The CDC’s new study on dining out and mask mandates is a sham. On its face, the effects reported are small. And while it’s true most of the reported effects are statistically significant, the CDC acknowledges a number of factors that might well have confounded the results. This study should remind us of the infinite number of spurious and “significant” correlations in the world. Here, the timing of the mandates (or their removal) relative to purported effects and seasonal waves is highly suspicious, and as always, attributing causality on the basis of correlation is problematic.
On one hand, the CDC’s results are contrary to plentiful evidence that mandates are ineffective; on the other hand, the results are contrary to earlier CDC “guidance” that masks and limits on indoor dining are “highly effective”. Nevertheless, the latest report has massive propaganda value to the CDC. The media lapped up the story and provided cover for Democrats eager to pass the COVID (C19) relief package. Likewise, the Biden Administration is apparently committed to the narrative of an ongoing crisis as cover for continued attempts to shame political opponents in states that have elected to “reopen” or remain open.
Right off the bat, the study’s authors assert that the primary mode of transmission of C19 is from respiratory droplets. This is false. We know that aerosols are the main culprit in transmission, against which cloth masks are largely ineffective.
Be that as it may, let’s first consider the findings on dining. There was no statistically significant effect on the growth rate of cases or deaths up to 40 days after restrictions were lifted, according to the report. In fact, case growth declined slightly. There was, however, a small but statistically significant increase after 40 days. The fact that deaths seemed to “respond” faster and with greater magnitude than cases makes no sense and suggests that the results might be spurious.
The CDC offers possible explanations the long delay in the purported impact, such as the time required by restaurants to resume operations and early caution on the part of diners. These are speculative, of course. More pertinent is the fact that the data did not distinguish between indoor and outdoor dining, nor did it account for other differences in regulation such as rules on physical distancing, intra-county variation in local government mandates, and compliance levels.
Finally, the measurement of effects covered 100 days after the policy change, but this window spans different stages of the pandemic. There were three waves of infections during 2020, which correspond to the classic Hope-Simpson pattern of virus seasonality. One was near year-end, but as each of the first two waves tapered (April-May, August-September), it should be no surprise that many restrictions were lifted. Within two months, however, new waves had begun. Karl Dierenbach notes that most of the reopenings occurred in May. Here’s how he explains the pattern:
“The map on the left shows counties where there was no on-premises dining (pink) in restaurants as of the beginning of May (4/30). … The map on the right shows that by the end of May, almost the entire country moved to allow some on-premises dining (green).”
“In the 100 days after May 1, cases nationwide fell slightly, then began to rise, and then plateaued.”
“And what did the CDC find happened after restaurants were allowed (changing mostly in May) to have on-premises dining? … Surprise! The CDC found that cases fell slightly, then began to rise, and then plateaued.”
The summer “mini-wave” is typical of mid- and tropical-latitude seasonality. Thus, the CDC’s findings with respect to dining restrictions are likely an artifact of the strong seasonality of the virus, rather than having anything to do with the lifting of restrictions between waves.
What about the imposition of mask mandates? The CDC’s findings show a much faster response in this case, with statistically significant changes in growth during the first 20 days. Another indicator of spurious correlation is that the growth response of deaths did not lag that of cases, but in fact deaths have reliably lagged cases by over 18 days during the pandemic. Again, the CDC’s caveats apply equally to its findings on masks. A large share of individuals adopted mask use voluntarily before mandates were imposed, so it’s not even clear that the mandates contributed much to the practice.
It’s a stretch to believe that mask mandates would have had an immediate, incremental effect on the growth of cases and deaths, given probable lags in compliance, exposure, and onset of symptoms. Moreover, a number of mask mandates in 2020 were imposed near the very peak of the seasonal waves. Little wonder that the growth rates of cases and deaths declined shortly thereafter.
We’ve known for a long time that masks do little to stop the spread of viral particles. They become airborne as aerosols which easily penetrate the kind of cloth masks worn by most members of the public, to say nothing of making contact with their eyes. The table below contains citations to research over the past 10 years uniformly rejecting the hypothesis of a significant protective effect against influenza from masks. There is no reason to believe that they would be more effective in preventing C19 infections.
