A rant on the “second wave” and calls for more lock-downs.

My “somebody on the internet is wrong” personality flaw has been triggered. Or maybe it would be better to say that people are missing the obvious point. At any rate, this is going to be a little bit of departure from normal links to news.
To set the stage, let us consider the following opinions from the great and good.

1. There are “bad people” who believe that we should strive for herd immunity and who argue that we can achieve herd immunity from smaller number of infections then “good people” this is possible.

2. The current rising number of infections in places that have already been hard hit (like Spain) show that the “bad people” are wrong (was there ever any doubt?).

3. “Bad people” are trying to switch the subject to talking about how low the case fatality rate is. But this lower date rate is only because the demographics of those getting infected are currently different and have nothing to do with the seriousness of COVID.

Granted, the above is a little over simplified, but I think (despite the snark) it is a pretty fair representation of the views of a lot of people. If you want to see someone who is struggling to be fair minded address this issue, you can read this Marginal Revolution post so you can see the argument being made sans the snark.

Now I am not going to defend the work of the “bad” herd immunity people. I suspect that they are making a critical error in modeling a “herd” as being a given group of people located a geographical point and we know this model is flawed. For example, studies of anti-body samples seem to show quite clearly that there was a big COVID class divided in New York City. It seems that COVID was much more prevalent in the poor and working class in New York then it was in the middle and upper classes. In fact, the difference is so stark that they might as well been two different cities. So the lower economic classes of New York might very well have “herd immunity” were as the upper economic classes are ripe for a “second wave” as it were. And regardless of what mathematical models show, it is hard to see how lower classes having herd immunity (assuming they do) will protect the upper classes who do things like go to weddings in Brazil and vacation in Mexico. I suspect the same logic plays out in places like Spain/Madrid or other areas that were hard hit but still experiencing a “second wave”.

But this brings to me much lower death rate that is being experienced as part of this “second wave”. The great and good will tell you this is because of the younger age demographic of those getting infected and they have statistics to back that up. I also suspect that a much higher percentage of those now being infected are better off and whiter then the first wave. I have not seen statistics to that effect but given the lack of stories about “minorities hardest hit” and “meatpackers are all going to die” I would guess that a lot more of the infections are in the upper class then previously. This would also tie into the lower death rate because as a general rule the wealthier you are the better your health and the better health care you receive. The bottom line is that a younger and wealthier set of victims goes a long way to explaining the lower case fatality rate for COVID currently being observed.

So far, I don’t have a problem with the story that the great and good are spinning (except that I think that testing and other methodological problems plays a bigger role then they are acknowledging). My problem is that obvious implications about the “success” of lockdowns are being ignored and the clamor is for “more lockdown.” This to me is missing the obvious point that the case fatality rate is so low now because vulnerable and the poor were not protected during the lock down. The people getting infected now are the people who were protected during the lockdown.

The wealthy and middle class who were able to work from home and keep their kids home with them were protected by the lockdown. The poor who could not afford to stay home and had to keep going to work (often in nursing homes, hospitals, meat packing plants, and so on and so forth) and had to have their kids in daycare (often their elderly parents since all other options were closed) were heavily hit on the first wave and not suffering as bad with the “second wave”.

What bugs me is that now that upper classes see the infections are hitting them, they want another lock down because it successfully protects them. They don’t care all that much about the economic fallout because so far that has disproportionately hurt the lower classes that have never been protected by any lock down.

The bottom line: The current rise in infections is occurring in people previously protected by lockdowns. The fact that the case fatality rate is currently so low shows that the lockdowns never did a very good job a protecting the vulnerable. Current calls to re-instate the lockdowns should be looked at as privileged people trying to protect themselves from something that the poorer classes have already suffered.

Maybe there is another way of interpreting the data, but if there is, I have not seen the argument being made. Mostly, the great and good seem to prefer to ignore the implications of the fact that infections are only now impacting them and comparatively ignoring the poor and vulnerable who were so hard hit last time.

Read the Banned Article

I posted a link to this article yesterday but it got taken down because this type of information has been determined to be bad by the mob. You can read it here if you did not get to read it yesterday. It is disgusting that stuff like this is determined too dangerous for people to read.

For what it is worth this is they guy who seems most responsible for taking the article down. Some of his complaints are legitimate, but mostly it reads like he did not understand what he was reading. The parts of the article that I thought were the strongest and most well documented are the parts he avoided addressing. Mostly he seems to have an issue with the modeling and modeling something this unknown is a crap shoot no matter who does it. The optimistic models don’t account for Italy (and most likely other places) and the pessimistic models don’t have a good explanation for Africa, Japan, Russia, and a number of other places.

