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The Country with the Best Covid-19 Response? Mongolia.

posted by Jason Kottke   May 26, 2020

Mongolia Covid-19 response

Several countries have had solid responses to the Covid-19 pandemic: Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. But Indi Samarajiva thinks we should be paying much more attention to Mongolia, a country of 3.17 million people where no one has died and no locally transmitted cases have been reported.1 Let’s have that again: 3.17 million people, 0 local cases, 0 deaths. How did they do it? They saw what was happening in Wuhan, coordinated with the WHO, and acted swiftly & decisively in January.

Imagine that you could go back in time to January 23rd with the horse race results and, I dunno, the new iPhone. People believe you. China has just shut down Hubei Province, the largest cordon sanitaire in human history. What would you scream to your leaders? What would you tell them to do?

You’d tell them that this was serious and that it’s coming for sure. You’d tell them to restrict the borders now, to socially distance now, and to get medical supplies ready, also now. You’d tell them to react right now, in January itself. That’s 20/20 hindsight.

That’s exactly what Mongolia did, and they don’t have a time machine. They just saw what was happening in Hubei, they coordinated with China and the WHO, and they got their shit together fast. That’s their secret, not the elevation. They just weren’t dumb.

When you go to World In Data’s Coronavirus Data Explorer and click on “Mongolia” to add their data to the graph, nothing happens because they have zero reported cases and zero deaths. They looked at the paradox of preparation — the idea that “when the best way to save lives is to prevent a disease rather than treat it, success often looks like an overreaction” — and said “sign us up for the overreacting!”

Throughout February, Mongolia was furiously getting ready - procuring face masks, test kits, and PPE; examining hospitals, food markets, and cleaning up the city. Still no reported cases. Still no let-up in readiness. No one was like “it’s not real!” or “burn the 5G towers!”

The country also suspended their New Year celebrations, which are a big deal in Asia. They deployed hundreds of people and restricted intercity travel to make sure, though the public seemed to broadly support the move.

Again — and I’ll keep saying this until March — there were still NO CASES. If you want to know how Mongolia ended up with no local cases, it’s because they reacted when there were no local cases. And they kept acting.

For example, when they heard of a case across the border (ie, not in Mongolia) South Gobi declared an emergency and put everyone in masks. The center also shut down coal exports — a huge economic hit, which they took proactively.

As you can see, at every turn they’re reacting like other countries only did when it was too late. This looked like an over-reaction, but in fact, Mongolia was always on time.

I have to tell you true: I got really upset reading this. Like crying and furious. The United States could have done this. Italy could have done this. Brazil could have done this. Sweden could have done this. England could have done this. Spain could have done this. Mongolia listened to the experts, acted quickly, and kept their people safe. Much of the rest of the world, especially the western world — the so-called first-world countries — failed to act quickly enough and hundreds of thousands of people have needlessly died and countless others have been left with chronic health issues, grief, and economic chaos.

  1. If you look at the list of cases at the bottom of this article (translated by Google), you can see that every reported case is from people coming into the country who were tested and quarantined.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back Into the Water…

posted by Jason Kottke   May 21, 2020

As summer ramps up in North America, people are looking to get out to enjoy the weather while also trying to keep safe from Covid-19 infection. Here in Vermont, I am very much looking forward to swim hole season and have been wondering if swimming is a safe activity during the pandemic. The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan wrote about the difficulty of opening pools back up this summer:

The coronavirus can’t remain infectious in pool water, multiple experts assured me, but people who come to pools do not stay in the water the entire time. They get out, sit under the sun, and, if they’re like my neighbors, form a circle and drink a few illicit White Claws. Social-distancing guidelines are quickly forgotten.

“If someone is swimming laps, that would be pretty safe as long as they’re not spitting water everywhere,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University. “But a Las Vegas-type pool party, that would be less safe, because people are just hanging out and breathing on each other.”

This story by Christopher Reynolds in the LA Times focuses more on transmission via water (pool water, salt water, river/lake water).

“There is no data that somebody got infected this way [with coronavirus],” said professor Karin B. Michels, chair of UCLA’s Department of Epidemiology, in a recent interview.

“I can’t say it’s absolutely 100% zero risk, but I can tell you that it would never cross my mind to get COVID-19 from a swimming pool or the ocean,” said Paula Cannon, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. “It’s just extraordinarily unlikely that this would happen.”

As long as you keep your distance of course:

Rather than worry about coronavirus in water, UCLA’s Michels and USC’s Cannon said, swimmers should stay well separated and take care before and after entering the pool, lake, river or sea.

“I would be more concerned about touching the same lockers or surfaces in the changing room or on the benches outside the pool. Those are higher risk than the water itself,” Michels said. “The other thing is you have to maintain distance. … More distance is always better.”

Sorta related but not really: ten meters is definitely more distance.

How to Think About Freedom and Liberty During a Pandemic

posted by Jason Kottke   May 19, 2020

After 2+ months of lockdown in most areas, a small minority of Americans want our country to go back to “normal” despite evidence and expert advice to the contrary. They want to get haircuts, not wear masks in public, go to crowded beaches, and generally go about their lives. These folks couch their desires in terms of freedom & liberty: the government has no right to infringe on the individual freedoms of its citizens.

But governments routinely do just that for all kinds of good reasons — e.g. you can’t murder someone just because you feel like it — and as Johns Hopkins’ public health historian Graham Mooney points out, there’s a precedent for a different way of thinking about freedom in the context of public health.

In response to these vehement appeals to individual freedom, public-health leaders in London, Liverpool, Manchester and elsewhere developed a powerful counterargument. They too framed their argument in terms of freedom — freedom from disease. To protect citizens’ right to be free from disease, in their view, governments and officials needed the authority to isolate those who were sick, vaccinate people, and take other steps to reduce the risk of infectious disease.

