Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

COVID-19

Cutting through the confusion

There is a lot of information about COVID-19 out there, much of it misleading. When looking at the future, start with what the science really says.


For the last few weeks I’ve been living and breathing COVID-19 scenarios. I’ve been a little reticent to post about it because I am not an epidemiologist and don’t want to add to the noise. But there is so much confusion and misinformation out there that I thought it was time.

THE GOOD NEWS: LOCKDOWNS AND SOCIAL DISTANCING WORK.

I’ll start with some good news. The most recent analysis of trends in Europe (most notably Italy and Spain, which are further along in their outbreaks) shows that lockdown measures, school closures, closing of businesses and social distancing have significantly slowed the spread of the disease.

A March 16 report from the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College, London helped wake the world to the reality of the threat COVID-19 posed. Their new report, which came out on March 30, looks at 11 European countries to see just how much good mitigation measures have done. They found that each new restriction further slowed the spread of the disease. Before mitigation, an infected person typically gave the disease to about four others. After restrictions were imposed that reproduction number fell to around 1.4.

You infect two friends, and they’ll infect two friends, and so on, and so on…

To understand what those numbers mean, think back to the 1980’s Fabergé Shampoo commercial where Heather Locklear “told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on and so on…”  (OK, I just showed my age, but for those of us who were around at the time it is kind of iconic.)

I told two friends, and they told two friends

The 1980’s shampoo commercial where Heather Locklear “told two friends, and they told to friends, and so on, and so on…” That’s what happens with a virus like COVID-19, only worse.

Except in Italy before lockdowns an infected person didn’t infect two friends, they infected four. After lockdowns that number dropped to 1.4. That makes a huge difference in how the thing grows. The goal is to push the reproduction number below one, at which point the number of new infections actually starts to decrease.

There are indications that lockdowns are working in the US as well. You can see this by looking at growth rates from place to place. Last week when I looked at the growth in case numbers, in the Phoenix area (where schools were closed, but there were few other real restrictions)  the number of cases was doubling every 1.7 days. In contrast, communities in the San Francisco region which had been locked down for a while were taking 3 to 4 days for cases to double.

By the way, a word to those in regions that have yet to see large numbers of COVID-19 cases; the earlier restrictions are imposed, the more lives are saved. (See figure below.) It is best not to wait until there are lots of reported cases before you act. That one extra person who get’s the disease at the local bar or restaurant might become responsible for hundreds of additional cases.

The Less Good News: We are in it for the long haul.

So, there is some good news, or at least hopeful news suggesting that we can slow this thing down. But that news has a flip side. There is a lot of misinformation out there giving the impression that after a few weeks of lockdown we can go back to business as usual. That’s not the way it works. If lockdowns are lifted we are right back where we started with a population full of vulnerable people, and another outbreak begins.

Once you put this malicious genie back in the bottle you either have to keep the stopper in or recognize the consequences if you don’t.

Lockdowns save many, many lives.The top yellow line shows the growth of COVID-19 if each infected person gives it to 4 others (Italy, pre-lockdown). The blue line shows the growth of COVID-19 when each infected person gives it to 1.4 others (Italy, after lockdown). Every day of delay before mitigation matters. The red curve shows what the effect would be if a lockdown is delayed by 3 generations, perhaps two weeks. Using the rates from Europe, such a delay means roughly twenty times as many people will die. Every day a politician delays imposing a lockdown, even when numbers are small, he or she may be killing tens or (in the case of the nation as a whole) hundreds of thousands of people. (At the time of this writing, with almost 215,000 documented cases in the United States, there are still no nation-wide mitigation orders in place.)

There is a lot left to learn about COVID-19. We are not even sure at this point about the fraction of cases that become serious. But there are things we do know. We know that you don’t have to look or feel sick to wind up infecting other people. You and your child might feel great, but while you’ll never know it, that lady you bumped into at the store may have you to thank when she winds up in the morgue.

Sorry for the dark turn, but that is our reality.

There are also indications that the virus is proceeding differently in the U.S. than in some other countries. When the virus emerged from China it appeared as though its most serious effects were limited to those over 60 years old. In contrast, in the U.S. a substantial fraction of the most severely ill patients are under 55.  This may be because we Americans are kind of known for things  – obesity, diabetes, not enough sleep, lack of exercise and chronic stress, etc. – that make people more vulnerable. Smoking and vaping also make the young vulnerable.  Now is not a bad time to quit smoking and start getting serious about the whole 8 hours of sleep and 8,000 steps business.

The bottom line: if we want to prevent rather than simply delay the human toll of COVID-19 we are looking at more than just a few weeks or even a couple of months. Restrictions on schools, work, public gatherings, businesses, social distancing and the like will be needed until we either have a vaccine or much better treatments. We are in it for the long haul.

There will be no return to “normal,” ever.

Looking forward, I don’t own a crystal ball, but I’ve got a pretty good track record at reading tea leaves. Coming out of this the ways we work and live will be different.

At the moment we’re discovering that a lot of those long commutes and interminable meetings really were wasted time and effort; that stuff can be handled in emails and Zoom chats. Now is probably not a good time to invest in the future of business travel, or conventions, or (this one hurts a bit) speaking at meetings. COVID-19 will doubtless accelerate the transition toward AI, automation and hyperproductivity.