Some Thoughts COVID-19 in New York

New York City is emerging as the hot spot in America similar to Lombardy in Italy. Why this is so is one of those mysteries that we may never find out the answer to but that is not my main focus. My main focus is on three main questions that seem to be freaking people out. As best as I can tell they are as follows…..

1. How many people already have it?
2. Why are so many young people in the hospital?
3. How far away is the peak?

As far as question #1 goes, the answer of course is that we can’t know. But we can do better at guessing then a lot of people out there. The first thing to remember is that the number of reported cases means nothing. It drives me nuts to see headlines like “Coronavirus cases doubling faster in the U.S. than any other country, report says.” This is purely an artifact of US ramping up testing and trying to catch up to other countries. It tells us nothing about how fast it is spreading in the US. Anyone with half a brain should be able to understand this but apparently brains are in short supply these days. One thing we can do is look at death rates. Assuming they are pretty well reported, they should be able to give us a better idea of infection rates. The main problem with using death rates is that they are backwards looking and are likely to misleading for countries that are just getting started. Nonetheless, a quick look at death rates can be instructive if we make an effort to compare like to like.

For example, using the data from this site we see that that Germany has had 72 deaths and some 20 thousand confirmed cases. On the other hand, France has 450 deaths and only some 12 thousand confirmed cases. Looking at these numbers we have to say that either Covid is lot deadlier in France or France is way under detecting COVID cases. France being France and Germany being Germany, I am inclined to believe that France is not keeping tabs as well as Germany is.

So what is a reasonable figure of COVID cases per death? If we look at the Diamond Princess it is 89 symptom showing COVID case per death. In South Korea it is 86 cases per death. Based on those two numbers, I looked at various areas reporting COVID deaths and multiplied that number by 90 to see how large a number of cases they were missing. In France’s case it means they have only located a little 25% of the cases and it could be even worse then that if they are at an early stage of their curve. Germany on the other hand would only have a little over 6 thousand cases based on their death rate. So either they are early in the curve or COVID is less deadly in Germany. Assuming Germany is early in the curve but at roughly the same place on the curve as France, that would mean that France has almost a 130,000 cases and they have only caught roughly a 10th of that. We can play this game with a lot of countries. Italy for example should have about 360,000 thousand cases even though they are only reporting just under 50 thousand. And that is assuming they are far along on their death curve. If they are earlier then South Korea, they will have a lot more cases out there.

But what we really care about is New York. According to John Hopkins data (which lags behind the times a bit) New York had 42 deaths and 8310 confirmed cases. That works out to about 200 cases per death. That is a lot lower death rate then the Diamond Princess or South Korea. However, let us assume we are at the same place in the curve as Germany. That would mean we have about 120 thousand cases out there and have only counted roughly 80 thousand of them. If those cases don’t grow (unlikely) it means New York would see around 134 deaths to be at roughly the same rate as South Korea. If we are like Italy (no reason to think that yet) we could see as many as 5 thousand extra deaths in New York over the next 6 months. That sound like a lot, but by way of comparison there is typically over 3 thousand opioid over-dose deaths in New York and those deaths are concentrated in the young and otherwise healthy. Overall, there are almost a million deaths ever year in New York from all causes so even 5 thousand deaths is not going to move the needle very much. Particularly since a lot of deaths from Covid will be people with poor health that might have caused them to die in the near term anyway.

All of the above does not mean much as there are too many unknowns. But it gives you a context to put the various numbers the media throws around into.

So on to the second question, why are there so many young people in New York Hospitals? This is a pretty easy question to answer—- The average age of people in New York city is about 37. This is far younger on average then most of places in the world that have been suffering from COVID up to this point. Judging by data from the Diamond Princess, people in there 30s and 40s do not have a special immunity from COVID, they are just a lot less likely to die from it. So while the media is trying to hype up the number of young people in the hospitals in New York City, this is not really surprising given the demographic profile and data from Diamond Princess. If we have a high death rate per confirmed cases of COVID in New York city that might be surprising (assuming testing is wide spread) but right now that is far from being the case and testing is far from being widespread in New York City. Given the likely under counting of cases, we are nowhere even close to having a high death rate from COVID in New York as of yet. Granted, it is early, but do keep in mind that we have a death rate that is more like Germany then it is Italy so far.

One thing that will be interesting to see is if America’s high rates of obesity lead to greater death rates among the young in the US. But right now, there is nothing in the data that makes it seem like COVID is doing anything different in the US then it has in other countries.