The CDC’s report on dining restrictions and mask mandates is a weak analysis. They wish to emphasize their faith in non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to minimize risks. They do so at a time when the vaccinated share of the most vulnerable population, the elderly, has climbed above 50% and is increasing steadily. Thus, risks are falling dramatically, so it’s past time to weigh the costs and benefits of NPIs more realistically. The timing of the report also seemed suspicious, coming as it did in the heat of the battle over the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, which subsequently passed.
It’s also a good time to note that zero risk, including “Zero COVID”, is not a realistic or worthwhile goal under any reasonable comparison of costs and benefits. Furthermore, NPIs have proven weak generally (also see here); claims to the contrary should always make us wary.
The CDC choked on a new analysis estimating COVID-19’s impact on U.S. life expectancy as of year-end 2020: they reported a decline of a full year, which is ridiculous on its face! As explained by Peter B. Bach in STAT News, the agency assumed that excess deaths attributed to COVID in 2020 would continue as a permanentaddition to deaths going forward. Please forgive my skepticism, but isn’t this too basic to qualify as an analytical error by an agency that subjects its reports to thorough vetting? Or might this have been a deliberate manipulation intended to convince the public that COVID will be an ongoing public health crisis. Of course the media has picked it up; even Zero Hedgereported it uncritically!
Bach does a quick calculation based on 400,000 excess deaths attributed to COVID in 2020 and 12 life-years lost by the average victim. I believe the first assumption is on the high side, and I say “attributed to COVID” as a reminder that the CDC’s guidance for completing death certificates was altered in the spring of 2020 specifically for COVID and not other causes of death. Furthermore, if our objective is to assess the impact of the virus itself, under no circumstances should excess deaths induced by misguided lockdown policies enter the calculation (though Bach entertains the possibility). Bach arrives at a reduction in average life of 5.3 days! Of course, that’s not intended to be a projection, but it is a reasonable estimate of COVID’s impact on average lives in 2020.
The CDC’s projection essentially freezes death rates at each age at their 2020 values. We will certainly see more COVID deaths in 2021, and the virus is likely to become endemic. Even with higher levels of acquired immunity and widespread vaccinations, there will almost certainly be some ongoing deaths attributable to COVID, but they are likely to be at levels that will blend into a resumption of the long decline in mortality rates, especially if COVID continues to displace the flu in its “ecological niche”. I include the chart at the top to emphasize the long-term improvement in mortality (though the chart shows only a partial year for 2020, and there has been some flattening or slight backsliding over the past five years or so). As Bach says:
“Researchers have regularly demonstrated that life expectancy projections are overly sensitive to evanescent events like pandemics and wars, resulting in considerably overestimated declines. … And yet the CDC published a result that, if anything, would convey to the public an exaggerated toll that Covid-19 took on longevity in 2020. That’s a problem.”
There were excess deaths from other causes in 2020, which Bach acknowledges. Perhaps 100,000 or more could be attributed to lockdowns and their consequences like economically-induced stress, depression, suicide, overdoses, and medical care deferred or never sought. The Zero Hedge article mentioned above discusses findings that lockdowns and their consequences, such as unemployment spells and lost education, will have ongoing negative effects on health and mortality for many years. The net effect on life expectancy might be as large as 11 to 12 days. Again, however, I draw a distinction between deaths caused by the disease and deaths caused by policy mistakes.
The CDC’s estimate should not be taken seriously when, as Kyle Smith says, there is every indication that the battle against COVID is coming to a successful conclusion. Public health experts have not acquitted themselves well during the pandemic, and the CDC’s life expectancy number only reinforces that impression. Here is Smith:
“We have learned a lot about how the virus works, and how it doesn’t: Outdoor transmission, for the most part, hardly ever happens. Kids are at very low risk, especially younger children. Baseball games, barbecues, and summer camps should be fine. Some pre-COVID activities now carry a different risk profile — notably anything that packs crowds together indoors, so Broadway theater, rock concerts, and the like will be just about the last category of activity to return to normal.”
But return to normal we should, and yet the CDC seems determined to poop on the victory party!
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.
