There are some hints of good news on the spread of the coronavirus in a few of the “hot spots“ that developed this fall. This could be very good news, but it’s a bit too early to draw definitive conclusions.
The number of new cases plateaued in Europe a few weeks ago. Of course, Europe’s average latitude is higher than in most of the U.S., and the seasonal spread began there a little earlier. It makes sense that it might ebb there a bit sooner than in the U.S. as well.
In the U.S., cases shot up in the upper Midwest four to six weeks ago, depending on the state. Now, however, new cases have turned down in Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin (first chart below), and they appear to have plateaued in Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, and Missouri (second chart below, but ending a few days earlier). These are the hottest of the recent hot states.
These plateaus and declines were preceded by a decline in the growth rates of new cases around 10 days ago, shown below.
The timing of these patterns roughly correspond to the timing of the spread in other regions earlier in the year. It’s been suggested that after seroprevalence reaches levels of around 15% – 25% that individuals with new antibodies, together with individuals having an existing pre-immunity from other coronaviruses, is enough to bring the virus reproduction rate (R) to a value of one or less. That means a breach of the effective herd immunity threshold. It’s possible that many of these states are reaching those levels. Of course, this is very uncertain, but the patterns are certainly encouraging.
Deaths lag behind new infections, and it generally takes several weeks before actual deaths by date-of-death are known with any precision. However, we might expect deaths to turn down within two to three weeks.
Deaths by date-of-death are strongly associated with emergency room patients from three weeks prior who presented symptoms of COVID-like illness (CLI) or influenza-like illness ((ILI). The following chart shows CLI and ILI separately for the entire U.S. (ILI is the lowest dashed line), but the last few observations of both series, after a peak on November 15th, suggest a downturn in CLI + ILI. If the relationship holds up, actual U.S. deaths by date-of-death should peak around December 7th, though we won’t know precisely until early in the new year.
As a side note, it continues to look like the flu season will be exceptionally mild this year. See the next chart. That’s tremendous because it should take some of the normal seasonable pressure off health care resources.
So Happy Thanksgiving!
Note: I saved all those charts over the last few days but lost track of the individual sources on Twitter. I’m too lazy and busy to go back and search through Twitter posts, so instead I’ll just list a few of my frequent sources here with links to recent posts, which are not necessarily apropos of the above: Don Wolt, Justin Hart, AlexL, The Ethical Skeptic, Aaron Ginn, and HOLD2.
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.
We’ve known for some times that COVID-19 (C19) follows seasonal patterns typical of the flu, though without the flu’s frequent antigenic drift. Now that we’re moving well into autumn, we’ve seen a surge in new C19 case counts in Europe and in a number of U.S. states, especially along the northern tier of the country.
The new case surge began in early to mid-September, depending on the state, and it’s been coincident with another surge in tests. From late July through early October, we had a near doubling in the number of tests per positive in the U.S. An increase in tests also accompanied the previous surge during the summer, which claimed far fewer lives than the initial wave in the early spring. In the summer, infections were much more prevalent among younger people than in the spring. Vitamin D levels were almost certainly higher during the summer months, our ability to treat the virus had also improved, and immunities imparted by prior infections left fewer susceptible individuals in the population. We have many of those advantages now, but D levels will fade as the fall progresses.
As for the new surge in cases, another qualification is that false positives are still a major testing problem; they inflate both case counts and C19-attributed deaths. In the absence of any improvement in test specificity, of which there is no evidence, the exaggeration caused by false positives grows larger as testing increases and positivity rates fall. So take all the numbers with that as a caveat.
How deadly will the virus be this fall? So far in Europe, the trends look very promising. Kyle Lamb provided the following charts from WHO on Twitter yesterday. (We should all be grateful that Twitter hasn’t censored Kyle yet, because he’s been a force in exposing alarmism in the mainstream media and among the public health establishment.) Take a look at these charts, and note particularly the lag between the first wave of infections and deaths, as well as the low counts of deaths now:
If the lag between diagnosis and death is similar now to the spring, Europe should have seen a strong upward trend in deaths by now, yet it’s hardly discernible in most of those countries. The fatality rates are low as well:
As Lamb notes, the IFRs in the last column look about like the flu, though again, the reporting of deaths and their causes are often subject to lags.
