My last post had a simple message about the meaning of immunity: you won’t get very sick or die from an infection to which you are immune, including COVID-19. Like any other airborne virus, that does NOT mean you won’t get it lodged in your eyeballs, sinuses, throat, or lungs. If you do, you are likely to test positive, though your immunity means the “case” is likely to be inconsequential.
As noted in that last post, we’ve seen increasing COVID case counts with the so-called Delta variant, which is more highly transmissible than earlier variants. (This has been abetted by an uncontrolled southern border as well.) However, as we’d expect with a higher level of immunity in the population, the average severity of these cases is low relative to last year’s COVID waves. But then I saw this article in ScienceAlert quoting Sir Andrew Pollard, a scientist affiliated AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. He says with Delta, herd immunity “is not a possibility” — everyone will get it.
Maybe everyone will, but that doesn’t mean everyone will get sick. His statement raises an obvious question about the meaning of herd immunity. If our working definition of the term is that the virus simply disappears, then Pollard is correct: we know that COVID is endemic. But the only virus that we’ve ever completely eradicated is polio. Would Pollard say we’ve failed to achieve herd immunity against all other viruses? I doubt it. Endemicity and herd immunity are not mutually exclusive. The key to herd immunity is whether a virus does or does not remain a threat to the health of the population generally.
Active COVID infections will be relatively short-lived in individuals with “immunity”. Moreover, viral loads tend to be lower in immune individuals who happen to get infected. Therefore, the “infected immune” have less time and less virus with which to infect others. That creates resistance to further contagion and contributes to what we know as herd immunity. While immune individuals can “catch” the virus, they won’t get sick. Likewise, a large proportion of the herd can be immune and still catch the virus without getting sick. That is herd immunity.
One open and controversial question is whether uninfected individuals will require frequent revaccination to maintain their immunity. A further qualification has to do with asymptomatic breakthrough infections. Those individuals won’t see any reason to quarantine, and they may unwittingly transmit the virus.
I also acknowledge that the concept of herd immunity is often discussed strictly in terms of transmission, or rather its failure. The more contagious a new virus, like the Delta variant, the more difficult it is to achieve herd immunity. Models predicting low herd immunity thresholds due to heterogeneity in the population are predicated on a given level of transmissibility. Those thresholds would be correspondingly higher given greater transmissibility.
A prominent scientist quoted in this article is Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia. After backing-up Pollard’s dubious take on herd immunity, Hunter drops this bit of real wisdom:
“We need to move away from reporting infections to actually reporting the number of people who are ill. Otherwise we are going to be frightening ourselves with very high numbers that don’t translate into disease burden.”
Here, here! Ultimately, immunity has to do with the ability of our immune systems to fight infections. Vaccinations, acquired immunity from infections, and pre-existing immunity all reduce the severity of later infections. They are associated with reductions in transmission, but those immune responses are more basic to herd immunity than transmissability alone. Herd immunity does not mean that severe cases will never occur. In fact, more muted seasonal waves will come and go, inflicting illness on a limited number of vulnerables, but most people can live their lives normally while viral reproduction is contained. Herd immunity!
Sadly, we’re getting accustomed to hearing misstatements and bad information from public health officials on everything from mask mandates, lockdowns, and school closings to hospital capacity and vaccine hesitancy. Dr. Pollard’s latest musing is not unique in that respect. It’s almost as if these “experts” have become victims of their own flawed risk assessments insofar as their waning appeal to “the herd” is concerned. Professor Hunter’s follow-up is refreshing, however. Public health agencies should quit reporting case counts and instead report only patients who present serious symptoms, COVID ER visits, or hospitalizations.
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.
It’s been said that many of the so-called “heroes” of the COVID pandemic who’ve been celebrated by the media are actually villains, and perhaps Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York should top the list. He saw to it that retirement homes were seeded with infected patients by ordering them returned their care homes rather than admitted to hospitals. Deaths in these facilities mounted, and they mounted faster than Cuomo’s administration was willing to admit. But the media and even Democrat state legislators have begun to take note, which is practically a miracle!
It seems equally true that some vilified by the media for their COVID response are actually heroes. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida might deserve top honors here. Having spent the last month in Florida, I can attest that the business and social environment here is quite open compared to my home state (despite the presence of a few freaked out northerners who can’t quite fathom how stupid they look wearing masks on the beach). Florida’s infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have been lower than in California, New York, and many other states where lockdown measures have been stringent. (The first chart below is just a little busy…)
This approach to saving lives is obvious, yet critics at outlets like NBC News insist that DeSantis must be pandering to the senior population in Florida. Well, one wouldn’t want to be responsive to voters who happen to face high mortality risks, right? Others such as horror writer Stephen Kinghave jumped onboard to offer their bumbling public health expertise as well.