One of the most important reformers was George Buchanan, the chief medical officer for England from 1879 to 1892. He argued that cities and towns had the authority to take necessary steps to ensure the communal “sanitary welfare.” He and other reformers based their arguments on an idea developed by the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who is, ironically, remembered largely as a staunch defender of individual liberty. Mill articulated what he called the “harm principle,” which asserts that while individual liberty is sacrosanct, it should be limited when it will harm others: “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty and action of any of their number, is self-protection,” Mill wrote in On Liberty in 1859. Public-health reformers argued that the harm principle gave them the authority to pursue their aims.

An essay published in The Lancet in 1883 sums up this view nicely: “We cannot see that there is any undue violation of personal liberty in the sanitary authority acting for the whole community, requiring to be informed of the existence of diseases dangerous to others. A man’s liberty is not to involve risk to others,” the author wrote. “A man with smallpox has the natural liberty to travel in a cab or an omnibus; but society has a right that overrides his natural liberty, and says he shall not.”

A Practical Guide to Covid-19 Risks and How to Avoid Them

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2020

As some places in the United States and other countries are opening back up (some very prematurely), immunologist and biologist Dr. Erin Bromage has written a practical guide to the known Covid-19 risks and how to avoid them that’s based on recent scientific research. He begins:

It seems many people are breathing some relief, and I’m not sure why. An epidemic curve has a relatively predictable upslope and once the peak is reached, the back slope can also be predicted. We have robust data from the outbreaks in China and Italy, that shows the backside of the mortality curve declines slowly, with deaths persisting for months. Assuming we have just crested in deaths at 70k, it is possible that we lose another 70,000 people over the next 6 weeks as we come off that peak. That’s what’s going to happen with a lockdown.

As states reopen, and we give the virus more fuel, all bets are off. I understand the reasons for reopening the economy, but I’ve said before, if you don’t solve the biology, the economy won’t recover.

But since things are opening up anyway (whether epidemiologists like it or not), Bromage goes through a number of scenarios you might potentially find yourself in over the next few months and what the associated risks might be. His guiding principle is that infection is caused by exposure to the virus over time — increase the time or the exposure and your risk goes up. For example, public bathrooms might give you a ton of exposure to the virus over a relatively short period of time:

Bathrooms have a lot of high touch surfaces, door handles, faucets, stall doors. So fomite transfer risk in this environment can be high. We still do not know whether a person releases infectious material in feces or just fragmented virus, but we do know that toilet flushing does aerosolize many droplets. Treat public bathrooms with extra caution (surface and air), until we know more about the risk.

But being in the same room with another person simply breathing may not carry a large risk if you limit the time.

A single breath releases 50-5000 droplets. Most of these droplets are low velocity and fall to the ground quickly. There are even fewer droplets released through nose-breathing. Importantly, due to the lack of exhalation force with a breath, viral particles from the lower respiratory areas are not expelled.

But that time would drop sharply if the person is speaking:

Speaking increases the release of respiratory droplets about 10 fold; ~200 copies of virus per minute. Again, assuming every virus is inhaled, it would take ~5 minutes of speaking face-to-face to receive the required dose.

Again, this is all indoors. Being in enclosed spaces with other humans, particularly if they are poorly ventilated, is going to hold higher risks for the foreseeable future.

The reason to highlight these different outbreaks is to show you the commonality of outbreaks of COVID-19. All these infection events were indoors, with people closely-spaced, with lots of talking, singing, or yelling. The main sources for infection are home, workplace, public transport, social gatherings, and restaurants. This accounts for 90% of all transmission events. In contrast, outbreaks spread from shopping appear to be responsible for a small percentage of traced infections. (Ref)

Importantly, of the countries performing contact tracing properly, only a single outbreak has been reported from an outdoor environment (less than 0.3% of traced infections). (ref)

The Michael Pollan version of advice for socializing during the pandemic might be: Spend time with people, not too much, mostly masked and outdoors.

On the Accuracy of Covid-19 Testing

posted by Jason Kottke   May 07, 2020

As someone who suspects I may have had a mild case of Covid-19 a couple of months ago, I’ve been thinking about getting tested for antibodies. But as this video from ProPublica shows, even really accurate tests may not actually tell you all that much.

And the thing is, the “do I have Covid-19 right now” tests are plagued by the same issue.

For patients getting tested, the main concern is how to interpret the outcome: If I test negative with an RT-PCR genetic test, what are the chances I actually have the virus? Or if I test positive with an antibody test, does it actually mean I have the antibodies?

It turns out that the answers to these questions don’t just hinge on the accuracy of the test. “Mathematically, the way that works out, that actually depends on how many people in your area have Covid,” Eleanor Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, said.

The rarer the disease in the population, the less you’ll learn by testing.

Let’s say we have a hypothetical Covid-19 test for antibodies that is both 99 percent sensitive — meaning almost all people with antibodies will test positive — and 99 percent specific, meaning almost all people who were never infected will yield a negative result.

If you test a group of 100 uninfected people, odds are one of them will still test positive even though they don’t have the virus. Conversely, if you test 100 people who were infected, it’s likely one of them will still test negative.

Now let’s presume the virus has a prevalence rate of 1 percent, so one person in 100 carries antibodies to it. If you test 100 random people and get a positive result, what is the chance that this person was truly infected?

Deborah Birx, the White House Covid-19 response coordinator, explained the answer at a press conference on April 20: “So if you have 1 percent of your population infected and you have a test that’s only 99 percent specific, that means that when you find a positive, 50 percent of the time will be a real positive and 50 percent of the time it won’t be.”

