Covid 7/​30: Whack a Mole

Link post

Last week: Covid 7/​23: The Se­cond Summit

It seems clear that pos­i­tive test rates, and with them new in­fec­tions, have peaked in the South­ern epi­cen­ters.

Un­less and un­til some­thing changes, for­ward look­ing risk will con­tinue to im­prove in the South and West. The Mid­west and North­east, how­ever, are still get­ting worse.

The two ad­di­tional big un­knowns of school and win­ter re­main on the hori­zon. So does the elec­tion. So it’s very much too early for cel­e­bra­tions.

This week’s worst Covid news was the out­break among the Florida Mar­lins, and its im­pli­ca­tions go­ing for­ward. Oh, and also the num­ber of deaths went sub­stan­tially up, but that was baked in weeks ago. The rate of in­crease was a lit­tle faster than I ex­pected, but that was only be­cause I ad­justed based on last week’s rate of in­crease be­ing slower than ex­pected, and some of it is (good and ap­pro­pri­ate) changes in re­port­ing method­ol­ogy.

The other news this week was sev­eral efforts to point out the ob­vi­ous truth of het­ero­gene­ity, that differ­ent peo­ple are differ­ent and do differ­ent things in differ­ent places and re­act differ­ently to ex­po­sure, and that this might mat­ter. I wrote about one such effort here and there are more that have now been pointed out. I hope to get to the oth­ers soon.

In non-Covid news, GPT-3 con­tinues to be the scariest, most ex­cit­ing and most fun thing to come around in a long time. Alas, I con­tinue to not have di­rect ac­cess, so I’m forced to play with AI Dun­geon. Which is already su­per awe­some, but also will even­tu­ally in­ject vam­pires and demons and rit­u­als into ev­ery sce­nario even if you liter­ally en­ter “vam­pires do not ex­ist” as the sole con­tent of the /​re­mem­ber com­mand. When I get a chance I’ll try to write up what I’ve found out so far.

SlateS­tarCodex con­tinues to be back, but Scott’s new out­put is limited to re­ally hor­rible puns on Twit­ter. Un­til the blog is back in pro­duc­tion, the saga is not yet over.

Let’s run the num­bers.

Pos­i­tive Test Counts

May 21-May 27 23979 39418 42977 37029
May 28-June 3 32200 31504 50039 33370
June 4-June 10 35487 24674 55731 22693
June 11-June 17 41976 22510 75787 17891
June 18-June 24 66292 26792 107221 15446
June 25-July 1 85761 34974 163472 16303
July 2-July 8 103879 40139 202863 18226
July 9-July 15 108395 53229 250072 20276
July 16-July 22 117506 57797 265221 20917
July 23-July 29 110219 67903 240667 26008

Com­bine all the num­bers and we see clear im­prove­ment. Break it down by re­gion, and the situ­a­tion looks a lot more mixed.

The North­east and Mid­west situ­a­tions seem to be get­ting worse at faster than slower rates at ex­actly the time that the South and West are turn­ing the cor­ner.

Note that the North­east num­bers prob­a­bly got warped by New Jersey re­port­ing a bunch of last week’s pos­i­tive tests this week in­stead. Their data is quite bad and their “A+” grade from the track­ing pro­ject is quite the joke. That makes the North­east num­bers smooth out a bit, and look more like a situ­a­tion get­ting steadily worse rather than a dam break­ing.


Apr 30-May 6 775 1723 1290 3008
May 28-June 3 875 1666 1387 2557
June 4-June 10 743 1297 1230 1936
June 11-June 17 778 1040 1207 1495
June 18-June 24 831 859 1204 1061
June 25-July 1 858 658 1285 818
July 2-July 8 894 559 1503 761
July 9-July 15 1380 539 2278 650
July 16-July 22 1469 674 3106 524
July 23-July 29 1707 700 4443 568

Things are get­ting bad in the South. Some of that in­crease is a method­olog­i­cal change in Texas, so it isn’t as bad as it looks and is ar­guably a smaller real rise than last week, but it’s still not great, with the worst day by a sub­stan­tial amount be­ing yes­ter­day.