What does it take to shake people out of their statist stupor? Evidently, the sweet “logic” of universal confinement is very appealing to the prescriptive mindset of busybodies everywhere, who anxiously wag their fingers at those whom they view as insufficiently frightened. As difficult as it is for these shrieking, authoritarian curs to fathom, measures like lockdowns, restrictions on business activity, school closures, and mandates on behavior have at besta limited impact on the spread of the coronavirus, and they are enormously costly in terms of economic well-being and many dimensions of public health. Yet the storm of propaganda to the contrary continues. Media outlets routinely run scare stories, dwelling on rising case numbers but ignoring them when they fall; they emphasize inflated measures of pandemic severity; certain researchers and so-called health experts can’t learn the lessons that are plain in the data; and too many public officials feel compelled to assert presumed but unconstitutional powers. At least the World Health Organization has managed to see things clearly, but many don’t want to listen.
I’ll be the first to say I thought the federalist approach to COVID policy was commendable: allow states and local governments to craft policies appropriate to local conditions and political preferences, rather than have the federal government dictate a one-size-fits-all policy. I haven’t wavered in that assessment, but let’s just say I expected more variety. What I failed to appreciate was the extent to which state and local leaders are captive to provincial busybodies, mavens of precautionary excess, and fraudulent claims to scientific wisdom.
Of course, it should be obvious that the “knowledge problem” articulated by Friedrich Hayek is just as dangerous at low-levels of government as it is in a central Leviathan. And it’s not just a knowledge problem, but a political problem: officials become panicked because they fear bad outcomes will spell doom for their careers. Politicians are particularly prone to the hazards of “do-somethingism”, especially if they have willing, status-seeking “experts” to back them up. But as Scott Sumner says:
“When issues strongly impact society, the science no longer ‘speaks for itself’.
Well, the science is not quite as clear as the “follow-the-science” crowd would have you believe. And unfortunately, public officials have little interest in sober assessments of the unintended effects of lockdown policy.
In my last post, I presented a simple framework for thinking about the benefits and costs of lockdown measures, or non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs). I also emphasized the knowledge problem: even if there is some point at which NPI stringencies are “optimized”, government does not possess the knowledge to find that point. It lacks detailed information on both the costs and benefits of NPIs, but individual actors know their own tolerance for risk, and they surely have some sense of the risks they pose to others in their normal course of affairs. While voluntary precautions might be imperfect, they accomplish much of what interventionists hope will be gained via coercion. But, in an effort to “sell” NPIs to constituents and assert their authority, officials vastly over-estimate benefits of NPIs and under-estimate the costs.
NPI Stringency and COVID Outcomes
Let’s take a look at a measure of the strength of NPIs by state — the University of Oxford Stringency Index — and compare those to CDC all-cause excess deaths in each state. If it’s hard to read, try clicking on the image or turn your phone sideways. This plot covers outcomes through mid-November:
The chart doesn’t suggest any benefit to the imposition of greater restrictions, or more stringent NPIs. In fact, the truth is that people will do most of the work on their own based on perceptions of risk. That’s partly because government restrictions add little risk mitigation to what can be accomplished by voluntary social distancing and other precautions.
Here’s a similar chart with cross-country comparisons, though the data here ended in early October (I apologize for the fuzzy image):
But what about reverse causality? Maybe the imposition of stringency was a response to more severe contagions. Now that the virus has swept most of the U.S and Europe in three distinct waves, and given the variety and timing of NPIs that have been tried, it’s harder to make that argument. States like South Dakota have done fairly well with low stringency, while states like New Jersey with high stringency have fared poorly. The charts above provide multiple pair-wise examples and counter-examples of states or countries having faced hard waves with different results.
But let’s look at a few specific situations.
The countries shown above have converged somewhat over the past month: Sweden’s daily deaths have risen while the others have declined to greater or lesser degrees, but the implications for mask usage are unaltered.
And of course we have this gem, predicated on the mental gymnastics lockdown enthusiasts are fond of performing:
But seriously, it’s been a typical pattern: cases rise to a point at which officials muster the political will to impose restrictions, often well after the “exponential” phase of the wave or even the peak has passed. For the sake of argument, if we were to stipulate that lockdowns save lives, it would take time for these measures to mitigate new infections, time for some of the infected individuals to become symptomatic, and more time for diagnosis. For the lockdown arguments to be persuasive, the implementation of NPIs would have to precede the point at which the growth of cases begins to decline by a few weeks. That’s something we’ve seldom observed, but officials always seem to take credit for the inevitable decline in cases.
