The number of Ukrainian Covid-19 cases is now ‘nobody gives a f***.’ Quite right. True existential threats put things in perspective. If you are more worried about catching Covid-19 than you are about the war and its possible escalation, you have a poor threat model.

That does not mean that we can stop paying attention to Covid-19. Prevention efforts continue to hamper our way of life, our social fabric and our lived experience.

The good news is that this is rapidly ramping down in many places, and perhaps coming to an end. The CDC has revised its mask guidelines to target a much more sensible metric, and now recommends unmasking in a large portion of the country. I would go farther, but the offer seems acceptable, and at worst fully in line with their stands against such joys as munching on raw cookie dough. New York where I live is lifting both its mask and vaccine mandates soon, including in schools. Many other states are doing the same.

The other good news is that my wife and I will welcome our third child later today. I managed to finish almost everything for this post yesterday, although I won’t be able to do a proper dive on Biden’s new 96-page plan. I hope to be able to continue updates without interruption, but it is possible next week’s will be an exception or stick to only the bare essentials.

Let’s run the numbers.

Executive Summary

  1. CDC revises masking guidelines to be based on hospital capacity.
  2. Mask and vaccine mandates are being lifted in many places.
  3. Attention rightfully shifts to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Let’s run the numbers.

The Numbers

Predictions

Prediction from last week: 340k cases (-30%) and 10,460 deaths (-20%).

Results: 329k cases (-33%) and 11,333 deaths (-13%).

Prediction for next week: 247k cases (-25%) and 9.200 deaths (-19%).

I keep expecting deaths to drop more than they do, and each week they keep dropping much less than cases drop. That seems like it can’t be sustained, and it feels like we are learning a lot about the time distribution of deaths, but at some point it’s going to have to come down. Nothing changed in terms of the actual death rate, so it doesn’t make any sense. Still, I have to expect something similar to continue for now.

Cases continue to drop at a steady pace. Restrictions are being weakened in many places, so I’d expect the drop to slow down, but I don’t expect it to stall or reverse.

Deaths

We have to conclude that for whatever reason it takes remarkably long for Covid cases to result in some of their resulting Covid deaths. This then raises the question of why death counts go up the way you would expect but then are going down slower than that. I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with Omicron, which would be bad news. I am definitely continuing to think about what might be going on here.

Cases

Chart is starting to become effectively impossible to read due to the previous peak. I’ll think about what to do about that.

World Modeling

Bob Wachter also concludes BA.2 is not worrisome beyond the potential for somewhat faster spread.

Tatiana Prowell surprises with an excellent thread acknowledging that her dire predictions of massive destruction were wrong and going into the physical reasons why. This is The Way. She looks into which of her assumptions were wrong and how those false assumptions led her to make the wrong conclusions. Some of her false assumptions are not called out explicitly, but they remain clear from the thread, which is still unusually great.

She first goes over the part she got right, that there would be a ton of Omicron cases.

This part was indeed quite right. There were a ton of Omicron cases. Where her predictions were wrong was that she expected this to lead to massive disruptions. Those disruptions didn’t happen, so she asks the right question, which is why.

Tatiana’s model said that people would abide by the CDC guidelines and isolate for 10 days when infected, even if that meant massive disruptions, presumably because that’s what one does. Instead, not only did people do the practical thing and ignore guidelines when it was sufficiently vital, the CDC altered its guidelines to relieve a lot of the pressure.

What she doesn’t mention is the additional assumption that shortening isolation would make conditions much worse. I am confident this was previously part of her model, that people who came back after five days would make Omicron spread faster and ultimately therefore cause lots of additional disruption. That did not happen. If there is one flaw in the thread, it is that she sidesteps whether the CDC was right by ignoring the question of the magnitude of the downside, which ultimately proved quite small.

In turn, this should update us to be more confident that indeed a five day quarantine requirement is sufficient in practice. While such people are not fully safe, it is a question of magnitude.

Quite right, and an odd mistake to originally make. At the same time she was calling on people to alter their behavior and was altering hers, she did not expects others to change behavior, despite it having happened in previous waves. This seems like a pattern, where those calling out dire warnings and for strict requirements never expect private behavioral adjustments.

This feels mostly like grasping at straws. It’s true that regional disruptions were not all synchronized, but the amount of one region helping keep another region running smoothly seemed like it was minimal even for the hospitals, so this likely had minimal impact. If anything, it meant more disruption via some places having big trouble.