Pos­i­tive Test Rates

Date USA tests Pos­i­tive % NY tests Pos­i­tive % Cu­mu­la­tive Pos­i­tives
June 4-June 10 3,177,318 4.4% 438,695 1.4% 0.61%
June 11-June 17 3,446,858 4.6% 442,951 1.1% 0.66%
June 18-June 24 3,638,024 6.0% 440,833 1.0% 0.72%
June 25-July 1 4,331,352 7.1% 419,696 1.2% 0.82%
July 2-July 8 4,461,980 8.2% 429,804 1.1% 0.93%
July 9-July 15 5,196,179 8.4% 447,073 1.1% 1.06%
July 16-July 22 5,481,861 8.5% 450,115 1.1% 1.20%
July 17-July 29 5,741,588 7.9% 448,182 1.1% 1.34%

It’s re­ally, re­ally great to see that last line of this chart. Three of the last four days have been un­der 7.5% pos­i­tive rate, with the last day un­der 8% pos­i­tive prior to that be­ing July 3.

I was hop­ing for small im­prove­ment, and got a large im­prove­ment. The com­po­si­tion is a lit­tle wor­ri­some, but still. You love to see it.

Ex­po­nen­tial Growth Did Not Con­tinue There­fore Mo­rale Improved

There­fore peo­ple de­clared vic­tory and left home. There­fore ex­po­nen­tial growth re­sumed. The never end­ing story of a con­trol sys­tem. Let us hope not.

We still have ex­po­nen­tial growth in two of the four re­gions. A po­ten­tial ‘third’ wave in the num­bers is easy to en­vi­sion a few months from now, even with­out a shock to the sys­tem from weather or schools.

That does not mean it will hap­pen. There is plenty of time for things to change. Some things will change.

For now, the news is good. The baseline sce­nario for the com­ing week is a fur­ther sub­stan­tial drop in pos­i­tive rates. If yes­ter­day had been 7.2% in­stead of 8.2%, I’d be in­clined to pre­dict a very large fur­ther im­prove­ment, with the av­er­age around 7%. With yes­ter­day’s re­ver­sion, my best guess is closer to 7.4% off the pre­sumed 6 mil­lion or so tests.

The key things to watch will be to see if the Mid­west and North­east can con­tain their ris­ing num­bers.

Differ­ent Peo­ple Differ­ent, Film Maybe Even­tu­ally In­stead of Never

See my other post here on the gen­eral phe­nomenon of deny­ing that differ­ent peo­ple are differ­ent and be­have differ­ently and ex­pe­rience differ­ent out­comes in a way that is mean­ingful for what is likely to hap­pen both to them and for ev­ery­one over­all. I keep hav­ing to re­mind my­self along with ev­ery­one else that this is not a straw man ar­gu­ment. It’s be­ing used to ar­gue for poli­cies that have huge im­pacts on our lives.

Also it’s be­ing used in Covid-19 mod­el­ing and de­ci­sion mak­ing.

The good news is that now we have mul­ti­ple pa­pers tout­ing mod­els that point out the ob­vi­ous, and more talk in the sev­eral-weeks-ahead-of-ev­ery­one-else-verse that this is all a thing.

Per­haps in an­other month our ‘ex­perts’ will be ready to stop be­ing ly­ing liars about this par­tic­u­lar point. Doubtless they will find some­thing new to be their lat­est. Un­til then, we can take the small vic­to­ries where we can find them, and keep com­piling the list.

The North re­mem­bers.

How Do You Spell Relief? C-O-N-G-R-E-S-S?

Even by con­gres­sional stan­dards, this time around has been a bit of a shirtshow.

The Repub­li­cans tried to ne­go­ti­ate with them­selves to come up with a bill to put out as an ini­tial offer. That did not go well.