Last question, how long will it take COVID to peak in New York? Again, this question can’t really be answered as there are to many unknowns. People are throwing around a 45 day figure for Covid to peak. If we go by hospital admissions, COVID really started to take off in the beginning of March in New York. So if we use March 1st as a start date, the peak in deaths should come around the middle of April for New York and go down from there.

Obviously, this is all based on very limited information. But I hope it puts things that they are reading in the media in perspective for people. Based on the data from other countries, we are doing pretty well in comparison. That could change as it progress, but right now we are no where near as bad as it could be based on what has happened elsewhere.

The Dogs that are not barking: Thoughts on the Coronavirus

When the Coronavirus first came on to the public stage, I was in the “so what, the flu is worse” group of people. I think I am still more skeptical then current consensus promulgated by the great and good.

Given all that has happened since then, it would be fair for people to wonder why. After all, it is a well known human phenomenon that people tend to double down on their initial beliefs and have trouble adjusting to new information. But it is also a fact that people had a natural tendency to go along with the herd. It is far better (from an emotional point of view) to be wrong along with everyone else then to be wrong in your own particular way.

So is my current level of skepticism a result of being wedded to my previous views? Or is the fact that the great and good view this more seriously just a reflection of the pressure to join in with the herd of humanity as it bolts in a random direction?

I have to admit that I would have never predicted that a disaster such as the Lombardy region of Italy is dealing with right now would have happened based on my initial understanding of the virus. On the other hand, I never would have believed that countries would have as much success controlling the spread of it as some countries supposedly have (I thought like the flu it would be pretty much unstoppable but not all that deadly). The obvious take away is that I don’t have a crystal ball anymore then anyone else does.

But even after admitting my failures of foresight, I still can’t help feeling that media is giving people a very skewed idea of the risks. They are ignoring or not putting into to context a lot of things that are going on and focusing on the most sensational things out there. This type of focusing on the sensational things is what cause people to way overestimate the dangers of shark attacks and way underestimate the dangers posed by white tailed deer (who kill far more people then sharks).

I think of the things that media is missing as being the “dogs that don’t bark” after that Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze” in which Holmes notes the importance of the dog that people did not hear. The following will be some facts and figures that you might not have been exposed to if all you have been reading is mainstream media accounts.

Dog That Did Not Bark #1: Death Rates

I have seen a lot of media reports throwing around scary high death rates. A 3% rate is a common figure and certainly certain places in Italy and China have seen some pretty high death rates. If these death rates hold true for the world at large, millions and millions of people are going to die. But this focus on the scary places has hidden the fact that in the vast majority of places Covid has not been all that bad. Let us take China as an example…..

The death rate in Wuhan was 5.8%. The death rate in the rest of China is .7%. That is quite the difference. If you break it down further and exclude the entire province that the city of Wuhan is located in, the death rate is .16%. South Korea is also showing a death rate of around .7%.

Let us take Diamond Princess. This cruse ship is the nearest thing we have to a controlled experiment as to what happens when you introduce coronavirus into a trapped population that skews to the elderly side. Total number of people on the ship that came down with the virus was 696 people. Total dead was 7 for a death rate that was just a little over 1%. That is bad, but not anywhere near 3% bad. More to the point, there was 3,711 people on the ship. You would think that all of them were exposed to the virus but less than a third of them even came down with the virus at all. Death rate on the ship as a whole was only .19%.

Now .19% is pretty bad death rate if it would be applied to an entire nation. If America were just like this cruse ship, there would be roughly 60 million people dead. But presumably the cruse ship is a worst case scenario as it represents a vulnerable population trapped in an enclosed space with the virus.So why has the death rate been so much higher in other places that are not floating petri dishes (and it is worth noting that outbreaks of various type on curse ships are fairly common)?

One answer is that everyone on the ship was tested, but not everyone out in the rest of the world has been tested. So many mild cases have been missed in the real world that make the death rate seem higher then it is. Another common answer is that once the medical system gets overwhelmed, the death rate starts going up.

But I suspect that there is more going on then just lack of testing and overwhelmed hospitals. Most countries have done a bad job of testing but few have the problems that Lombardy has. Furthermore, Italian reported death rates were quite high before their health care system started to be overwhelmed. In an American context, 60% of current US deaths from COVID come from one nursing home in Washington state. These deaths did not come about because the US health care system was overwhelmed, but because the virus got into a vulnerable population and ran rampant.

So what is causing some areas to be hot spots and other areas to see little in the way of deaths?

My personal hypothesis is that transmission rates correlate to the severity of infection. In my hypothesis, populations with high percentages of vulnerable people will have a greater transmission rates because more people will have bad infections. This in turn will lead more healthier people to get the virus then would otherwise be the case. My personal hypothesis is that any area with a median age that is less then 40 will also see sub-1% death rates from the virus. I suspect that in most areas with a sub-40 median age, the majority of the people will not even come down with Covid even in the absence of effective controls.