Indeed. The thing is that there was nothing to be done about the vast majority of those deaths. It is not that we ‘tolerated’ it so much as we endured and dealt with it. Causing massive disruptions, including in other medical care, would not have made the situation any better – we did triage, and for once we did a decent job of it.

Bingo. Big props for realizing it and calling it out. Thinking Omicron could cause massive disruptions was absolutely right. For a while, I was warning that such disruptions were possible and attempting to estimate how likely they were, slowly concluding they were unlikely. Thinking probabilistically under uncertainty, and realizing there is much we do not know, is necessary.

Seeing this thread gave me hope. The default thing to do is pivot and pretend mistakes were not made, or at least not look at them. This was the opposite, and done the right way. Kudos.

Free To Be You And Me Says CDC

The CDC says many Americans can take their masks off.

The CDC’s new guidelines are based on hospital capacity, and put a remarkably large amount of the country into the green zone.

It was felt necessary to emphasize that they will make an exception, and in this case that which is not mandatory is not forbidden, and thus allowed.

I am as pleasantly surprised as you are. Banning mask wearing would have been quite the flex. I do expect there to be some places that ban masks, of course. I do wish they wouldn’t, but it’s their call.

These new guidelines don’t change the requirements that people wear masks on well-ventilated airplanes or near-empty buses and subways. The agency is still also recommending that people, including school children in K-12 schools, wear masks indoors in the 30 percent of counties where the risk of COVID-19 is ranked as high.

The in-school masking recommendation is being lifted for school children in low- and medium-risk counties, however. That’s a change from CDC Director Rochelle Walensky’s comments from just last week. The director had said in a closed congressional hearing that she had no plans to change the agency’s recommendation that all school children continue to wear masks, according to reporting from Reason‘s Robby Soave.

It would only be a contradiction if the CDC had a plan.

It also appears they have been systematically holding back their statistical data? I’d say what the hell, hero, except hey, it’s the CDC.

State of the Union

Biden gave the State of the Union address on Tuesday, which I watched so you didn’t have to. Mostly it was the usual grab bag of various applause lines that for whatever reason people think is the politically astute way to approach this situation, and had a part about Ukraine stapled onto the front end. None of it was especially insightful or new on any topic, other than Biden’s emphasis that people would be able to take a Covid test at a pharmacy and then get Paxlovid handed to them on the spot if it comes back positive. That’s pretty great.

The clear takeaway on Covid-19 was that Biden was ready to agree we could all move on, and that was a good thing. He plans to offer more free tests and continue to promote vaccinations and other neat stuff like that, but it was obvious his heart was no longer in it. He is dealing with a war that could potentially become World War 3, he’s dealing with inflation, he’s dealing with Manchin, he has a Supreme Court nominee and everyone is ready to move on from masks and mandates that are polling increasingly terribly.

So that’s that.

Biden then released a 96-page roadmap. I ran out of time before I could examine it in detail, but all early reports are that it is quite good. I will analyze when I can.

Prevention and Prevention Prevention Prevention

Biden’s polling firm recommends declaring victory and letting people leave home.

France drops lets my people go, drops vaccine pass.

New York lets my people go, including yours truly. Woo-hoo!

Almost. But not quite. The private employer vaccine mandate will remain in place. This is one of the least justified ones.

Yet the mayor said Monday that letting Kyrie play would “send the wrong message,” echoing his earlier claim that lifting the vax mandate might send “mixed messages.” Yet now it’s keeping this rule that mixes up the message.

Day to day it is also one of the least annoying, but it is still time for such things to go. When you don’t want to do something because it would ‘send the wrong message’ it is clear that you are imposing restrictions in order to send messages.

And of course private citizens and locations are free to continue being needlessly paranoid, so the mask will keep coming on and off every so often.

As usual, it can be enlightening to look at top comments to the vaccine mandate announcement:

It’s insane to think the mandates are doing this level of work especially going forward. The only way to think it is if you think the whole thing is a morality play.

The more Narrative version of this objection looks more like this.

You have to love the logic there – the claim is we must keep requirements in place forever because of problems that will happen at some point in the future, so we have to keep punishing non-compliance now even though it has no other function and mostly annoys everyone.

I’m totally loving this new mayor, who ‘can’t wait’ to phase out the mandates even if he does end up waiting a little while, and is also calling out that it is time to return to the office.

“You can’t tell me you’re afraid of COVID on Monday and I see you in a nightclub on Sunday.”

The crack sparked laughter among the audience at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel.

Adams said that white-collar workers who continued working from home were hurting service-oriented businesses that rely on a steady stream of customers.