More informed lockdown proponents have been hanging their hats on this paper in Nature by Seth Flaxman, et al, published in July. As Philippe LeMoine has shown, however, Flaxman and his coauthors essentially assumed their result. After a fairly exhaustive analysis, Lemoine, a man who understands sophisticated mathematics, offers these damning comments:
“Their paper is a prime example of propaganda masquerading as science that weaponizes complicated mathematics to promote questionable policies. Complicated mathematics always impresses people because theydon’t understand it and it makes the analysis look scientific, but often it’s used to launder totally implausible assumptions, which anyone could recognize as such if they were stated in plain language. I think it’s exactly what happened with Flaxman et al.’s paper, which has been used as a cudgel to defend lockdowns, even though it has no practical relevance whatsoever.”
The Economic Costs of Stringency
So the benefits of stringent lockdowns in terms of averting sickness and death from COVID are speculative at best. What about the costs of lockdowns? We can start with their negative impact on economic activity:
That’s a pretty bad reflection on NPI stringency. In the U.S, a 10% decline in GDP in 2020 amounts to about $2.1 trillion in lost goods and services. That’s just for starters. The many destroyed businesses and livelihoods carry an ongoing cost that could take years to fade, as this graphic on permanent business closures shows:
If you’re wondering about the distributional effects of lockdowns, here’s more bad news:
It’s possible to do many high-paying jobs from home. Not so for blue-collar workers. And distributional effects by size of enterprise are also heavily-skewed in favor of big companies. Within the retail industry, big-box stores are often designated as “essential”, while small shops and restaurants are not. The restaurant industry has been destroyed in many areas, inflicting a huge blow to owners and workers. This despite evidence from contact tracing showing that restaurants and bars account for a very small share of transmission. To add insult to injury, many restaurants invested heavily in safety measures and equipment to facilitate new, safer ways of doing business, only to be double-crossed by officials like Andrew Cuomo and Eric Garcetti, who later shut them down.
Public Health Costs of Stringency
Lives are lost due to lockdowns, but here’s a little exercise for the sake of argument: The life value implied by individual willingness-to-pay for risk reduction comes in at less than $4 million. Even if the supposed 300,000 COVID deaths had all been saved by lockdowns, that would have amounted to a value of $1.2 trillion, about half of the GDP loss indicated above. Of course, it would be outrageously generous to concede that lives saved by NPI’s have approached 300,000, so lockdowns fall far short at the very outset of any cost-benefit comparison, even if we value individual lives at far more than $4 million.
As AJ Kay says, the social and human costs go far beyond economic losses:
I cited specific examples of losses in many of these categories in an earlier post. But for the moment, instead of focusing on causes of death, take a look at this table provided by Justin Hart showing a measure of non-COVID excess deaths by age group in the far right-hand column:
The numbers here are derived by averaging deaths by age group over the previous five years and subtracting COVID deaths in each group. I believe Hart’s numbers go through November. Of greatest interest here is the fact that younger age groups, having far less risk of death from COVID than older age groups, have suffered large numbers of excess deaths NOT attributed to COVID. As Hart notes later in his thread:
These deaths are a tragic consequence of lockdowns.
Educational Costs of Stringency
Many schools have been closed to in-person instruction during the pandemic, leading to severe disruptions to the education f children. This report from the Fairfax County, VA School District is indicative, and it is extremely disheartening. The report includes the following table:
Note the deterioration for disabled students, English learners, and the economically disadvantaged. The surfeit of failing grades is especially damaging to groups already struggling in school relative to their peers, such as blacks and Hispanics. Not only has the disruption to in-person instruction been disastrous to many students and their futures; it has also yielded little benefit in mitigating the contagion. A recent study in The Lancet confirms once again that transmission is low in educational settings. Also see here and here for more evidence on that point.
It’s clear that the “follow-the-science” mantra as a rationale for stringent NPIs was always a fraud, as was the knee-jerk response from those who conflated lockdowns with “leadership”. Such was the wrongheaded and ultimately deadly pressure to “do something”. We can be thankful that pressure was resisted at the federal level by President Trump. The extraordinary damage inflicted by ongoing NPIs was quite foreseeable, but there is one more very ominous implication. I’ll allow J.D. Tucille to sum that up with some of the pointed quotes he provides:
“‘The first global pandemic of the digital age has accelerated the international adoption of surveillance and public security technologies, normalising new forms of widespread, overt state surveillance,’ warned Kelsey Munro and Danielle Cave of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Policy Centre last month.