There were many experts and the usual collection of numbskulls on social media who were wrong about Florida. DeSantis handled the pandemic as it should have been handled elsewhere. But the propaganda to the contrary goes unabated. For example, this article is pathetic. Can these people be serious? Or are they really that stupid? This goes for the Biden Administration as well, which had entertained the notion of imposing federal travel restrictions on Florida!
The political attacks on Florida and its governor reveal the extent to which opponents wish to ignore the evidence in plain sight. The data on COVID outcomes put the lie to the narrative of a public health emergency requiring massive restrictions on personal liberty. We know those policies are powerless to control the course of the contagion. The pandemic, however, was the key to convincing the public to accept a more authoritarian role for government. It’s a blessing that not everyone bought in, and that there are places like Florida where you can still go about your business in approximate normalcy.
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.
For clarity, start with this charming interpretive one-act on public health policy in 2020. You might find it a little sardonic, but that’s the point. It was one of the more entertaining tweets of the day, from @boriquagato.
A growing body of research shows that stringent non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) — “lockdowns” is an often-used shorthand — are not effective in stemming the transmission and spread of COVID-19. A compendium of articles and preprints on the topic was just published by the American Institute for Economic Research (AEIR): “Lockdowns Do Not Control the Coronavirus: The Evidence”. The list was compiled originally by Ivor Cummins, and he has added a few more articles and other relevant materials to the list. The links span research on lockdowns across the globe. It covers transmission, mortality, and other health outcomes, as well as the economic effects of lockdowns. AIER states the following:
“Perhaps this is a shocking revelation, given that universal social and economic controls are becoming the new orthodoxy. In a saner world, the burden of proof really should belong to the lockdowners, since it is they who overthrew 100 years of public-health wisdom and replaced it with an untested, top-down imposition on freedom and human rights. They never accepted that burden. They took it as axiomatic that a virus could be intimidated and frightened by credentials, edicts, speeches, and masked gendarmes.
The pro-lockdown evidence is shockingly thin, and based largely on comparing real-world outcomes against dire computer-generated forecasts derived from empirically untested models, and then merely positing that stringencies and “nonpharmaceutical interventions” account for the difference between the fictionalized vs. the real outcome. The anti-lockdown studies, on the other hand, are evidence-based, robust, and thorough, grappling with the data we have (with all its flaws) and looking at the results in light of controls on the population.”
We are constantly told that public intervention constitutes “leadership”, as if our well being depends upon behavioral control by the state. Unfortunately, it’s all too typical of research on phenomena deemed ripe for intervention that computer models are employed to “prove” the case. A common practice is to calibrate such models so that the outputs mimic certain historical outcomes. Unfortunately, a wide range of model specifications can be compatible with an historical record. This practice is also a far cry from empirically testing well-defined hypotheses against alternatives. And it is a practice that usually does poorly when the model is tested outside the period to which it is calibrated. Yet that is the kind of evidence that proponents of intervention are fond of using to support their policy prescriptions.
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.”
Writing about COVID as a respite from election madness is very cold comfort, but here goes….
COVID deaths in the U.S. still haven’t shown the kind of upward trend this fall that many had feared. It could happen, but it hasn’t yet. In the chart above, new cases are shown in brown (along with the rolling seven-day average), while deaths (on the right axis) are shown in blue. It’s been over six weeks since new case counts began to rise, but deaths have risen for about two weeks, and it’s been gradual relative to the first two waves. Either the average lag between diagnosis and death is much longer than earlier in the year, or the current “casedemic” is much less deadly, or perhaps both. It could change. And granted, this is national data; states in the midwest have had the strongest trends in cases, especially the upper midwest, as well as stronger trends in hospitalizations and deaths. Most of those areas had milder experiences with the virus in the spring and summer.
What’s tricky about this is that both case reports and death reports in the chart above are significantly lagged. A COVID test might not take place until several days after infection (if at all), and sometimes not until hospitalization or death. Then the test result might not be known for several days. However, the greater availability of tests and faster turnaround time have almost certainly shortened that lag.
Deaths are reported with an even a greater delay, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to the media or some of the organizations that track these statistics, such as Johns Hopkins University and the COVID Tracking Project. Thus far, they only tell you what’s reported on a given day. This article from Rational Ground does a good job of explaining the issue and the distortion it causes in discerning trends.