So even if I test positive for antibodies and I assume that confers immunity, given that the number of confirmed infections in Vermont is so low (~900 statewide), it doesn’t seem like I would be justified in changing my behavior at all. I would still have to act as though I’ve never had the virus, both for my own health and the health of those around me. Maybe if I had two or three corroborating tests could I be more certain…

SARS-CoV-2, An Emerging Portrait

posted by Jason Kottke   May 06, 2020

From Nature’s David Cyranoski, a piece that takes a look at what the latest research says about SARS-CoV-2, where it came from, and how it is able to infect the human body. I’m going to highlight a few things from the article I thought were particularly interesting. As Cyranoski has done throughout, I’d like to stress that because this virus is so new to us and the situation is moving so quickly, many of these results are based on preliminary research, have been published in pre-print papers, and haven’t been peer-reviewed.

The first is about the detective work being done to trace where SARS-CoV-2 came from and how long it’s been in existence (possibly decades).

SARS-CoV-2 genetic origin

But studies released over the past few months, which have yet to be peer-reviewed, suggest that SARS-CoV-2 — or a very similar ancestor — has been hiding in some animal for decades. According to a paper posted online in March, the coronavirus lineage leading to SARS-CoV-2 split more than 140 years ago from the closely related one seen today in pangolins. Then, sometime in the past 40-70 years, the ancestors of SARS-CoV-2 separated from the bat version, which subsequently lost the effective receptor binding domain that was present in its ancestors (and remains in SARS-CoV-2). A study published on 21 April came up with very similar findings using a different dating method.

The section on how the virus acts in the body is particularly interesting because it attempts to explain the unusual and varying behaviors SARS-CoV-2 exhibits and causes in different parts of the human body. For example, SARS-CoV-2, unusually, can initially infect two places in the body: the throat and lungs.

Having these two infection points means that SARS-CoV-2 can mix the transmissibility of the common cold coronaviruses with the lethality of MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV. “It is an unfortunate and dangerous combination of this coronavirus strain,” he says.

The virus’s ability to infect and actively reproduce in the upper respiratory tract was something of a surprise, given that its close genetic relative, SARS-CoV, lacks that ability. Last month, Wendtner published results of experiments in which his team was able to culture virus from the throats of nine people with COVID-19, showing that the virus is actively reproducing and infectious there. That explains a crucial difference between the close relatives. SARS-CoV-2 can shed viral particles from the throat into saliva even before symptoms start, and these can then pass easily from person to person. SARS-CoV was much less effective at making that jump, passing only when symptoms were full-blown, making it easier to contain.

These differences have led to some confusion about the lethality of SARS-CoV-2. Some experts and media reports describe it as less deadly than SARS-CoV because it kills about 1% of the people it infects, whereas SARS-CoV killed at roughly ten times that rate. But Perlman says that’s the wrong way to look at it. SARS-CoV-2 is much better at infecting people, but many of the infections don’t progress to the lungs. “Once it gets down in the lungs, it’s probably just as deadly,” he says.

And this is a somewhat hopeful speculation on one of the many possible ways the Covid-19 pandemic could go:

“By far the most likely scenario is that the virus will continue to spread and infect most of the world population in a relatively short period of time,” says Stöhr, meaning one to two years. “Afterwards, the virus will continue to spread in the human population, likely forever.” Like the four generally mild human coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 would then circulate constantly and cause mainly mild upper respiratory tract infections, says Stöhr. For that reason, he adds, vaccines won’t be necessary.

Some previous studies support this argument. One showed that when people were inoculated with the common-cold coronavirus 229E, their antibody levels peaked two weeks later and were only slightly raised after a year. That did not prevent infections a year later, but subsequent infections led to few, if any, symptoms and a shorter period of viral shedding.

The OC43 coronavirus offers a model for where this pandemic might go. That virus also gives humans common colds, but genetic research from the University of Leuven in Belgium suggests that OC43 might have been a killer in the past.

But then, from a few paragraphs down:

People like to think that “the other coronaviruses were terrible and became mild”, says Perlman. “That’s an optimistic way to think about what’s going on now, but we don’t have evidence.”

For now, it’s just another thing we don’t know about this virus we learned about only 5 months ago. It’s a long road ahead, but I’m thankful that so many scientists are bent on making sense of it all.

Some Pandemic Real-Talk from Epidemic Expert Laurie Garrett

posted by Jason Kottke   May 04, 2020

This too-short profile of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett, who has been writing about epidemics since the 90s, is closer to my personal feelings as to how the pandemic plays out in the US than almost anything else I’ve read.

But she can’t envision that vaccine anytime in the next year, while Covid-19 will remain a crisis much longer than that.

“I’ve been telling everybody that my event horizon is about 36 months, and that’s my best-case scenario,” she said.

“I’m quite certain that this is going to go in waves,” she added. “It won’t be a tsunami that comes across America all at once and then retreats all at once. It will be micro-waves that shoot up in Des Moines and then in New Orleans and then in Houston and so on, and it’s going to affect how people think about all kinds of things.”

They’ll re-evaluate the importance of travel. They’ll reassess their use of mass transit. They’ll revisit the need for face-to-face business meetings. They’ll reappraise having their kids go to college out of state.

Much of the federal government’s response has been to help big business, and the wealthy are going to have opportunities to not only ride out the storm more easily but to take advantage:

If America enters the next wave of coronavirus infections “with the wealthy having gotten somehow wealthier off this pandemic by hedging, by shorting, by doing all the nasty things that they do, and we come out of our rabbit holes and realize, ‘Oh, my God, it’s not just that everyone I love is unemployed or underemployed and can’t make their maintenance or their mortgage payments or their rent payments, but now all of a sudden those jerks that were flying around in private helicopters are now flying on private personal jets and they own an island that they go to and they don’t care whether or not our streets are safe,’ then I think we could have massive political disruption.”

I could quote something from just about every paragraph, but for now I’ll just do one more excerpt and you can go and read the rest.

Garrett recounted her time at Harvard. “The medical school is all marble, with these grand columns,” she said. “The school of public health is this funky building, the ugliest possible architecture, with the ceilings falling in.”

“That’s America?” I asked.

“That’s America,” she said.

See also Dave Eggers’ pandemic Q&A, which shares a certain pessimistic honesty with Garrett’s thoughts.