‘Numerous governments have used the COVID-pandemic to repress expression in violation of their obligations under human rights law,’ United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye noted in July.
‘For authoritarian-minded leaders, the coronavirus crisis is offering a convenient pretext to silence critics and consolidate power,’ Human Rights Watch warned back in April.
There’s widespread agreement, then, that government officials around the world are exploiting the pandemic to expand their power and to suppress opposition. That’s the case not only among the usual suspects where authorities don’t pretend to take elections and civil liberties seriously, but also in countries that are traditionally considered ‘free.’ … It’s wildly optimistic to expect that newly acquired surveillance tools and enforcement powers will simply evaporate once COVID-19 is sent on its way. The post-pandemic new normal is almost certain to be more authoritarian than what went before.”
Let’s get one thing straight: when you read that “hospitalizations have hit record highs”, as the Wall Street Journal headline blared Friday morning, they aren’t talking about total hospitalizations. They reference a far more limited set of patients: those admitted either “for” or “with” COVID. And yes, COVID admissions have increased this fall nationwide, and especially in certain hot spots (though some of those are now coming down). Admissions for respiratory illness tend to be highest in the winter months. However, overall hospital capacity utilization has been stable this fall. The same contrast holds for ICU utilization: more COVID patients, but overall occupancy rates have been fairly stable. Several factors account for these differing trends.
Admissions and Utilization
First, take a look at total staffed beds, beds occupied, and beds occupied by COVID patients (admitted “for” or “with” COVID), courtesy of Don Wolt. Notice that COVID patients occupied about 14% of all staffed beds over the past week or so, and total beds occupied are at about 70% of all staffed beds.
Is this unusual? Utilization is a little high based on the following annual averages of staffed-bed occupancy from Statista (which end in 2017, unfortunately). I don’t have a comparable utilization average for the November 30 date in recent years. However, the medical director interviewed at this link believes there is a consensus that the “optimal” capacity utilization rate for hospitals is as high as 85%! On that basis, we’re fine in the aggregate!
The chart below shows that about 21% of staffed Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds are occupied by patients having COVID infections, and 74% of all ICU beds are occupied.
Here’s some information on the regional variation in ICU occupancy rates by COVID patients, which pretty much mirror the intensity of total beds occupied by COVID patients. Fortunately, new cases have declined recently in most of the states with high ICU occupancies.
Resolving an Apparent Contradiction
There are several factors that account for the upward trend in COVID admissions with stable total occupancy. Several links below are courtesy of AJ Kay:
The flu season has been remarkably light, though outpatients with symptoms of influenza-like illness (ILI) have ticked-up a bit in the past couple of weeks. Still, thus far, the light flu season has freed up hospital resources for COVID patients. Take a look at the low CDC numbers through the first nine weeks of the current flu season (from Phil Kerpen):
There is always flexibility in the number of staffed beds both in ICUs and otherwise. Hospitals adjust staffing levels, and beds are sometimes reassigned to ICUs or from outpatient use to inpatient use. More extreme adjustments are possible as well, as when hallways or tents are deployed for temporary beds. This tends to stabilize total bed utilization.
The panic about the fall wave of the virus sowed by media and public officials has no doubt “spooked” individuals into deferring care and elective procedures that might require hospitalization. This has been an unfortunate hallmark of the pandemic with terrible medical implications, but it has almost surely freed-up capacity.
COVID beds occupied are inflated by a failure to distinguish between patients admitted “for” COVID-like illness (CLI) and patients admitted for other reasons but who happen to test positive for COVID — patients “with” COVID (and all admissions are tested).
Case inflation from other kinds of admissions is amplified by false positives, which are rife. This leads to a direct reallocation of patients from “beds occupied” to “COVID beds occupied”.
In early October, the CDC changed its guidelines for bed counts. Out-patients presenting CLI symptoms or a positive test, and who are assigned to a bed for observation for more than eight hours, were henceforth to be included in COVID-occupied beds.
Also in October, the FDA approve an Emergency Use Authorization for Remdesivir as a first line treatment for COVID. That requires hospitalization, so it probably inflated COVID admissions.
