinly staffed and/or add temporary beds wherever possible.
Anyone with severe symptoms of COVID-19 probably should be hospitalized. The beds must be available, or else at-home care will become more commonplace, as it was for non-COVID maladies earlier in the pandemic. A continued escalation in severe COVID cases would require more drastic steps to make hospital resources available. That said, we do not yet have a widespread capacity crisis, although that’s small consolation to areas now under stress. And a few of the states with the highest utilization rates now have been rather stable in terms of hospitalizations — they already had high average utilization rates, which is potentially dangerous.
COVID is a seasonal disease, and it’s no surprise that it’s raging now in areas that did not experience large outbreaks in the spring and summer. And those areas that had earlier outbreaks have not had a serious surge this fall, at least not yet. My expectation and hope is that the midwestern and northern states now seeing high case counts will soon reach a level of prevalence at which new infections will begin to subside. And we’re likely to see a far lower infection fatality rate than experienced in the Northeast last spring.
In advanced civilizations the period loosely called Alexandrian is usually associated with flexible morals, perfunctory religion, populist standards and cosmopolitan tastes, feminism, exotic cults, and the rapid turnover of high and low fads---in short, a falling away (which is all that decadence means) from the strictness of traditional rules, embodied in character and inforced from within. -- Jacques Barzun