What about the U.S.? Nationwide, C19 cases and attributed death reports declined after July. See the chart below. More recently, reported deaths have stabilized at under 700 per day. Note again the relatively short lags between turns in cases and deaths in both the spring and summer waves.
Clearly, there has been no acceleration in C19 deaths corresponding to the recent trend in new cases. Northeastern states that had elevated death rates in the spring saw no resurgence in the summer; southern states that experienced a surge in the summer have now enjoyed taperings of both cases and deaths. But with each season, the virus seems to roll to regions that have been relatively unscathed to that point. Now, cases are surging in the upper Midwest and upper mountain states, though some of these states are lightly populated and their data are thin.
A few state charts are shown below, but trends in deaths are very difficult to tease out in some cases. First, here are new cases and reported deaths in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. There is a clear uptrend in cases in these states along with a very slight rise in deaths, but reported deaths are very low.
Next are Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. A slight uptrend in cases began as early as August. Idaho and Montana have had few deaths, so they are not plotted in the second chart. The Dakotas have had days with higher reported deaths, and while the data are thin and volatile, the visual impression is definitely of an uptrend in deaths.
The following states are somewhat more central in latitude: Colorado, Illinois, and Ohio. There is a slight upward trend in new cases, but not deaths. Illinois is experiencing its own second wave in cases.
Out of curiosity, I also plotted Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, all of which suffered in the first wave during the spring. They are now experiencing uptrends in cases, especially Massachusetts, but deaths have been restrained thus far.
The upshot is that states having little previous exposure to the virus are seeing an uptrend in deaths this fall. The same does not seem to be happening in states with significant prior exposure, at least not yet.
There are major questions about the reasons for the lingering death counts in the U.S.. But consider the following: first, the infection fatality rate (IFR) keeps falling, despite the stubborn level of daily reported deaths. Second, deaths reported have increasingly been pulled forward from deaths that actually occurred in the more distant past. This sort of “laundering” lends the appearance of greater persistence in deaths than is real. Third, again, false positives exaggerate not just cases, but also C19 deaths. Hospitals test everyone admitted, and patients who test positive for C19 are reimbursed at higher rates under the CARES Act; Medicare reimburses at a higher rates for C19 patients as well.
We’re definitely seeing a seasonal upswing in C19 infections in the US., now going on five weeks. In Europe, the surge in cases began slightly earlier. However, in both Europe and the U.S., these new cases have not yet been associated with a meaningful surge in deaths. The exceptions in the U.S. are the low-density upper mountain states, which have had little prior exposure to the virus. The lag between cases and deaths in the spring and summer was just two to three weeks, and while it’s too early to draw conclusions, the absence of a surge in deaths thus far bodes well for the IFR going forward. If we’re so fortunate, we can thank a combination of factors: a younger set of infecteds, earlier detection, better treatment and therapeutics, lower viral loads, and a subset of individuals who have already gained immunity.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: allegations of the White House’s “poor leadership” and preparedness for COVID-19 (C19) are a matter of selective memory. At the link above, I “graded” Trump’s pandemic job performance through May. Among other things, I said:
“Many have criticized the Trump Administration for not being ‘ready’ for a pandemic. I assign no grade on that basis because absolutely no one was ready, at least not in the West, so there is no sound premise for judgement. I also view the very general charge that Trump did not provide “leadership” as code for either ‘I don’t like him’, or ‘he refused to impose more authoritarian measures’, like a full-scale nationwide lockdown. Such is the over-prescriptive instinct of the Left.”
The President of the United States does not have the constitutional authority to impose a national lockdown, though Trump himself seemed confused at times as to whether he had that power. However, on this basis at least, the ad nauseam denigration of his “leadership” is vapid. At this point, the course of the pandemic in the U.S. is less severe than in several other industrialized countries who didn’t even have Andrew Cuomo around to exacerbate the toll, and it’s still not as deadly in per capita terms as the Asian Flu of 1957-58.
Who exactly was “ready” for C19? Perhaps critics are thinking of South Korea, or parts of South Asia. Those countries might have been “ready” to the extent that they had significant prior exposure to SARS viruses. There was already some degree of immunological protection. Those countries also were exposed to an earlier genetic variant of C19 that was much less severe than the strain that hit most of the western world. These are hardly reasons to blame Trump for a lack of “readiness”.