In addition to the above, let’s not forget: early on, hospitals were given an incentive to diagnose patients with COVID, whether tested or merely “suspected”. The CARES Act authorized $175 billion dollars for hospitals for the care of COVID patients. In the spring and even now, hospitals have lost revenue due to the cancellation of many elective procedures, so the law helped replace those losses (though the distribution was highly uneven). The point is that incentives were and still are in place to diagnose COVID to the extent possible under the law (with a major assist from false-positive PCR tests).
Improved Treatment and Treatment
While more COVID patients are using beds, they are surviving their infections at a much higher rate than in the spring, according to data from FAIR Health. Moreover, the average length of their hospital stay has fallen by more than half, from 10.5 to 4.6 days. That means beds turn over more quickly, so more patients can be admitted over a week or month while maintaining a given level of hospital occupancy.
The CDC just published a report on “under-reported” hospitalization, but as AJ Kay notes, it can only be described as terrible research. Okay, propaganda is probably a better word! Biased research would be okay as well. The basic idea is to say that all non-hospitalized, symptomatic COVID patients should be counted as “under-counted” hospitalizations. We’ve entered the theater of the absurd! It’s certainly true that maxed-out hospitals must prioritize admissions based on the severity of cases. Some patients might be diverted to other facilities or sent home. Those decisions depend on professional judgement and sometimes on the basis of patient preference. But let’s not confuse beds that are unoccupied with beds that “should be occupied” if only every symptomatic COVID patient were admitted.
Finally, here’s a little more information on regional variation in bed utilization from the HealthData.govweb site. The table below lists the top 25 states by staffed bed utilization at the end of November. A few states are highlighted based on my loose awareness of their status as “COVID “hot spots” this fall (and I’m sure I have overlooked a couple. Only two states were above 80% occupancy, however.
The next table shows the 25 states with the largest increase in staffed bed utilization during November. Only a handful would appear to be at all alarming based on these increases, but Missouri, for example, at the top of the list, still had 27% of beds unoccupied on November 30. Also, 21 states had decreases in bed utilization during November. Importantly, it is not unusual for hospitals to operate with this much headroom or less, which many administrators would actually prefer.
Of course, certain local markets and individual hospitals face greater capacity pressures at this point. Often, the most crimped situations are in small hospitals in underserved communities. This is exacerbated by more limited availability of staff members with school-age children at home due to school closures. Nevertheless, overall needs for beds look quite manageable, especially in view of some of the factors inflating COVID occupancy.
Marc Boom, President and CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, had some enlightening comments in this article:
“Hospital capacity is incredibly fluid, as Boom explained on the call, with shifting beds and staffing adjustments an ongoing affair. He also noted that as a rule, hospitals actually try to operate as near to capacity as possible in order to maximize resources and minimize cost burdens. Boom said numbers from one year ago, June 25, 2019, show that capacity was at 95%.”
So there are ample beds available at most hospitals. A few are pinched, but resources can and should be devoted to diverting serious COVID cases to other facilities. But on the whole, the panic over hospital capacity for COVID patients is unwarranted.
We have a false-positive problem and even the New York Times noticed! The number of active COVID cases has been vastly exaggerated and still is, but there is more than one fix.
COVID PCR tests, which are designed to detect coronavirus RNA from a nasal swab, have a “specificity” of about 97%, and perhaps much less in the field. That means at least 3% of tests on uninfected subjects are falsely positive. But the total number of false positive tests can be as large or larger than the total number of true positives identified. Let’s say 3% of the tested population is truly infected. Then out of every 100 individuals tested, three individuals are actively infected and 97 are not. Yet about 3 of those 97 will test positive anyway! So in this example, for every true infection identified, the test also falsely flags an uninfected individual. The number of active infections is exaggerated by 100%.