The bill fi­nally pre­sented has lots of spend­ing items that has ab­solutely noth­ing to do with Covid-19 or the eco­nomic crisis that was cre­ated. I get how the pro­cess works. You find pork to offer key sen­a­tors to get them on board. You don’t waste a crisis and get your key items funded in a must-pass bill. But this was a re­ally, re­ally bad look and pretty fork­ing ridicu­lous, and over things that should nei­ther be that im­pact­ful nor that hard to pass oth­er­wise.

Mean­while, it is not clear the wave of evic­tions is go­ing to be stopped, or how long we can post­pone it. Every­one agrees that al­low­ing evic­tions would be bad. No one has a plan for how to let land­lords make their mort­gage pay­ments. There’s just a vague sense that these awful ‘land­lords’ are be­ing greedy and cruel, and ask­ing peo­ple to pay ‘rent’ in or­der to live in a house is ba­si­cally steal­ing, which is so frus­trat­ing to me.

It seems clear that at the end of all this, a lot of ten­ants are go­ing to get evicted and forced to move, and that this will help ex­actly no one, and there’s no pro­pos­als to do any­thing about this.

It’s not clear how much of the un­em­ploy­ment benefits are go­ing to sur­vive. It’s not clear how much should sur­vive. There’s the per­spec­tive that giv­ing peo­ple these checks is what is keep­ing what is left of the econ­omy al­ive. There’s also the per­spec­tive that giv­ing peo­ple these checks is stop­ping them from work­ing, and also helped force many states into var­i­ous re-open­ings de­signed largely to force peo­ple back to work be­cause they couldn’t af­ford un­em­ploy­ment pay­ments. Which, of course, made their fis­cal situ­a­tion even worse, but once things are suffi­ciently bad, go for it and prey seems like a rea­son­able plan.

Mak­ing that kind of dy­namic even worse is that there will likely be no aid to lo­cal and state gov­ern­ments, be­cause that would help too many peo­ple in blue states. We’re go­ing to pay dearly for that failure. Hope­fully it gets fixed in Jan­uary or Fe­bru­ary and that pre­vents things from get­ting too bad.

It’s un­likely, once again, that ac­tual deal­ing with the ac­tual virus is go­ing to get much help.

And the most ir­re­spon­si­ble thing one can think of, din­ing in­doors at restau­rants, is go­ing to get a di­rect tax sub­sidy un­less it gets stopped. I’ve seen re­ports this has already hap­pened in England.

False Negatives

Maybe we de­serve all this. There’s also this:

I just moved to Mi­ami & have to get a COVID test/​quaran­tine for 2 weeks be­fore school, which is fine. I was ask­ing where the best places to get tested were & one of them SERIOUSLY said “oh you can pay for a fake nega­tive test & you wouldn’t have to quaran­tine. Tons of ppl do it”

— Sa­vanna Neb (@Ba­ma­rooski) July 28, 2020

This is so bad on so many lev­els. What is Sa­vanna think­ing go­ing to school to Mi­ami?

I can’t even fully blame the peo­ple get­ting the fake nega­tive tests. If it takes over a week to get a real test, and real test­ing ca­pac­ity is stretched to the limit already, what are the al­ter­na­tives? What would you do if the al­ter­na­tive was giv­ing up weeks of your life, tak­ing a test away from some­one who needs it, and ex­pos­ing your­self in the pro­cess?

I’d like to think I would never, ever do it. But do any of us re­ally know?

Florida Mar­lins Roster De­stroyed By Ir­re­spon­si­ble De­ci­sion Mak­ing After Play­ing In Front Of Record Low Crowds

Sev­eral days into the sea­son, with a game sched­uled that evening against the Phillies, three mem­bers of the Florida Mar­lins tested pos­i­tive for Covid-19.

The Mar­lins then held a text mes­sage con­ver­sa­tion in or­der to de­ter­mine whether or not to play the game. They de­cided to play.

A fun ex­er­cise you might want to do be­fore read­ing fur­ther is to count how many dis­tinct ways this is in­sane.

I’ll start you out.