“That accountant that’s not in his office space is not going to the cleaners,” he said.

“It’s not going to the restaurant. It’s not allowing the cooks, the waiters, the dishwashers [to make a living].”

An important distinction to keep in mind is between benefits and costs. There being more suits to clean is a cost. All these services that people require are costs. If the reason people need to go to the office (which is a cost!) is to then use other services (which are also costs) then something is deeply wrong. There are real benefits to (many people) returning to their offices, and those are important. There are also real benefits to division of labor, and it’s good to have more people enjoy more nice things, which can include things like restaurants. But let’s remember what goes on which side of the ledger.

Getting back to the health-based concern trolling naysayers, we do need to Remember: The goal of many was and is Permanent Midnight, and the goal of other public health officials is to not waste a crisis in order to achieve orthogonal political goals.

A relevant cartoon.

Except no. I’m sorry, kid. If you’re a politician you’ll always be wearing a mask.

A clear example.

A contrast.

Nate Silver’s take.

The changes desired may or may not be worth making, but that is based on whether they were a good idea before the pandemic. They’re either good ideas or they’re not. Holding the lifting of pandemic restrictions as a hostage to force through such measures is a whole different thing. The shift between the different claims, as ways to create a new normal that’s very different from the old normal, also needs to be noticed.

There has been a tension between ‘Covid will condition us to obey arbitrary and dehumanizing restrictions on our behaviors’ versus ‘Covid will teach us that our authorities will attempt arbitrary and dehumanizing restrictions on our behaviors and we need to learn to not allow this.’

Here’s a link to Barro’s full post.

The Fear has been that the first effect would dominate, and we would end up with Permanent Midnight. The outcome remains unclear, but recent events seem to clearly point in the other direction, even if we’re starting to see counter-productive punishments and signaling surrounding Russia instead. Some things, like war, never change, even when they change a lot.

I continue to think this is exactly on point:

Think of the Children

A CDC estimate claims more than 58% of American children have had Covid-19. We mostly did not notice or care. They estimate 43% of adults have had it.

Covid Arithmetic for Anxious Parents, from Bryan Caplan. I could quibble but, as Bryan points out, no quibble is going to change the answer.


When the Narrative shifts to embrace the position one was previously holding, there are two choices.

Option one is to point out that the Narrative has been gaslighting us for years saying that asking children to wear masks was no big deal and laying groundwork such that we might never be able to ‘move forward’, and suddenly saying ‘it’s a lot to ask’ and that ‘at some point we have to try moving forward’ while pretending they hadn’t done so is highly hypocritical and infuriating, and to give no quarter.

Option two is to point out that they’re talking sense now and acting compatibly with life, and one could not reasonably ask for more than that.

I’m mostly in the second camp. The penalty for being late should not be death, so go and sin no more. And yet. Remember.

The flip side of this is that such lifting of mandates is often delayed for no reason. A week from now you won’t have to wear masks, but for now you must continue, despite thing being safe enough already to justify lifting the mandate. Or you’ll lift some mandates, but leave others in place for no physical reason.

For example, you might say it is for, and I quote, “continuity?”

Perhaps students would notice the fundamental truth that none of us are the same as our past selves, and this particular philosophy class does not have time for that.

Knox County continues to have judges forcing all kids to mask, including those who need speech therapy, because of a lawsuit saying that it is required to ‘accommodate’ some students. This is despite almost everyone involved on all other levels not wanting this outcome, yet here we are.

In Other News

New preprint on origins of Covid-19, provides more data but does not seem to offer up much clarity.

SNL skit on what Covid discourse is like. Question the Narrative?

Yes, there are those who are so terrified of Covid that they would advise practicing social distancing in the wake of nuclear Armageddon. This is an insight into that type of thinking. I do think keeping your mask on would be wise, but for obvious other reasons.

Putin is having all his meetings over video conference or comically long tables. Ostensibly the reason is Covid. I am guessing there is a different reason. Could help explain him being out of touch in various ways.

Insight Prediction is an additional prediction market source. As far as I can tell volumes and liquidity remain quite low even on war questions and are essentially zero on Covid, but every little bit helps and I’m happy to link to everyone in this space.

Watch out, if you make a customer wear a mask they might arrange for a very real warrant for your arrest, signed by very real officials and everything, no really, and send it three times to make it clear how important it up.

Senator Tim Kaine introduces bill on Long Covid, claims to be suffering from it himself. He got Covid in spring of 2020, continuing the pattern of very early Covid cases leading to a hugely disproportionate share of claimed cases. His bill would mostly gather information, so likely it is good.