A related charge I hear all the time is that Trump “ignored the advice of medical experts“, or that he “ignored the science“. Presumably, those “experts” include the darling of the Prescriptive Class, Dr. Anthony Fauci. On February 28, Dr Fauci said:
“Right now, at this moment, there’s no need to change anything you’re doing on a day by day basis.“
Likewise, Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, said the following on February 27:
“The risk to the American public is low. We have an aggressive containment strategy that really has worked up to this time, 15 cases in the United States. Until the last case that we just had in Sacramento we hadn’t had a new case in two weeks.”
Then there is the World Health Organization, whichdownplayed the virus in January and February, and giving a convincing impression that it servied as a mouthpiece for the CCP.
In fact, the American people were badly harmed by wrongheaded decisions made by the “experts” at the CDC in January and February, when the agency insisted that testing could not proceed until a test of their own design was ready. Then, the first version it approved was discovered to be flawed! This set the testing effort back by well over a month, a delay that proved critical. It’s no exaggeration to say this bureaucratic overreach denied the whole country, and Trump, the information needed to properly assess the spread of the virus.
But let’s think about actual policy once it became clear that the virus was getting to be a serious matter in parts of the U.S. Here’s another excerpt from my post in May:
“Trump cannot be accused of ignoring expert advice through the episode. He was obviously on-board with Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, Dr. Robert Redfield, and other health care advisors on the ‘15 Days to Slow the Spread‘ guidelines issued on March 16. His messaging wavered during those 15 days, expressing a desire to fully reopen the nation by Easter, which Vice President Michael Pence later described as “aspirational”. Before the end of March, however, Trump went along with a 30-day extension of the guidelines. Finally, by mid-April, the White House released guidelines for ‘Opening Up America Again‘, which was a collaboration between Trump’s health care experts and the economic team. Trump agreed that the timeline for reopening should be governed by ‘the data’.”
We should give Trump credit for shutting down flights into the U.S. from China, where the virus originated, late in January. That was an undeniably prescient move. Let’s also not forget that the original intent of the “15 Days” was to prevent hospitals and other medical resources from being overwhelmed. Today, the data show a strong seasonal tendency to the spread of the virus, but medical resources are not close to being overwhelmed, our ability to treat the virus has vastly improved, and its consequences are much less deadly than in the spring. That’s good progress, whatever the President’s detractors may say.
More than anything else, what Trump’s COVID critics fail to understand is that the executive leader of a republic is not possessed of monarchical powers. And in the U.S., the Constitution provides an additional layer of sovereignty for member states of the Union, a manifestation of the federalist principals without which the Union would not have been possible. The 15-day guidelines produced by the White House, and the guidelines for reopening, were consistent with this framework. The states have adapted their own policies to actual conditions and, if their leaders haven’t worn out their goodwill among voters, internal political realities. Those adaptations were often bad from my perspective, or even tyrannical, but sometimes good. That is exactly how our federalist system was designed to work.
The coronavirus (C19), or SARS-CoV-2, has a strong seasonal component that appears to closely match that of earlier SARS viruses as well as seasonal influenza. This includes the two distinct caseloads we’ve experienced in the U.S. 1) in the late winter/early spring; and 2) the smaller bump we witnessed this summer in some southern states and tropics.
COVID Seasonal Patterns and Latitude
The Ethical Skeptic on Twitter recently featured the chart below. It shows the new case count of C19 in the U.S. in the upper panel, and the 2003 SARS virus in the lower panel. Both viruses had an initial phase at higher latitudes and a summer rebound at lower latitudes.
I particularly like the following visualizations from Justin Hart demonstrating the pandemic’s pattern at different latitudes (shown in the leftmost column). The first table shows total cases by week of 2020. The second shows deaths per 100,000 of population by week. Again, notice that lower latitudes have had a crest in the contagion this summer, while higher latitudes suffered the worst of their contagion in the spring. Based on deaths in the second table, the infections at lower latitudes have been less severe.