The sub-40 median might seem arbitrary, but what it means is that majority of your population is still under 40 years old. Picking that figure is just a guess, but it does seem that the effects of Covid start to really show up once you go past 40 and really take off once you go past 60. So I suspect that areas that have a population where the majority of people are going to be over 40 years old are going to see more transmission and a greater spread of Covid then areas with more young people who might act as a break in the chain. This logic is dependent on the idea that the severity of the infection drives the rate of transmission. This idea is in no way proven but seems consistent with the available data.

If my hypothesis is in any way correct, the US will see hot spots in localized areas that are pretty bad but the nation as a whole will not see that a death rate from those suffering from Covid that is over 1%. Even though this death rate will be higher then the flu over all I don’t think it will be that bad as I suspect that most of the nation will not even come down with Covid symptoms. I would guess that total number of Covid deaths this year will be less than the US lost from the flu last year in terms of total numbers (I am comparing last year flue deaths to this year Covid deaths because I think Covid will kill a lot of vulnerable people this year before flu gets a chance).

My reason for thinking this is that the US is just under the 40 year median. However, there are parts of the country that are considerable older and those areas may very will be hit hard (New England and some of the rust belt areas are my top pics for US hot spots). Some rural farming areas may be hit hard as well but it remains to be seen how bad transmission rates will be in rural areas as this is something we don’t have a lot of data on yet.

The obvious counter to this hypothesis is Iran. They have quite a young population and seem to be doing quite badly. This could be used to invalidate my hypothesis. However, I am not ready to accept that just yet. I suspect the major reason Iran is having issues is the city of Qom. This is has a large population of Shia scholars whose average age I suspect is over 40. Lots of pilgrims (millions) come to this city so if a hot spot developed in this city it would be a good place to spread the virus.

Furthermore, if you go by the official figures, Iran is not doing all that badly in terms of deaths. Granted, nobody believes the official figures but I think that lack of trust leads people to imagine the worst when that may not be warranted. I personally suspect that the closed caste of elderly Islamic scholars that rule Iran is being hit hard but it remains to be seen how badly Iran as a whole is really doing.

Regardless of whether my hypothesis is correct (and I make no claim to have special insight in this area, it is just my current speculation) you should always remember that news reports are focusing on the worst hit areas and that can give you a skewed perspective on what is normal.

Dog That Did Not Bark #2: Young People Not Showing Symptoms

If you read a lot of media reports, you will come across the fact that young people tend not to die from the virus. Mostly that reporting is accompanied by arguments showing that young people can too get sick from it and they can be carriers even if they are not badly ill themselves. The goal is to make sure young people take virus seriously and don’t spread it around. The problem is that this effort to make sure that young people take this seriously is obscuring one of the biggest mystery’s surrounding this virus. This mystery is the question of why so few children get Covid at all.

For example, if you look at the death rates from China, you will see that children between the ages of 10-19 have a death rate of .2% (this includes Wuhan). This is actually a fairly high death rate and higher then what the flu produces in most adults. But it greatly overstates the risk to young people because it is a calculation of death rate vs the number of children showing symptoms. The problem with this approach is that it seems that very few children (even in hard hit areas) show any symptoms of having the virus at all. And nobody under 10 has been known to die from this virus anywhere in the world.

One of the frustrating things about current reporting is that nobody is talking percentages of various age groups that come down with symptoms at any give hot spot. As we discussed earlier, on the Diamond Princess 2/3 of the people never even came down with symptoms. The constant focus on death rates of people who show symptoms obscures the question of how hard it is to come down with symptoms at all an any given age cohort. All we have to go on are statements like this….

“In general, relatively few cases are seen among children.”

Or this…..

“In fact, through mid-January, zero children in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, had contracted Covid-19. It’s not clear whether that’s because children do not show signs of illness even if infected.”

The question is why is this so? Anyone who has seen a group of kids passing around the cold virus knows that there is nothing special preventing those under 10 years old from coming down with virus. So why does the COVID seem so different?

The answer to this question is likely to make a lot of difference to how COVID turns out. But nobody is really talking about it. Whatever the answer, it likely explains why large numbers of adults don’t seem to show symptoms even after being exposed to the virus.

I personally wonder if it does not have something to do with vitamin D levels as this is known to greatly decrease with age. This study speculates that vitamin D levels had something to with the Spanish Influenza death rates so it not like this idea is not on the radar.