In the public sector, education will change in profound ways. (A special word to schools: know that there is a very good chance you will be on-line for much of the coming year.) We will see shifts in political and cultural landscapes as we come to accept that we are in this together. There are a lot of people who imagined they were economically secure (and voted that way) who are suddenly finding themselves in the same boat with the millions of Americans who always wondered where the rent money was coming from this month.  COVID-19 will not be the last such event, and it is showing the inherent failings of a health care system in which preparedness plays second fiddle to short-term profit. Many still spread and buy into rhetoric downplaying COVID-19. They won’t feel that way when it takes their parent or spouse or child. They might see things from a radically different perspective as they lie on a gurney in the crowded hallway of an overwhelmed hospital wondering whether someone else will die before they do and free up the ventilator they so desperately need.

I could go on at length. The world is going to change. We are going to change.

COVID-19 cases and deaths as of April 1

Total documented cases and deaths from COVID-19 as of April 1, 2020. And so it begins. These numbers will continue to skyrocket. A few weeks ago, when Federal action might have saves hundreds of thousands of lives, President Trump declared of COVID, “this is their new hoax.” Yesterday the White House acknowledged that 100,000 to 240,000 Americans will die in the first wave of the disease, assuming that we do everything exactly right. We may come to look back on those estimates wistfully, because we are not doing everything exactly right. In the weeks to come each of us will be touched personally by COVID-19. As that happens attitudes and our understanding of what “pandemic” really means will go from hypotheticals to lived realities. Our view of the future will change in profound and lasting ways. (Constantly updated plots and data from around the world available from www.worldometers.info.)

Perhaps the clearest lesson of the present moment is that in any confrontation between ideology and reality, reality ultimately wins. Two weeks ago we were assured that this would all go away by Easter. Yesterday from that same podium we heard that the best case scenario is 100,000 to 240,000 Americans dead. COVID-19 didn’t listen when politicians and pundits declared it to be just like the flu. Real expertise, scientific expertise in particular, is turning out to be important after all.

The future holds opportunities as well.

That is my sense of where we are. COVID-19 is a transformational event. People will look back at the spring of 2020 and say, “that’s when it all changed.” My general advice to clients has been to accept that the coming 18 months or so are going to be volatile and uncertain. Plan in ways that allow you to respond as seamlessly as possible to inevitable ongoing disruptions that will last far longer than that.

We are going to learn a lot about ourselves in the months to come. Humans have a way of emerging from crises stronger, largely because crises force us to face reality on its own terms. They also show us that people who we used to think of as “them” turn out to be “us” after all. The shock of what is happening and will continue to happen is undeniable, but we will get through this. Longer term there are as many opportunities in the present moment as there are pitfalls. New ways of living will emerge. New businesses and industries will rise as old businesses and industries fail. Many who thought themselves invincible are now dinosaurs whether they know it or not. Evolve or die.

The winners will be those who are able to reassess their assumptions, remember their humanity, look in new ways at the world, and demonstrate the agility and courage to act. In a future defined by uncertainty there is huge risk and no guarantees. The world beyond COVID-19 will favor the nimble and the bold.

By the way, when you or your organization decide that you could use some help anticipating and responding to the challenges and opportunities of this extraordinary moment in history, reach out.  That’s what I help people do.

COVID-19 ^ Cutting through the confusion  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • COVID-19 Arrives  The Humanitarian Disaster is HerePosted in Thoughts
  • Correctly Predicting Failure  It’s time for scientists to get loudPosted in Thoughts
  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels  Spreading COVID one lap at a timePosted in Thoughts
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  • COVID-19  Cutting through the confusionPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy Redux  Why our universe isn’t boringPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Currently new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona are doubling every 7 days. ICU beds in the state are already full. The rest of the country isn’t that far behind us. You do the math.

  • Now is not the time for scientists to be circumspect and silent. We are on the short end of a battle over whether truth even matters. If scientists do not stand up for what is real, who will?

  • The morning cyclist in my neighborhood may not be standing in the Michigan Statehouse carrying a gun and demanding her right to spread contagion far and wide, but she may as well be.

  • You know those nice charts and graphs that make it look like we are over the hump of COVID-19 and that things are about to get better? Those predictions are dead wrong, with an unfortunate emphasis on “dead.”

  • Imagine three gregarious scientists, each with the gift of the gab, all coping with stay-at-home orders. Of course we started a livestream/podcast talk show! What else would we do? Welcome to the kickoff episode of Scientists Stuck Inside.

  • Even after COVID-19 kills hundreds of thousands in the U.S. over the coming weeks, we will still be almost as vulnerable to the pandemic as we are today. We’d all love to “get back to normal” after that, but the price could be a second wave, worse than the first. Some see us facing either economic Depression or allowing vast numbers of preventable deaths, but that is a fool’s choice. There are better options if we have the will to find them.

  • There is a lot of information about COVID-19 out there, much of it misleading. When looking at the future, start with what the science really says.

  • If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • A month’s worth of sunlight could pay the entropy bill for a billion years of biological evolution. Entropy is evolution’s best friend.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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