What Happens Next? Our Possible Covid-19 Futures…

posted by Jason Kottke   May 04, 2020

Creative technologist Nicky Case and epidemiologist Marcel Salathé have teamed up to produce a concise but thorough playable explainer about important epidemiological concepts, how we could/should respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, and different scenarios about what the next few years could look like.

A gameplan to get R below 1 for coronavirus

If you’ve been keeping up with the various models and experts’ plans (test/trace/isolate, etc.), there’s not a lot new here until close to end, but it is pretty comprehensive and the playable simulations are really useful. The whole thing takes about 30 minutes to get through, but at the end, you will have an excellent simplified understanding of what this virus could do to us and what we can do to mitigate its effects.

Isolating symptomatic cases would reduce R by up to 40%, and quarantining their pre/a-symptomatic contacts would reduce R by up to 50%:

Thus, even without 100% contact quarantining, we can get R < 1 without a lockdown! Much better for our mental & financial health. (As for the cost to folks who have to self-isolate/quarantine, governments should support them — pay for the tests, job protection, subsidized paid leave, etc. Still way cheaper than intermittent lockdown.)

The problem with this explainer, as excellent as it is, is the problem with all of these plans: many government officials on both the state & federal level don’t seem interested in listening to the experts. It is also unclear — if the unmasked crowds gathering in American cities during this past weekend’s warm weather are any indication — that Americans will be willing to take the steps necessary to keep each other safe. I’m not sure what it’s going to take to address those situations, but I don’t think playable graphs are going to help that much.

The Changing Profile of Covid-19’s Presenting Symptoms

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 29, 2020

As Ed Yong notes in his helpful overview of the pandemic, this is such a huge and quickly moving event that it’s difficult to know what’s happening. Lately, I’ve been seeking information on Covid-19 presenting symptoms after seeing a bunch of anecdotal data from various sources.

In the early days of the epidemic (January, February, and into March), people were told by the CDC and other public health officials to watch out for three specific symptoms: fever, a dry cough, and shortness of breath. In many areas, testing was restricted to people who exhibited only those symptoms. Slowly, as more data is gathered, the profile of the presenting symptoms has started to shift. From a New York magazine piece by David Wallace-Wells on Monday:

While the CDC does list fever as the top symptom of COVID-19, so confidently that for weeks patients were turned away from testing sites if they didn’t have an elevated temperature, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, as many as 70 percent of patients sick enough to be admitted to New York State’s largest hospital system did not have a fever.

Over the past few months, Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital has been compiling and revising, in real time, treatment guidelines for COVID-19 which have become a trusted clearinghouse of best-practices information for doctors throughout the country. According to those guidelines, as few as 44 percent of coronavirus patients presented with a fever (though, in their meta-analysis, the uncertainty is quite high, with a range of 44 to 94 percent). Cough is more common, according to Brigham and Women’s, with between 68 percent and 83 percent of patients presenting with some cough — though that means as many as three in ten sick enough to be hospitalized won’t be coughing. As for shortness of breath, the Brigham and Women’s estimate runs as low as 11 percent. The high end is only 40 percent, which would still mean that more patients hospitalized for COVID-19 do not have shortness of breath than do. At the low end of that range, shortness of breath would be roughly as common among COVID-19 patients as confusion (9 percent), headache (8 to 14 percent), and nausea and diarrhea (3 to 17 percent).

Recently, as noted by the Washington Post, the CDC has changed their list of Covid-19 symptoms to watch out for. They now list two main symptoms (cough & shortness of breath) and several additional symptoms (fever, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, new loss of taste or smell). They also note that “this list is not all inclusive”. Compare that with their list from mid-February.

In addition, there’s evidence that children might have different symptoms (including stomach issues or diarrhea), doctors are reporting seeing “COVID toes” on some patients, and you might want to look at earlier data from these three studies about symptoms observed in Wuhan and greater China.

The reason I’m interested in this shift in presenting symptoms is that on the last day or two of my trip to Asia, I got sick — and I’m been wondering if it was Covid-19.

Here’s the timeline: starting on Jan 21, I was in Saigon, Vietnam for two weeks, then in Singapore for 4 days, and then Doha, Qatar for 48 hours. The day I landed in Doha, Feb 9, I started to feel a little off, and definitely felt sick the next day. I had a sore throat, headache, and congestion (stuffy nose) for the first few days. There was also some fatigue/tiredness but I was jetlagged too so… All the symptoms were mild and it felt like a normal cold to me. Here’s how I wrote about it in my travelogue:

I got sick on the last day of the trip, which turned into a full-blown cold when I got home. I dutifully wore my mask on the plane and in telling friends & family about how I was feeling, I felt obliged to text “***NOT*** coronavirus, completely different symptoms!!”

I flew back to the US on Feb 11 (I wore a mask the entire time in the Doha airport, on the plane, and even in the Boston airport, which no one else was doing). I lost my sense of taste and smell for about 2 days, which was a little unnerving but has happened to me with past colds. At no point did I have even the tiniest bit of fever or shortness of breath. The illness did drag on though — I felt run-down for a few weeks and a very slight cough that developed about a week and a half after I got sick lingered for weeks.

According to guidance from the WHO, CDC, and public health officials at the time, none of my initial symptoms were a match for Covid-19. I thought about getting a test or going to the doctor, but in the US in mid-February, and especially in Vermont, there were no tests available for someone with a mild cold and no fever. But looking at the CDC’s current list of symptoms — which include headache, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell — and considering that I’d been in Vietnam and Singapore when cases were reported in both places, it seems plausible to me that my illness could have been a mild case of Covid-19. Hopefully it wasn’t, but I’ll be getting an antibody test once they are (hopefully) more widely available, even though the results won’t be super reliable.