Again, I have no special insight and I don’t really think it a can be boiled down to just vitamin D levels. But I do think it is important to remember that deaths rates of people who come down with Covid are only part of the story. The other part of the story is the question of how many people are susceptible to coming down with Covid even when exposed.

Dog That Did Not Bark #3: Why no large outbreak in Africa?

Nobody in the developed world really cares about Sub-Saharan Africa. Few people know that massive numbers of Chinese workers are scattered all throughout Sub-Saharan Africa working on various projects. Those who do know these things and care about Sub-Saharan Africa would think that Sub-Saharan Africa would be at least as far along as Italy in terms of the virus outbreak. But so far, it seems to be a non-issue in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Is this because Africa has so many other health issues and general poor governance that Covid is going undetected in the noise? Is it because of the lack of a large concentrated vulnerable populations? Luck of the draw?

In general, most tropical countries seem to be doing pretty well so far but that may just because many of them lack exposure to large numbers of Chinese. The reason I focus on Africa is that much of Sub-Saharan Africa has had a lot of exposure to China so that does not seem like it would be the case for them.

However, it could be that hot humid weather reduces transmission rates of the virus. This is certainly true for the flu so one could hope that the same thing is true for Covid. If it is, that is good news for North America and Europe as they head into summer.

Again, Iran is one of the biggest arguments against this hope. But if I am right that Qom is the main cause of Iranian Covid problems, then it should be remembered that Qom is not tropical. Average day time temp for Qom in February is in the low 40s. Average for March is low 50s. On top of that, the Middle East as a whole has been fairly cold this year.

It is to early to answer this question, but the question of how temp effects transmission will make a big difference in terms of how many third world countries will suffer serious effects.

What Difference Does It Make?

It is important to keep in mind that everything has its costs. Past epidemics have shown that taking decisive early action can limit the number of deaths. But “flatting the curve” can also drag out the epidemic and extend the economic pain. The number of lives saved might not be all that much different either way. It is easy to say the people’s lives is more important then money, but for many people on the bottom of the economic ladder, the difference between life and money is not all that clear.

Even seemingly obvious things like shutting down visiting rights to nursing homes can have serious costs. This certainly seems like a sensible thing to do (and I would probably do the same thing if I was a nursing home administrator). But it is likely to raise the death rate of those in the nursing homes even if it succeeds in keeping COVID out. I know people who visit their parents in the nursing homes every day to ensure that they eat. Others just check on them to ensure quality of care is being maintained and to show they care. In the absence of any visits, how many will decided they don’t want to eat from depression or the lack of nursing home staff to effectively follow up? Most likely it will be less then Covid would kill but it certainly not be zero.

We accept hundreds of thousands of deaths from flu every year as just being the price of doing business. What is the magic number that makes it so that we should sharply curtail economic activity so as to prevent deaths to the vulnerable? In the end, when things are not as bad as many fear, will that be seen as proof that we overacted or proof that swift actions saved the day?

My own answer to these questions is that it is good to stress test the system every so often. I think it is good to force people to face the potential problems that come with supply chain disruption. I think it is good for people to face the fact that pandemics can and will occur. So even though I expect that total US Covid deaths this year will be less then total flu deaths last year (comparing last year flu deaths to this year’s Covid deaths because I expect that Covid deaths will cut down on flu deaths this year as Covid eliminates people who would have died from the flu before the flu gets a chance to take them) I still think it is a good idea to treat this seriously.

But I expect that the current hysteria will get so out of hand that the net result will be that in the future people will be even less willing to take things seriously when it might be more important to do so.

Coronavirus Links

This can hardly be said not to be in the news. But here are some things you many not have seen….

A Quora thread on what it is like to be in Wuhan city. When I looked at the thread, only two people were actually reporting from the city. The person further down the thread posted quite extensively and with pictures.

Novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV: early estimation of epidemiological parameters and epidemic predictions A “scientific” paper on transmission rates that compares the Coronavirus to other virus transmission rates. Scientific is in quotes because data is so scarce that this is little more then informed speculation.

Don’t buy the media hype over the new China virus. This more or less represents my gut recreation. Unless the Chinese are seriously under reporting the death count it is hard to see how this is more dangerous then the flu. At this point it seems that the hysteria will do more damage then the virus.

Is Beijing suppressing the true scale of infections? Nurse treating coronavirus sufferers in China claims 90,000 people have already been infected This makes the case for the hysteria. I am sure that the number of people who are infected are under counted. This is almost a certainty but what matters is the death rate. If that is being reported accurately (and so far nobody is claiming that it is not) then more uncounted cases just means that it is not all that lethal. Most of the rest of the problems recounted in the article are a result of the hysteria and not the virus.