Deaths by actual date-of-death
I’ve reported on the issue of lagged COVID deaths myself. The following graph from Justin Hart is a clear presentation of the reporting delays.
Reported deaths for the most recent week (10/24) are shown in dark blue, and those deaths were spread over a number of prior weeks. Actual deaths in a given week are represented by a “stack” of deaths reported later, in subsequent weeks. One word of caution: actual deaths in the most recent weeks are “provisional”, and more will be added in subsequent reporting weeks. Hence the steep drop off for the 10/17 and 10/24 reporting weeks.
Going back three or four weeks, it’s clear that actual deaths continued to decline into October. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell us much about the recent trend or whether actual deaths have started to rise given the increase in new cases. I have seen a new weekly update with the deaths by actual date of death, but it is not “stacked” by reporting week. However, it does show a slight increase in the week of 10/10, the first weekly increase since the end of June. So perhaps we’ll see an uptick more in-line with the earlier lags between diagnosis and death, but that’s far from certain.
Another important point is that the number of deaths each week, and each day, are not as high as reported by the media and the popular tracking sites. How often have you heard “more than 1,000 people a day are dying”. That’s high even for weekly averages of reported deaths. As of three weeks ago, actual daily deaths were running at about 560. That’s still very high, but based on seroprevalence estimates (the actual number of infections from the presence of antibodies), the infection fatality keeps dropping toward levels that are comparable to the flu at ages less than 65.
Where is the flu?
Speaking of the flu, this chart from the World Health Organization is revealing: the flu appears to have virtually disappeared in 2020:
It’s still very early in the northern flu season, but the case count was very light this summer in the Southern Hemisphere. There are several possible explanations. One favored by the “lockdown crowd” is that mitigation efforts, including masks and social distancing, have curtailed the flu bug. Not just curtailed … quashed! If that’s true, it’s more than a little odd because the same measures have been so unsuccessful in curtailing COVID, which is transmitted the same way! Also, these measures vary widely around the globe, which weakens the explanation.
There are other, more likely explanations: perhaps the flu is being undercounted because COVID is being overcounted. False positive COVID tests might override the reporting of a few flu cases, but not all diagnoses are made via testing. Other respiratory diseases can be mistaken for the flu and vice versus, and they are now more likely to be diagnosed as COVID absent a test — and as the joke goes, the flu is now illegal! And another partial explanation: it is rare to be infected with two viruses at once. Thus, COVID is said to be “crowding out” the flu.
Waiting for data
There is other good news about transmission, treatment, and immunity, but I’ll devote another post to that, and I’ll wait for more data. For now, the “third wave” appears to be geographically distinct from the first two, as was the second wave from the first. This suggests a sort of herd immunity in areas that were hit more severely in earlier waves. But the best news is that COVID deaths, thus far this fall, are not showing much if any upward movement, and estimates of infection fatality rates continue to fall.
Joe Biden is a weak figurehead, a one-time moderate faltering over a coalition of leftists. If you wonder why Nancy Pelosi floated legislation to establish a committee on “presidential capacity,” don’t think so much about her loathing for Donald Trump; think about poor Joe Biden. He might be shunted aside just as soon as the power grab isn’t too obvious. They know well how Barack Obama famously said, “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to f*ck things up.” But whether Joe Biden is in control of anything, think about who he stands with:
The Violent Left: Marxist Antifa and Marxist BLM; opposed to law and order; burning cities; spewing eliminationist rhetoric; hissing n*g**r at black cops;
Police Defunders: won’t acknowledge good policing is needed more than ever, especially in minority communities;
Critical Race Theorists: a Marxist front whereby every word and action is viewed in the context of racial bias and victimization; they want reparations; on your knees.
The Scientistic: who labor under the delusion that “science” should guide all administrative and political decisions. Or someone’s version of science. The very idea is antithetical to the scientific domain, which deals only with falsifiable hypotheses. Few matters of value can be addressed using the tools of science exclusively, nor can they address matters of ethics.
Fear Mongers: would rule by precaution; risks are always worth exaggerating to existential proportions;
Lockdown Tyrants: refuse to acknowledge the steep public health costs of lockdowns; stripping individual liberties indefinitely, including the right to contract, free practice of religion, and assembly;
Insurrectionists: who fabricated a Russian collusion hoax to subvert the 2016 election, and later to overthrow a sitting president;
Gun Confiscators: they will if we let them;
Abortionists: would use federal tax dollars to fund the murder of millions of babies late into pregnancy, primarily black babies;
Taxers: won’t stop with punitive taxes on the wealthy and employers; it’s just not easy to milk high earners in a way that’s sufficient to pay for the fiscal debauchery demanded by the Biden-Harris constituency. Joe says he will raise taxes by $3.4 trillion.