A Doctor Calls Patients to Tell Them Their Covid-19 Tests Were Positive

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2020

In early March, Dr. Caroline Schulman was responsible for calling patients at her hospital to tell them they had tested positive for Covid-19. She shared some of her experiences in a piece for Stat.

Erik lives with his entire family in a one-room rental house with eight other occupants. He didn’t understand the precautions for preventing the spread of Covid-19 and had regularly been socializing in the apartment. He kept asking how to file for unemployment and how to isolate the household when the house itself could barely hold those living in it.

Jeff lives alone. He has a chronic blood condition and is struggling to get by. A few hours before we talked, he had resumed his job as a ride share driver because he needed to make ends meet.

Angela is 40 years old and has one of the preexisting conditions that put people at high risk for serious complications of Covid-19. When we spoke, she told me that she was feeling better, but that her home life was difficult. Her children had returned home after Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a stay-at-home order for the District of Columbia. She asked her kids to take precautions, but they continued to leave the house often. One son brought home his girlfriend, who had a cough, and displaced Angela from her room. She was unable to make an appointment with her primary doctor and couldn’t afford her medical supplies because of insurance issues. When I spoke with her, she sounded well and had no classic symptoms, but something didn’t sound right. I arranged a televisit that afternoon to have her evaluated more closely. By the time she got the call two hours later, she was so short of breath she could barely speak. When an ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital, her oxygen levels were dangerously low.

Reading through these stories, I just kept thinking about the measures that are going to be necessary if we’re going to safely restart public life in America — hygiene, mask wearing, some social distancing, and eventually a vaccine — and how our collective safety is going to depend on individuals doing the right thing. And most people will. But it’s clear that, especially without coherent national leadership & economic support, some people will be unable to take the necessary precautions for economic reasons and others won’t because they don’t understand why these measures are necessary, don’t trust science, or a dozen other reasons.

How We Reopen the Country: A Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2020

Working under the direction of The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, a bipartisan group of experts in public health, economics, technology, and ethics have produced a plan for a phased reopening of public life in the United States through testing, tracing, and supported isolation. The video above summarizes the plan and here’s the full plan in the form of a 56-page PDF.

“Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience: Massive Scale Testing, Tracing, and Supported Isolation (TTSI) as the Path to Pandemic Resilience for a Free Society,” lays out how a massive scale-up of testing, paired with contact tracing and supported isolation, can rebuild trust in our personal safety and re-mobilize the U.S. economy.

Among the report’s top recommendations is the need to deliver at least 5 million tests per day by early June to help ensure a safe social opening. This number will need to increase to 20 million tests per day by mid-summer to fully re-mobilize the economy.

Pandemic Resilience

From the paper, here’s a quick overview:

What we need to do is much bigger than most people realize. We need to massively scale-up testing, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine-together with providing the resources to make these possible for all individuals.

Broad and rapid access to testing is vital for disease monitoring, rapid public health response, and disease control.

We need to deliver 5 million tests per day by early June to deliver a safe social reopening. This number will need to increase over time (ideally by late July) to 20 million a day to fully remobilize the economy. We acknowledge that even this number may not be high enough to protect public health. In that considerably less likely eventuality, we will need to scale-up testing much further. By the time we know if we need to do that, we should be in a better position to know how to do it. In any situation, achieving these numbers depends on testing innovation.

Between now and August, we should phase in economic mobilization in sync with growth in our capacity to provide sustainable testing programs for mobilized sectors of the workforce.

The great value of this approach is that it will prevent cycles of opening up and shutting down. It allows us to steadily reopen the parts of the economy that have been shut down, protect our frontline workers, and contain the virus to levels where it can be effectively managed and treated until we can find a vaccine.

We can have bottom-up innovation and participation and top-down direction and protection at the same time; that is what our federal system is designed for.

This policy roadmap lays out how massive testing plus contact tracing plus social isolation with strong social supports, or TTSI, can rebuild trust in our personal safety and the safety of those we love. This will in turn support a renewal of mobility and mobilization of the economy. This paper is designed to educate the American public about what is emerging as a consensus national strategy.

The plan seems consistent with what economist Paul Romer has been saying — Without More Tests, America Can’t Reopen (And to make matters worse, we’re testing the wrong people) — and with the approach Hong Kong has been taking — Test and trace: lessons from Hong Kong on avoiding a coronavirus lockdown. See also the 4 plans to end social distancing, explained.

Unfortunately for this plan and for all of us, I have a feeling that the first true step in any rational plan to reopen the United States without unnecessary death and/or massive economic disruption that lasts for years is the removal of Donald Trump from office (and possibly also the end of the Republican-controlled Senate). Barring that, the ineffectual circus continues. (via @riondotnu)

The Emerging Science of What SARS-CoV-2 Does to the Human Body

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2020

Thousands of scientific research papers on Covid-19 and SARS-CoV-2 are being published each week and with them comes a clearer picture of the virus and the disease it causes. There’s still a lot we don’t know, but this piece from Science magazine is the best synthesis of the emerging science that I have read. It details a virus that “acts like no microbe humanity has ever seen” and affects not only the lungs but also the kidneys, heart, brain, and the intestines.

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 surges past 2.2 million globally and deaths surpass 150,000, clinicians and pathologists are struggling to understand the damage wrought by the coronavirus as it tears through the body. They are realizing that although the lungs are ground zero, its reach can extend to many organs including the heart and blood vessels, kidneys, gut, and brain.

“[The disease] can attack almost anything in the body with devastating consequences,” says cardiologist Harlan Krumholz of Yale University and Yale-New Haven Hospital, who is leading multiple efforts to gather clinical data on COVID-19. “Its ferocity is breathtaking and humbling.”

Understanding the rampage could help the doctors on the front lines treat the fraction of infected people who become desperately and sometimes mysteriously ill. Does a dangerous, newly observed tendency to blood clotting transform some mild cases into life-threatening emergencies? Is an overzealous immune response behind the worst cases, suggesting treatment with immune-suppressing drugs could help? What explains the startlingly low blood oxygen that some physicians are reporting in patients who nonetheless are not gasping for breath? “Taking a systems approach may be beneficial as we start thinking about therapies,” says Nilam Mangalmurti, a pulmonary intensivist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP).