Not Covid or Ukraine

I’m adding ‘or Ukraine’ here. I am still figuring out how I am going to deal with the Ukraine situation, but posting small things here is definitely not The Way.

FDA approves a condom and the first thought is the correct one, that we should suddenly worry that we might lose access to condoms or have to pay huge markups. Luckily it does not look like this is the case.

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Option two is to point out that they’re talking sense now and acting compatibly with life, and one could not reasonably ask for more than that.

I’m mostly in the second camp. The penalty for being late should not be death, so go and sin no more.

Not sure I agree but I'll have to think about it more.

Simulacrum-2 doesn't mean "saying false things" - sometimes S2 says true things. When you discover that someone's lied to you, do you shame them for saying the false thing, or do you shame them for being on S2 toward you? The latter is a kind of meta-lie that they're always committing, even when they say true things. The meta-lie is "I'm saying this cause it's true, not primarily to manipulate you".

In personal relationships, you can forgive and give people chances to stop being S2 toward you. Or you might even tolerate their being on S2, because you're convinced they really care about you (like an overprotective mom whom you love). But for public figures / "Narrative", might it be acceptable to just say "they told a meta-lie, they still haven't explicitly come clean on that meta-lie, so F them no matter what they say in the future, they blew their chance to ever earn my respect."

Interested in an update on "China keeps daily cases under 50 per million through 2022: 45% → 40%" given the data we have on Hong Kong recently

Yes, there are those who are so terrified of Covid that they would advise practicing social distancing in the wake of nuclear Armageddon. This is an insight into that type of thinking. I do think keeping your mask on would be wise, but for obvious other reasons.

 

I saw this too and was very put off to find social distancing being mentioned in a nuclear explosion survival guide, glad I'm not the only one who noticed this. Doubt many would survive (myself included) without the aid of other humans in such an apocalyptic situation, you know, like a crowded bus out of the fallout zone that I would have to turn down to follow social distancing.

I keep expecting deaths to drop more than they do, and each week they keep dropping much less than cases drop. That seems like it can’t be sustained, and it feels like we are learning a lot about the time distribution of deaths, but at some point it’s going to have to come down. Nothing changed in terms of the actual death rate, so it doesn’t make any sense. Still, I have to expect something similar to continue for now.

Epistemic status: Generalizing from N=1.

I got COVID during the omicron wave and did not report it to anyone other than my family/acquaintances. Had i gotten COVID during a not-wave I probably would have reported it, since it feels like it would have been more important to report the information to society at large. If others have a similar enough psychology to my own, there may be a mechanism that results in undercounting cases during large waves, which would then cause the reported case fatality rate to rise during large waves (since nearly all cases that eventually lead to death would indeed get reported).

I got sick during the omicron wave too. It might have been covid. I don't know. Either way, I didn't bother reporting it to the authorities. Had I gotten covid during a previous wave I probably would have reported it too.

This was also my guess, official counts dropping faster than unofficial.

I'm in an area that is only back to an early October 2021 rate of new cases. My gut says it seems a couple/few weeks early to go completely mask-optional (and it's not like we did in November 2021...), but there is actually quite a bit different now - a much higher share of non-susceptibles (thanks Omicron! and the booster), milder illness (thanks Omicron! and the booster), kids are getting vaccinated, better treatments are available. It's also annoying that these decisions are really just made ad hoc ("does the current CDC map give us cover?" never getting close to defining victory conditions before they're reached).

On the academia side, I think the "continuity" benefit is more about administration support of the faculty (who had been charged with enforcing the mandates after all) - faculty members have preferences, too, and some universities threatened to persecute them throughout this (and States intervened in local rule sometimes); thankfully the CDC made its exception so "that which is not mandatory is not forbidden" this time, and sadly some faculty members would ban masks if given the chance, so this is nice to the students who have their own preferences, too (most prefer maskless, but not all, and some may have made choices for specific instructional terms based on delivery formats and expected mitigation policies).

But all that said, "no quibble is going to change the answer." Being annoyed is standard fare as an adult. It's basically time.

Yeah, I'd be mostly fine with 'professors agreed to teach knowing there would be masks so it's professors' choice' if that was the logic.  

For your own decision, it's your call but number of cases is a pretty bad metric and forward risk is a lot lower than that, as you know, so...

Congratulations on the upcoming birth!  Also, would love to hear your thoughts on the MLB talks at some point.

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