Spenders: $2 trillion of new federal education outlays, including universal pre-K and free community college; the Green New Deal (see below). After all, the democrats are the party that can’t tell the difference between a cut in spending and a reduction in spending growth. If you think Trump is a big spender, their plans are astonishing;
Green New Dealers: would spend trillions to restrict energy choices, transfer U.S. wealth overseas in the name of international carbon reduction, and reduce our standard of living;
Redistributionists: would tax job creators not simply for the benefit of supporting the needy, but for anyone regardless of need (see UBI); this extends to plans to bail out blue states and cities with insolvent public employee pension funds;
Interventionists: would regulate all phases of life, including straws, sugary drinks, and your fireplace; they will burden private initiative; create artificial, politically-favored winners skilled at manipulating regulatory rules for competitive reasons; and create losers who are typically too small to handle the burden;
Medical Socialists: will strip your private health insurance, dictate the care you may receive, fix prices, and regulate physicians and other providers. You’ll love the care abroad, if you can afford to get out when your sick.
Public School Monopolists: poorly performing, beholden to teachers’ unions, unresponsive to taxpayers and often parents; they would happily revoke school choice;
Federal Suburb Rezoners: demanding low-income housing in every community;
Court Packers: to destroy the independent judiciary;
Iran Apologists: give them cash on the tarmac, let them develop their “peaceful” nuclear program; alienate the rest of the Middle East;
I could go on and on, but Harris-Biden voters should get a strong taste of their compatriots from the list above. It reflects the overriding prescriptive, bullying, and sometimes violent nature of the Left. They’d have you think all material goods can be free. Presto! They presume to have the knowledge and wisdom to plan the economy and your life better than you, Better than free markets and free people. What they’ll need is a lot of magic, or it won’t go well. You’ll get poverty and tears. I’m not sure Joe has the desire or the wherewithal to rein in his coalition of idiots.
Acceptance of risk is a necessary part of a good life, and extreme efforts to avoid it are your own business. Government has no power to guarantee absolute safety, nor should we presume to have such a right. Ongoing COVID lockdowns are an implicit assertion of exactly that kind of government power, despite the impotence of those efforts, and they constitute a rejection of more fundamental rights.
Lockdowns have had destructive effects on health and economic well being while conferring little if any benefit in mitigating harm from the virus. The lockdowns were originally sold as a way to “flatten the curve”, that is, to avoid a spike in cases and an overburdened health care system. However, this arguably well-qualified rationale later expanded in scope to encompass the mitigation of smaller and much less deadly outbreaks among younger cohorts, and then to the very idea of extinguishing the virus altogether. It’s become painfully obvious that such measures are not capable of achieving those goals.
In the U.S., the ongoing lockdowns have been a cause célèbre largely on the interventionist Left, and they have been prolonged mainly by Democrats at various levels of government. In a way, this is not unlike many other policies championed by the Left, often ostensibly designed to help members of the underclasses: instead, those policies often destroy or wrongly obviate incentives and promote dependency on the state. In this case, the plunge into dependency is a reality the Left would very much like to ignore, or to blame on someone else. You know who.
The lockdowns have been largely unsuccessful in mitigating the spread of the virus. At the same time, they have been used as a pretext to deny constitutional rights such as the free practice of religion, assembly, and a broad range of unenumerated rights under the “penumbra” of the Bill of Rights and the Ninth Amendment. What’s more, the severity of the economic blow caused by lockdowns has been borne disproportionately by the working poor and the small businesses who employ so many of them.
Lockdowns are deadly. It’s not clear that they’ve saved any lives, but they have massively disrupted the operation of the health care system with major consequences for those with chronic and undiagnosed conditions. The lockdowns have also led to spikes in mental health issues, alcoholism, drug abuse, and deaths of despair. A recent study found that over 26% of the excess deaths during the pandemic were non-COVID deaths. Those deaths were avoidable or accelerated, whereas the lockdowns have failed to meaningfully curtail COVID deaths. Don’t tell me about reduced traffic fatalities: that reduction is relatively small relative to the increase in non-COVID excess deaths (see below).