How Covid-19 attacks the human body

I’ve been hearing that although Covid-19’s attack begins in the lungs, it is as much a vascular disease as it is a respiratory disease — and there is some evidence emerging to support this view:

If COVID-19 targets blood vessels, that could also help explain why patients with pre-existing damage to those vessels, for example from diabetes and high blood pressure, face higher risk of serious disease. Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data on hospitalized patients in 14 U.S. states found that about one-third had chronic lung disease-but nearly as many had diabetes, and fully half had pre-existing high blood pressure.

Mangalmurti says she has been “shocked by the fact that we don’t have a huge number of asthmatics” or patients with other respiratory diseases in HUP’s ICU. “It’s very striking to us that risk factors seem to be vascular: diabetes, obesity, age, hypertension.”

What struck me most about this piece is the sheer energy of the vast network of minds bent towards understanding this thing with the hope of beating it as soon as possible. This is the scientific method at work right here, in all its urgent & messy glory.

The History of Music About Diseases

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2020

From Retro Report, a short video about how epidemics, past and present, have been represented in music. Blues musicians sang about the 1918 flu pandemic and pop stars wrote songs about HIV/AIDS.

A disease that killed tens of millions of people, more than the number who died in World War I, might not seem like a promising subject for a song, but the legendary Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson didn’t see it that way. In Dallas in 1928, Johnson recorded “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” an intense chronicle of the ravaging influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. In a growl that conveyed the horror of the illness, as well as its scarifying ubiquity, Johnson declared that the “great disease was mighty and the people were sick everywhere / It was an epidemic, it floated through the air.”

Other lines seem as if they could have been written yesterday: “Well, the nobles said to the people, ‘You better close your public schools / Until the events of death has ended, you better close your churches, too.’”

The View from the Front Lines of NYC’s Public Hospitals

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2020

Philip Montgomery

Philip Montgomery

Clad in full PPE, photographer Philip Montgomery visited seven different NYC public hospitals over the course of a week for the NY Times Magazine, documenting the hospital workers’ fight against Covid-19, supply shortages, and intense working conditions.

At Elmhurst, the improvisation began as soon as the first surge of coronavirus patients started arriving in the middle of March. In order to more efficiently sift through the crowds and find the most severe cases, the staff set up a divider at the entrance. Medical workers armed with thermometers and oxygen monitors steered people with milder symptoms to a separate treatment tent. Those who were seriously ill went into critical care. Thirteen patients at the hospital died over a 24-hour stretch during the fourth week in March. A refrigerated trailer was parked behind the building to store dead bodies.

In a short behind-the-scenes video about his photos and the piece, Montgomery says “I think if the general public could stand where I was for at least 10 to 30 seconds, I think everyone would be staying home.”

From the same issue of the magazine, Dr. Helen Ouyang: I’m an E.R. Doctor in New York. None of Us Will Ever Be the Same. What initially started as an article about the situation in Italy rapidly escalates into NYC hospitals fighting those same battles.

Family members weren’t allowed into the hospital because they, too, could get infected or spread the virus to others if they themselves were sick. But Duca asked for permission from his supervisor to let the man’s wife and daughter in, just for a few minutes. “I saw his face when he looked at his wife coming inside this room,” Duca recalls. “He smiled at her. It was a fraction of a second. He had this wonderful smile.” He continues: “Then I saw that he was looking at me. He realized that there was something wrong if only his relatives were coming inside.” The man knew in that instant that he was going to die, Duca says. As the man’s breathing worsened, morphine was started. He died 12 hours later.

Read the whole thing; it’s upsetting, terrifying, and deeply humanizing. I wish Americans watched less TV news and read more — if everyone in the US read these articles, I believe the entire tone of this crisis would change and become more urgent.

Super-Pandemics Last All Summer Long

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 15, 2020

The Atlantic’s Ed Yong has written his second long article about the Covid-19 pandemic about what happens next and what a roadmap to dealing with the next phase of the crisis might look like.

As I wrote last month, the only viable endgame is to play whack-a-mole with the coronavirus, suppressing it until a vaccine can be produced. With luck, that will take 18 to 24 months. During that time, new outbreaks will probably arise. Much about that period is unclear, but the dozens of experts whom I have interviewed agree that life as most people knew it cannot fully return. “I think people haven’t understood that this isn’t about the next couple of weeks,” said Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. “This is about the next two years.”

The pandemic is not a hurricane or a wildfire. It is not comparable to Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Such disasters are confined in time and space. The SARS-CoV-2 virus will linger through the year and across the world. “Everyone wants to know when this will end,” said Devi Sridhar, a public-health expert at the University of Edinburgh. “That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?”

How Privacy-Friendly Contact Tracing Can Help Stop the Spread of Covid-19

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2020

Nicky Case, working with security & privacy researcher Carmela Troncoso and epidemiologist Marcel Salathé, came up with this fantastic explanation of how we can use apps to automatically do contact tracing for Covid-19 infections while protecting people’s privacy. The second panel succinctly explains why contact tracing (in conjunction with quick, ubiquitous testing) can have such a huge benefit in a case like this:

A problem with COVID-19: You’re contagious ~2 days before you know you’re infected. But it takes ~3 days to become contagious, so if we quarantine folks exposed to you the day you know you were infected… We stop the spread, by staying one step ahead!

Contact Tracing Comic

It’s based on a proposal called Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing developed by Troncoso, Salathé, and a host of others. Thanks to Case for putting this comic in the public domain so that anyone can publish it.

Update: About two hours after posting this, Apple and Google announced they are jointly working on contact tracing technology that uses Bluetooth and makes “user privacy and security central to the design”.