  1. It’s in­sane that the game was played.

  2. It’s in­sane that base­ball did not have a policy au­to­mat­i­cally can­cel­ling the game once three play­ers tested pos­i­tive on the same day, since it’s pretty ob­vi­ous that’s a cluster and more will test pos­i­tive to­mor­row.

  3. It’s in­sane that the Mar­lins play­ers were in­volved in this de­ci­sion, and given that, it was even more in­sane that the Phillies play­ers weren’t.

  4. It’s in­sane that this dis­cus­sion was had via text mes­sage.

  5. It’s in­sane that no fines or bans or ar­rests, or even forfeits, have yet come out of this de­ci­sion.

The next day, of course, there were more pos­i­tive tests, which have now spread to half the team. The Yan­kees/​Phillies games were can­cel­led, as well they should have been.

Later, the Na­tion­als de­cided as a team they were not in­ter­ested in play­ing their se­ries against the Mar­lins.

Base­ball sus­pended the Mar­lins’ sea­son for a week, and re­paired other teams to try and play as many games as pos­si­ble in the mean­time. When the Mar­lins re­turn, they’ll have to make due with who­ever is available.

My sug­gested in­ter­ven­tion was to ban ev­ery­one who knew the situ­a­tion and played or man­aged the game any­way from base­ball per­ma­nently, and let the Mar­lins find a new team on the free agent mar­ket com­bined with what­ever prospects they have down on the farm. It’s not like they’ve never done it on pur­pose in the past.

Maybe that’s a lit­tle harsh. I’ll let ev­ery­one make their own judg­ment.

As far as I can tell, there is no new rule pre­vent­ing this from hap­pen­ing again. This to me is the most in­sane part of all this. It seems com­pletely ob­vi­ous that if three or more play­ers on a team test pos­i­tive within a three day span, you shut that team down. The ques­tion is how closely packed two tests need to be be­fore it’s time to shut a team down.

What it definitely, pos­i­tively should not be is a team de­ci­sion. The talk­ing points out of the Mar­lins locker room make it clear the play­ers are in no po­si­tion to make a rea­son­able or re­spon­si­ble de­ci­sion. It’s fine to let play­ers ad­di­tion­ally de­cide to not play – it’s their health on the line, af­ter all – but when can­cel­la­tion is clear, the policy needs to make that de­ci­sion for them.

The whole thing was a dis­aster. It does not bode well.

The good news is that, as far as we know, this is con­tained to the Mar­lins. None of the Phillies have tested pos­i­tive, de­spite play­ing a game against a half-pos­i­tive Mar­lins team.

What can we learn from all of this?

We can di­vide the les­son into what we learned about phys­i­cal risk, and what we learned about hu­man de­ci­sion mak­ing.

The de­ci­sion mak­ing up­date is all the mis­takes we feared keep­ing us from hav­ing nice things, only more so. Ob­ses­sion with sur­faces. Ob­ses­sion with tech­ni­cal re­quire­ments with­out any at­tempt to model the phys­i­cal world. Clamp­ing down on the visi­ble risks that peo­ple can see while not do­ing much about much big­ger risks like the team bus. Hav­ing poli­cies that don’t cover ba­sic de­ci­sions and then mak­ing them in an ad-hoc fash­ion. De­ci­sions be­ing made to max­i­mize per­sonal glory to­day, with­out any at­tempt to think ahead. And so on.

Any plan formed, that wants to sur­vive con­tact with the en­emy even a lit­tle, has to as­sume such be­hav­iors.

Base­ball Covid Risk Is Not About Play­ing Baseball

Teams go be­tween cities on a team bus. The Mets split up the team onto six differ­ent buses, but even that doesn’t seem great. The team shares a locker room. They spend half the game stand­ing in a some­what crowded dugout. They con­grat­u­late each other as part of the game, with dis­tanc­ing rules of­ten be­ing vi­o­lated af­ter home runs. And so on.

Base­ball has made some ad­just­ments, but there are still some pretty ob­vi­ous flaws in the pro­ce­dures. It’s not hard to see how a team could be­come a Covid cluster.