The Ethical Skeptic (TES) on Twitter has been tracking a measure of lockdown deaths for some time now. The following graphic provides a breakdown of excess non-COVID deaths since the start of the pandemic. The total “pie” shows almost 320,000 excess deaths through September 26th (avoiding less complete counts in recent weeks), as reported by the CDC. COVID accounted for 202,000 of those deaths, based on state-level reporting. Of the remaining 117,000 excess deaths, TES uses CDC data to allocate roughly 85,000 to various causes, the largest (more than half) being “Suicide, Addiction, Abandonment, and Abuse”. Other large categories include Cardio/Diabetes, Stroke, premature Alzheimers/Dementia death, and Cancer Access. Nearly 32,000 excess deaths remain as a “backlog”, not yet reported with a cause by states.
Also of interest in the graphic are estimates of life-years lost. The vast bulk of COVID victims are elderly, of course, which means that any estimate of lost years per victim must be relatively low. On the other hand, most non-COVID, lockdown-related deaths are among younger victims, with correspondingly greater life-years lost. TES’s aggregate estimate is that lockdown-related excess deaths involve double the life-years lost of COVID deaths. Of course, that is an estimate, but even granting some latitude for error, the reality is horrifying!
John Tierney in City Journal cites several recent studies concluding that lockdowns have been largely ineffective in Europe and in the U.S. While Tierney doesn’t rule out the possibility that lockdowns have produced some benefits, they have carried excessive costs and risks to public health going forward, such as lingering issues for those having deferred important health care decisions as well as disruption in future economic prospects. Ultimately, lockdowns don’t accomplish anything:
“While the economic and social costs have been enormous, it’s not clear that the lockdowns have brought significant health benefits beyond what was achieved by people’s voluntary social distancing and other actions.”
Tierney also discusses the costs and benefits of lockdowns in terms of life years: quality-adjusted life-years (QALY), which is a widely-used measure for evaluating of the use of health care resources:
“By the QALY measure, the lockdowns must be the most costly—and cost-ineffective—medical intervention in history because most of the beneficiaries are so near the end of life. Covid-19 disproportionately affects people over 65, who have accounted for nearly 80 percent of the deaths in the United States. The vast majority suffered from other ailments, and more than 40 percent of the victims were living in nursing homes, where the median life expectancy after admission is just five months. In Britain, a study led by the Imperial College economist David Miles concluded that even if you gave the lockdown full credit for averting the most unrealistic worst-case scenario (the projection of 500,000 British deaths, more than ten times the current toll), it would still flunk even the most lenient QALY cost-benefit test.”
We can now count the World Health Organizationamong the detractors of lockdowns. According to WHO’s Dr. David Nabarro:
“Lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer…. Look what’s happened to smallholder farmers all over the world. … Look what’s happening to poverty levels. It seems that we may well have a doubling of world poverty by next year. We may well have at least a doubling of child malnutrition.”
In another condemnation of the public health consequences of lockdowns, number of distinguished epidemiologists have signed off on a statement known as The Great Barrington Declaration. The declaration advocates a focused approach of protecting the most vulnerable from the virus, while allowing those at low risk to proceed with their lives in whatever way they deem acceptable. Those at low risk of severe disease can acquire immunity, which ultimately inures to the benefit of the most vulnerable. With few, brief, and local exceptions, this is how we have always dealt with pandemics in the past. That’s real life!
Joe Biden has claimed that he and Barack Obama had left Donald Trump with a “booming” economy to start his term in office. Of course, if he had anything to do with economic performance during the Obama Administration, it may have been his oversight of the mismanaged and ineffective “shovel-ready” stimulus program of 2009, For his sake, one might hope (and suspect) his oversight was nominal. In any case, his characterization of the Obama economy is not really accurate, as this editorial at Issues and Insights demonstrates. I could argue with a few of their points, but the thrust of it is correct. The economy weakened in 2015 and 2016, and expectations were for continued slow growth or possibly a recession in 2017 or after. At that point, many economists thought the aging expansion might be on its last legs. But economic growth exceeded expectations after Trump took office. As for job growth, economists predicted relatively sluggish growth in 2017-2019, but actual job growth exceeded those projections by more than three times.
Finally, Biden’s assertion that “Trump caused the recession” was laughable, especially when the punchline is his willingness to “shut down the economy“! He insists “I would listen to the scientists”, presumably the same knuckleheads who don’t understand the public health tradeoffs between the pandemic itself and lockdown risks (and who don’t understand the Constitution). Biden might not understand that the President lacks constitutional powers to demand a nationwide shutdown. Trump was quite sensibly persuaded to leave non-pharmaceutical interventions in the hands of the private sector as well as state and local governments, with guidance from federal health authorities. That some state and local leaders instituted draconian policies, which were largely ineffective and often damaging. was and is a terrible misfortune. The more sensible approach is to protect the most vulnerable and allow others to gauge their own risks, as we always have in earlier pandemics.
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