A number of leading public health authorities, universities, and NGOs around the world have been doing important work to develop opt-in contact tracing technology. To further this cause, Apple and Google will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. Given the urgent need, the plan is to implement this solution in two steps while maintaining strong protections around user privacy.

Update: Based on information published by Google and Apple on their contact tracing protocols, it appears as though their system works pretty much like the one outlined about in the comic and this proposal.

Also, here is an important reminder that the problem of what to do about Covid-19 is not primarily a technological one and that turning it into one is troublesome.

We think it is necessary and overdue to rethink the way technology gets designed and implemented, because contact tracing apps, if implemented, will be scripting the way we will live our lives and not just for a short period. They will be laying out normative conditions for reality, and will contribute to the decisions of who gets to have freedom of choice and freedom to decide … or not. Contact tracing apps will co-define who gets to live and have a life, and the possibilities for perceiving the world itself.

Update: Security expert Bruce Schneier has some brief thoughts on “anonymous” contact tracing as well as some links to other critiques, including Ross Anderson’s:

But contact tracing in the real world is not quite as many of the academic and industry proposals assume.

First, it isn’t anonymous. Covid-19 is a notifiable disease so a doctor who diagnoses you must inform the public health authorities, and if they have the bandwidth they call you and ask who you’ve been in contact with. They then call your contacts in turn. It’s not about consent or anonymity, so much as being persuasive and having a good bedside manner.

I’m relaxed about doing all this under emergency public-health powers, since this will make it harder for intrusive systems to persist after the pandemic than if they have some privacy theater that can be used to argue that the whizzy new medi-panopticon is legal enough to be kept running.

And I had thoughts similar to Anderson’s about the potential for abuse:

Fifth, although the cryptographers — and now Google and Apple — are discussing more anonymous variants of the Singapore app, that’s not the problem. Anyone who’s worked on abuse will instantly realise that a voluntary app operated by anonymous actors is wide open to trolling. The performance art people will tie a phone to a dog and let it run around the park; the Russians will use the app to run service-denial attacks and spread panic; and little Johnny will self-report symptoms to get the whole school sent home.

The tie-a-phone-to-a-dog thing reminds me a lot of the wagon full of smartphones creating traffic jams. (via @circa1977)

Covid-19 Now the Leading Cause of Death in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2020

This week, Covid-19 passed heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death per day in the United States. In this graph made by Dr. Maria Danilychev using data from Worldometer and the CDC, you can see that Covid-19 overtook heart disease sometime on Monday or Tuesday.

If the data in NYC is any indication, the number of nationwide Covid-19 deaths may be undercounted, so this transition probably happened sooner.1 Hopefully through the social distancing and other measures put in place to flatten the curve, the number of daily Covid-19 deaths won’t start beating out all other causes combined before it starts declining.

  1. Several months from now, it will be easier to get a more accurate count of how many people died by looking at the “baseline” rate of death and comparing it with the actual numbers. Unless this sort of recount is politicized, which it will be, and *siiiigh*

Apollo 11’s Post-Lunar Quarantine

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2020

I do not know if hearing about other people’s quarantine experiences makes going through one yourself any easier, but the story of how NASA sequestered the returning Apollo 11 astronauts away from the rest of the world for 21 days is interesting for other reasons as well. The worry was that some sort of “moon bug” or “lunar plague” was going to make its way from the Moon to the Earth in the spacecraft or the astronauts’ bodies.

From the moment the Apollo 11 astronauts arrive back on earth from their epochal visit to the moon, they will be treated not as heroes but as bearers of the most virulent, devastating plague the world has ever known.

So NASA quarantined Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins in a series of specially designed suits and environments until August 10, 1969. At one point, the three of them lived in a modified Airstream trailer in which the air pressure was lower on the inside than outside so if there was a leak, air would rush into the trailer, not out. Armstrong even celebrated a birthday in quarantine.

After Apollo 11, NASA did similar quarantines for 12 and 14 but abandoned them after that because they figured it was safe.

Oh, and if you were curious about the Soyuz launch yesterday that sent three astronauts to the ISS and how they were going to mitigate the chances of sending any SARS-CoV-2 up there, crews on all missions are subject to a mandatory 2 week quarantine before they leave (according to this press release).

“Strong Evidence” That Social Distancing Is Working to Slow the Spread of Covid-19

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2020

Social distancing is working

Trevor Bedford, who does research on epidemics and infectious diseases, has compiled a number of papers and data sets with “strong evidence” that social distancing measures have slowed Covid-19 transmission rates around the world.

This report (from the Imperial College team who produced the sobering report that has been the blueprint for pandemic responses around the world) estimates that measures taken in several European countries have lowered their effective reproduction numbers (the R value) to close to 1.

Overall, we estimate that countries have managed to reduce their reproduction number. Our estimates have wide credible intervals and contain 1 for countries that have implemented all interventions considered in our analysis. This means that the reproduction number may be above or below this value. With current interventions remaining in place to at least the end of March, we estimate that interventions across all 11 countries will have averted 59,000 deaths up to 31 March [95% credible interval 21,000-120,000]. Many more deaths will be averted through ensuring that interventions remain in place until transmission drops to low levels. We estimate that, across all 11 countries between 7 and 43 million individuals have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 up to 28th March, representing between 1.88% and 11.43% of the population. The proportion of the population infected to date — the attack rate — is estimated to be highest in Spain followed by Italy and lowest in Germany and Norway, reflecting the relative stages of the epidemics.

And this was published on March 30 — here’s the latest data. The paper goes on to say (italics mine):

We cannot say for certain that the current measures have controlled the epidemic in Europe; however, if current trends continue, there is reason for optimism.

An Institute for Disease Modeling report from March 29 shows a similar reduction in their effective reproduction number in King County, Washington (the 12th most populous county in the US).