But again, it’s suspected to be much worse than that. The specificity of PCR tests depends on the number of DNA replications, or amplification cycles, to which a test sample is subjected. That process is illustrated through three cycles in the graphic above. It’s generally thought that 20 – 30 cycles is sufficient to pick-up DNA from a live virus infection. If a sample is subjected to more than 30 cycles, the likelihood that the test will detect insignificant dead fragments of the virus is increased. More than 35 cycles prompts real concern about the test’s reliability. But in the U.S., PCR tests are regularly subjected to upwards of 35 and even 40-plus cycles of amplification. This means the number of active cases is exaggerated, perhaps by several times. If you don’t believe me, just ask the great Dr. Anthony Fauci:
“It’s very frustrating for the patients as well as for the physicians … somebody comes in, and they repeat their PCR, and it’s like [a] 37 cycle threshold, but you almost never can culture virus from a 37 threshold cycle. So, I think if somebody does come in with 37, 38, even 36, you got to say, you know, it’s just dead nucleotides, period.“
Remember, the purpose of the test is to find active infections, but the window during which most COVID infections are active is fairly narrow, only for 10 – 15 days after the onset of symptoms, and often less; those individuals are infectious to others only up to about 10 days, and most tests lag behind the onset of symptoms. In fact, infected but asymptomatic individuals — a third or more of all those truly infected at any given time — are minimally infectious, if at all. So the window over which the test should be sensitive is fairly narrow, and many active infections are not infectious at all.
PCR tests are subject to a variety of other criticisms. Many of those are discussed in this external peer-review report on an early 2020 publication favorable to the tests. In addition to the many practical shortfalls of the test, the authors of the original paper are cited for conflicts of interest. And the original paper was accepted within 24 hours of submission to the journal Eurosurveillance (what a name!), which should raise eyebrows to anyone familiar with a typical journal review process.
The most obvious implication of all the false positives is that the COVID case numbers are exaggerated. The media and even public health officials have been very slow to catch onto this fact. As a result, their reaction has sown a panic among the public that active case numbers are spiraling out of control. In addition, false positives lead directly to mis-attribution of death: the CDC changed it’s guidelines in early April for attributing death to COVID (and only for COVID, not other causes of death). This, along with the vast increase in testing, means that false positives have led to an exaggeration of COVID as a cause of death. Even worse, false positives absorb scarce medical resources, as patients diagnosed with COVID require a high level of staffing and precaution, and the staff often requires isolation themselves.
Many have heard that Elon Musk tested positive twice in one day, and tested negative twice in the same day! The uncomfortable reality of a faulty test was recently recognized by an Appeals Court in Portugal, and we may see more litigation of this kind. The Court ruled in favor of four German tourists who were quarantined all summer after one of them tested positive. The Court said:
“In view of current scientific evidence, this test shows itself to be unable to determine beyond reasonable doubt that such positivity corresponds, in fact, to the infection of a person by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
I don’t believe testing is a bad thing. The existence of diagnostic tests cannot be a bad thing. In fact, I have advocated for fast, cheap tests, even at the sacrifice of accuracy, so that individuals can test themselves at home repeatedly, if necessary. And fast, cheap tests exist, if only they would be approved by the FDA. Positive tests should always be followed-up immediately by additional testing, whether those are additional PCR tests, other molecular tests, or antigen tests. And as Brown University epidemiologist Andrew Bostom says, you should always ask for the cycle threshold used when you receive a positive result on a PCR test. If it’s above 30 and you feel okay, the test is probably not meaningful.
PCR tests are not ideal because repeat testing is time consuming and expensive, but PCR tests could be much better if the number of replication cycles was reduced to somewhere between 20 and 30. Like most flu and SARS viruses, COVID-19 is very dangerous to the aged and sick, so our resources should be focused on their safety. However, exaggerated case counts are a cause of unnecessary hysteria and cost, especially for a virus that is rather benign to most people.
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.”
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.
Reported COVID deaths do not reflect deaths that actually occurred in the reporting day or week, as I’ve noted several times. Here is a nice chart from @tlowdon on Twitter showing the difference between reported deaths and actual deaths for corresponding weeks. The blue bars are weekly deaths reported by the COVID Tracking Project. The solid orange bars are the CDC’s “provisional” deaths by actual week of death, which is less than complete for recent weeks because of lags in reporting. Still, it’s easy to see that reported deaths have overstated actual deaths each week since late August.
I should note that the orange bars represent deaths that involved COVID-19, though a COVID infection might not have actually killed them. This CDC report, updated on November 4th, shows the importance of co-morbidities, which in many cases are the actual cause of death according to pre-COVID, CDC guidance on death certificates.
Researchers have studied several measures in an effort to find leading indicators of COVID deaths. The list includes new cases diagnosed (PCR positivity) and the percentage of emergency room visits presenting symptoms of COVID-like illness (%CLI). These indicators are usually evaluated after shifting them in time by a few weeks in order to observe correlations with COVID deaths a few weeks later. Interestingly, @tlowdon reports that the best single predictor of actual COVID deaths over the course of a few weeks is the sum of the %CLI and the percentage of ER patients presenting symptoms of influenza-like illness (%ILI). Perhaps adding %ILI to %CLI strengthens the correlation because the symptoms of the flu and COVID are often mistaken for one another.