Con­trast that with the good news that this cluster did not spread to the other team. The Phillies ap­pear to be in good health.

And that also makes perfect sense.

Think about the act of phys­i­cally play­ing base­ball. It is all out­doors in a supremely open space. Most time is spent dozens of feet from ev­ery­one else un­less you are a catcher or the home plate um­pire.

Play­ers have to in­ter­act at home plate, some­times at first base, and a tiny bit at other bases. This all hap­pens in chunks of a few min­utes each, dur­ing which al­most noth­ing is said and the play­ers mostly don’t face each other.

Con­tact is made mostly via base­ball gloves. Base­ball is be­ing highly para­noid about sur­faces, in­clud­ing the base­balls them­selves. This is a gen­eral phe­nomenon. Peo­ple have the urge to deep clean and to be highly para­noid about sur­faces. It’s some­thing they can con­trol, and it satis­fies the pu­rity moral foun­da­tion. It has lit­tle or noth­ing to do with ac­tual risk.

I don’t think it’s im­pos­si­ble to catch Covid-19 at the plate or at first base. But aside from trans­mis­sion be­tween the um­pire and one of the catch­ers, it’s highly un­likely, and the um­pire is fac­ing the same di­rec­tion as the catch­ers and wear­ing a full face shield on their helmet, which should be even bet­ter than a nor­mal face mask.

My take­away is to up­date in fa­vor of base­ball the game be­ing safe, but to­wards base­ball the pro­fes­sion as cur­rently prac­ticed be­ing un­safe.

What can we do about this?

There are two ap­proaches.

One is to treat those in­side the team as in a bub­ble, and pro­tect them from get­ting in­fected in the first place. That would mean be­ing su­per care­ful about their con­tact with any­one at any time out­side the team. Of course, that’s a good idea any­way.

The other is to pro­tect the play­ers from each other for real. That means no team bus, or a team bus with full su­per-mask­ing. That means no dugout at all, go sit in the stands or along the sides, far away from each other with good ven­tila­tion. And so on. This can and must be done, but prob­a­bly won’t.

I’d also treat a catcher test­ing pos­i­tive very differ­ently from any­one else, and make lots of ex­tra efforts to pro­tect them, in­clud­ing turn­ing the catcher’s mask into a glass shield if it doesn’t ruin their abil­ity to catch. If a catcher is pos­i­tive you likely need to shut down ev­ery team they played against in the last few days, straight away.

The bot­tom line is, this prob­lem can be beaten. Base­ball is rel­a­tively safe.

What about foot­ball or bas­ket­ball?

Now we have a prob­lem. There’s not go­ing to be a safe way to play foot­ball or bas­ket­ball with in­fected play­ers. There needs to be a bub­ble, and it needs to be pro­tected.

Foot­ball has the ad­van­tage of hav­ing a long lag be­tween games, so you can plau­si­bly iso­late play­ers for a few days, while test­ing, which dra­mat­i­cally in­creases the chance you’ll catch a new in­fec­tion be­fore it be­comes a cluster. Bas­ket­ball can’t do that, which is why it had no choice but to form a com­plete bub­ble. Every week we hear about a new player be­ing forced to quaran­tine for vi­o­lat­ing the rules. Hope­fully that’s a sign that they are en­forc­ing the bub­ble, rather than a sign that they aren’t en­forc­ing it. It’s hard to know.

Do­ing The Right Thing After Ex­haust­ing All Alternatives

I re­main hope­ful. Herd im­mu­nity con­tinues to build and is doubtless already hav­ing a big im­pact. The model of what’s go­ing on that the pub­lic is told keeps im­prov­ing. We’re see­ing more deaths be­cause of lag, but the fatal­ity rate has gone down dra­mat­i­cally and there’s no rea­son to think it won’t stay down or go even lower. In­fec­tions have turned the cor­ner, at least for now.

Best of all, I don’t know what I’ll need to write next week. But I’m sure the world will think of some­thing.