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.

New Comment
4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:
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.

I can't comment on what doctors and random public health bureaucrats might have said, but as Owain Evans said earlier, the current state of modelling among the actual domain experts in modelling is nowhere near as bad as you suggest and it does take these effects into account.

I think that the heterogeneity you talk about is part of the reason that even the 'worst case' planning (at least in the UK) is suggesting partial herd immunity being reached with ~30% infected. This UK government report goes over a bunch of factors that might increase transmission and say that a 'reasonable worst case' scenario for herd immunity from a winter wave is R_t increasing to 1.7 in September and remaining constant, assuming effectively zero government action - total second wave deaths (and, approximately cases) are about double the first, which would mean a total infected of a bit less than 30% for herd immunity (A bit less than 10% infected so far + about double to come).

One of the most influential models is the "Imperial Model", which certainly impacted UK policy and probably US and European policy too. Other countries did versions of the model. The lead researcher on the model literally became a household name in the UK. The Imperial Model is an agent-based model (not an SIR model). It has a very detailed representation of how exposure/contact differ among different age groups (work vs. school) and in regions with different population densities.

The lesson here may be that the public line about 'there's a fixed 70% herd immunity threshold' is just that - a public line, and isn't (and never was - if I remember rightly, the Imperial model from March estimated a herd immunity threshold of 40% without a lockdown) biasing the output of modelling. It could also be the case that doctors or generic public health people in the US are repeating the 70% line while epidemiologists and modellers with specific expertise (in the US and elsewhere) are being more methodical.

I searched herd immunity in the UK government report you referenced and found the following line

Serology studies suggest that ~5-10% of the UK population has been infected to date, with levels up to 15% in some areas, but infection levels of approximately 70% may be required to achieve herd immunity, bearing in mind that the degree to which immunity is conferred by past infection is still unknown (see section 3.1.2). (page 12)

That comment looks exaclty like the supposed strawman Zvi is putting up. Is there some reading between the lines explanation that contradicts their direct statement? And if there is, why would it matter more than their direct statement.

I generally do believe your point that modelers accept the broader evidence on immunity much more than public health officials and pundits.

It’s clearly the case that the public line about 70% herd immunity is still out there, but I think my broader point is served by that report. They have the obligatory ‘herd immunity is reached at 70% and there may be no immunity conferred’ caveat but then the actual model implies that in a worst case scenario 30% of the UK gets infected. You might speculate that they consulted the modellers for the model but not for the rest of it.

As a longtime baseball fan, one thing that excites me is that people are so hard up for sports that I'm seeing people who have been "meh" on baseball turning to it. I don't know if this will persist, but on the margin it might produce some new/stronger baseball fans, though I think the situation would have to be pretty prolonged to return baseball to its pre-strike level of popularity.

This also makes me think some other games should be safe: cricket, tennis, golf, etc.. They might similarly see an uptick in interest in the US.