The chart below reproduces the orange bars from above representing deaths at actual dates of death. Also plotted are the %Positivity from COVID tests (shifted forward 2 weeks), %CLI (3 weeks), the %ILI (3 weeks), and the sum of %CLI and %ILI (3 weeks, the solid blue line). My guess is that %ILI contributes to the correlation with deaths mainly because %ILI’s early peak (which occurred in March) led the peak in deaths in April. Otherwise, there is very little variation in %ILI. That might change with the current onset of the flu season, but as I noted in my last post, the flu has been very subdued since last winter.
What About November?
So where does that leave us? The chart above ends with our leading indicator, CLI + ILI, brought forward from the first half of October. What’s happened to CLI + ILI since then? And what does that tell us to expect in November? The chart below is from the CDC’s web site. The red line is %CLI and the yellow line is %ILI. The sum of the two isn’t shown. However, there is no denying the upward trend in CLI, though the slope of CLI + ILI would be more moderate.
As of 10/31, CLI + ILI has increased by almost 40% since it’s low in early October. If the previous relationship holds up, that implies an increase of almost 40% in actual weekly COVID deaths from about 4,000 per week to about 5,500 per week by November 21 (a little less than 800 per day).
FiveThirtyEight has a compilation of 13 different forecast models with projections of deaths by the end of November. The estimate of 5,500 per week by November 21, or perhaps slightly less per week over the full month of November, would put total COVID deaths at the top of the range of the MIT, UCLA, Iowa State, and University of Texas models, but below or near the low end of ranges for eight other models. However, those models are based on reported deaths, so the comparison is not strictly valid. Reported deaths are still likely to exceed actual deaths by the end of November, and the actual death prediction would be squarely in the range of multiple reported death predictions. That reinforces the expectation an upward trend in actual deaths.
Third Wave States
States in the upper Midwest and upper Mountain regions have had the largest increases in cases per capita over the past few weeks. Using state abbreviations, the top ten are ND, SD, WI, IA, MT, NE, WY, UT, IL, and MN, with ID at #11 (according to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker). One factor that might mediate the increase in cases, and ultimately deaths, is the possibility of early herd immunity: in the earlier COVID waves, the increase in infections abated once seroprevalence (the share of the population with antibodies from exposure) reached a level of 15% to 25%.
Unfortunately, estimates of seroprevalence by state are very imprecise. Thus far, reliable samples have been limited to states and metro areas that had heavy infections in the first and second waves. One rule of thumb, however, is that seroprevalence is probably less than 10x the cumulative share of a population having tested positive. To be very conservative, let’s assume a seroprevalence of four times cumulative cases. On that basis, half the states in the “top ten” listed above would already have seroprevalence above 15%. Those states are ND, SD, WI, IA, and NE. The others are mostly in a range of 12% to 15%, with MI coming in the lowest at about 9%.
This gives some cause for optimism that the wave in these states and others will abate fairly soon, but there are a number of uncertainties: first, the estimates of seroprevalence above, while conservative, are very imprecise, as noted above; second, the point at which herd immunity might cause the increase in new cases to begin declining is real guesswork (though we might have confirmation in a few states before long); third, we are now well into the fall season, with lower temperatures, lower humidity, less direct sunlight, and diminishing vitamin D levels. We do not have experience with COVID at this time of year, so we don’t know whether the patterns observed earlier in the year will be repeated. If so, new cases might begin to abate in some areas in November, but that probably wouldn’t be reflected in deaths until sometime in December. And if the flu comes back with a corresponding increase in CLI + ILI, then we’d expect further increases in actual deaths attributed to COVID. That is only a possibility given the weakness in flu numbers in 2020, however.
I was excessively optimistic about the course of the pandemic in the U.S. in the spring. While this post has been moderately pessimistic, I believe there are reasons to expect fewer deaths than previous relationships would predict. We are far better at treating COVID now, and the vulnerable are taking precautions that have reduced their incidence of infections relative to younger and healthier cohorts. So if anything, I think the forecasts above will err on the high side.
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