Viral Patterns in the South
Many expected the pandemic to abate this summer, including me, as it is well known that viruses don’t thrive in higher temperatures and humidity levels, and in more direct sunlight. So it is a puzzle that southern latitudes experienced a surge in the virus during the warmest months of the year. True, the cases were less severe on average, and sunlight and humidity likely played a role in that, along with the marked reduction in the age distribution of cases. However, the SARS pandemic of 2003 followed the same pattern, and the summer surge of C19 at southern latitudes was quite typical of viruses historically.
A classic study of the seasonality of viruses was published in 1981 by Robert Edgar Hope-Simpson. The next chart summarized his findings on influenza, seasonality, and latitude based on four groups of latitudes. Northern and southern latitudes above 30° are shown in the top and bottom panels, respectively. Both show wintertime contagions with few infections during the summer months. Tropical regions are different, however. The second and third panels of the chart show flu infections at latitudes less than 30°. Influenza seems to lurk at relatively low levels through most of the year in the tropics, but the respective patterns above and below the equator look almost like very muted versions of activity further to the north and south. However, some researchers describe the tropical pattern as bimodal, meaning that there are two peaks over the course of a year.
So the “puzzle” of the summer surge at low latitudes appears to be more of an empirical regularity. But what gives rise to this pattern in the tropics, given that direct sunlight, temperature, and humidity subdue viral activity?
There are several possible explanations. One is that the summer rainy season in the tropics leads to less sunlight as well as changes in behavior: more time spent indoors and even less exposure to sunlight. In fact, today, in tropical areas where air conditioning is more widespread, it doesn’t have to be rainy to bring people indoors, just hot. Unfortunately, air conditioning dries the air and creates a more hospitable environment for viruses. Moreover, low latitudes are populated by a larger share of dark-skinned peoples, who generally are more deficient in vitamin D. That might magnify the virulence associated with the flight indoors brought on by hot and or rainy weather.
Mutations and Seasonal Patterns
What makes the seasonal patterns noted above so reliable in the face of successful immune responses by recovered individuals? And shouldn’t herd immunity end these seasonal repetitions? The problem is the flu is highly prone to viral mutation, having segments of genes that are highly interchangeable (prompting so-called “antigenic drift“). That’s why flu vaccines are usually different each year: they are customized to prompt an immune response to the latest strains of the virus. Still, the power of these new viral strains are sufficient to propagate the kinds of annual flu cycles documented by Hope-Simpson.
With C19, we know there have been up to 100 mutations, mostly quite minor. Two major strains have been dominant. The first was more common in Southeast Asia near the beginning of the pandemic. It was less virulent and deadly than the strain that hit much of Europe and the U.S. Of course, in July the media misrepresented this strain as “new”, when in fact it had become the most dominant strain back in March and April.
What Lies Ahead
By now, it’s possible that the herd immunity threshold has been surpassed in many areas, which means that a surge this coming fall or winter would be limited to a smaller subset of still-susceptible individuals. The key question is whether C19 will be prone to mutations that pose new danger. If so, it’s possible that the fall and winter will bring an upsurge in cases in northern latitudes both among those still susceptible to existing strains, and to the larger population without immune defenses against new strains.
Fortunately, less dangerous variants are more more likely to be in the interest of the virus’ survival. And thus far, despite the number of minor mutations, it appears that C19 is relatively stable as viruses go. This article quotes Dr. Heidi J. Zapata, an infectious disease specialist and immunologist at Yale, who says that C19:
“… has shown to be a bit slow when it comes to accumulating mutations … Coronaviruses are interesting in that they carry a protein that ‘proofreads’ [their] genetic code, thus making mutations less likely compared to viruses that do not carry these proofreading proteins.”
The flu, however, does not have such a proofreading enzyme, so there is little to check its prodigious tendency to mutate. Ironically, C19’s greater reliability in producing faithful copies of itself should help ensure more durable immunity among those already having acquired defenses against C19.
This means that C19 might not have a strong seasonal resurgence in the fall and winter. Exceptions could include: 1) the remaining susceptible population, should they be exposed to a sufficient viral load; 2) regions that have not yet reached the herd immunity threshold; and 3) the advent of a dangerous new mutation, though existing T-cell immunity may effectively cross-react to defend against such a mutation in many individuals.
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