The graphs at the top of the post are from the latest data compiled by the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases. Lots of countries looking like they are headed for an effect R value of 1, which would indicate a slowing (rather than growing) epidemic.

Why Has Germany Been Effective at Limiting Covid-19 Deaths?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2020

As I’m writing this, according to Johns Hopkins’ Covid-19 tracker, Germany has recorded 100,186 confirmed cases of Covid-19 (fourth most in the world) and 1590 deaths — that’s a death rate of about 1.6%. Compare that to Italy (12.3%), China (4%), the US (2.9%), and even South Korea (1.8%) and you start to wonder how they’re doing it. This article from the NY Times details why the death rate is so low in Germany.

Another explanation for the low fatality rate is that Germany has been testing far more people than most nations. That means it catches more people with few or no symptoms, increasing the number of known cases, but not the number of fatalities.

“That automatically lowers the death rate on paper,” said Professor Kräusslich.

But there are also significant medical factors that have kept the number of deaths in Germany relatively low, epidemiologists and virologists say, chief among them early and widespread testing and treatment, plenty of intensive care beds and a trusted government whose social distancing guidelines are widely observed.

This article is a real punch in the gut if you’re an American. Obviously there are bureaucracies and inefficiencies in Germany like anywhere else, but it really seems like they listened to the experts and did what a government is supposed to do for its people before a disaster struck.

“Maybe our biggest strength in Germany,” said Professor Kräusslich, “is the rational decision-making at the highest level of government combined with the trust the government enjoys in the population.”

This whole crisis is really laying bare many of the worst aspects of American society — it’s increasingly obvious that the United States resembles a failed state in many ways. I can’t be the only American whose response to the pandemic is to think seriously about moving to a country with a functioning government, good healthcare for everyone, and a real social safety net.

Pandemic Paradoxically Offers Relief from Depression & Anxiety for Some

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2020

This is an interesting piece by The Daily Beast’s Laura Bradley, who is one of a number of people who have seen their symptoms of anxiety and depression actually lessen during the pandemic. Part of it is the odd sense of joy experienced by some people going through disasters, but there are other possible explanations:

“I’m used to being in a room alone with my thoughts for an extended period of time,” Weinstein said, adding that under quarantine, “You kind of run through the gamut of, ‘OK what if I’m not out of here in 20 days; what if I’m not out of here in 40 days; what if I’m not out here in 60 days? What will happen to me?” Due to her history of depression and anxiety, Weinstein is also used to, as she put it, “shrinking away from life” for a period of time.

“These are thought processes I am used to having and welcome — and know how to cut off in a kind, loving way after they’ve been around a little too long,” Weinstein said.

It would also make sense that if your depression or anxiety focuses on being out in a busy and complicated world, dealing with a greatly simplified situation might be beneficial. Either way, this is another reminder of the infinite number of ways that different people can react to a crisis.

Chris Ware’s Moving Pandemic-Themed Cover for the New Yorker

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2020

Chris Ware Covid-19

This is Chris Ware’s illustration for the cover of this week’s New Yorker, the magazine’s annual Health Issue. The pandemic had to be the topic for the cover, and Ware’s daughter suggested that the specific theme focus on the families of the healthcare workers on the front lines of the crisis.

“As a procrastination tactic, I sometimes ask my fifteen-year-old daughter what the comic strip or drawing I’m working on should be about — not only because it gets me away from my drawing table but because, like most kids of her generation, she pays attention to the world. So, while sketching the cover of this Health Issue, I asked her.

“‘Make sure it’s about how most doctors have children and families of their own,’ she said.

“Good idea. And a personal one: one of her friend’s parents are both doctors; that friend, now distilled into a rectangular puddle of light on my daughter’s nightstand, reported that her mom had temporarily stopped going to work, pending the results of a COVID-19 test.

You Should Be Wearing a Face Mask

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 30, 2020

Wear A Mask

Have you been wearing a face mask when going out in public recently? There’s been a lot of debate recently about whether they are effective in keeping people safe from COVID-19 infection, and it’s been really challenging to find good information. After reading several things over the past few days, I have concluded that wearing a mask in public is a helpful step I can take to help keep myself and others safe, with the important caveat that healthcare workers need access to masks before the rest of us (see below). In particular, I found this extensive review of the medical and scientific literature on mask & respirator use helpful, including why research on mask efficacy is so hard to do and speculation on why the CDC and WHO generally don’t recommend wearing them.

I was able to find one study like this outside of the health care setting. Some people with swine flu travelled on a plane from New York to China, and many fellow passengers got infected. Some researchers looked at whether passengers who wore masks throughout the flight stayed healthier. The answer was very much yes. They were able to track down 9 people who got sick on the flight and 32 who didn’t. 0% of the sick passengers wore masks, compared to 47% of the healthy passengers. Another way to look at that is that 0% of mask-wearers got sick, but 35% of non-wearers did. This was a significant difference, and of obvious applicability to the current question.

See also this review of relevant scientific literature, this NY Times piece, this Washington Post opinion piece by Jeremy Howard (who is on a Twitter mission to get everyone to wear masks):

When historians tally up the many missteps policymakers have made in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the senseless and unscientific push for the general public to avoid wearing masks should be near the top.

The evidence not only fails to support the push, it also contradicts it. It can take a while for official recommendations to catch up with scientific thinking. In this case, such delays might be deadly and economically disastrous. It’s time to make masks a key part of our fight to contain, then defeat, this pandemic. Masks effective at “flattening the curve” can be made at home with nothing more than a T-shirt and a pair of scissors. We should all wear masks — store-bought or homemade — whenever we’re out in public.

At the height of the HIV crisis, authorities did not tell people to put away condoms. As fatalities from car crashes mounted, no one recommended avoiding seat belts. Yet in a global respiratory pandemic, people who should know better are discouraging Americans from using respiratory protection.

I have to admit that I have not been wearing a mask out in public — I’ve been to the grocery store only three times in the past two weeks, I go at off-hours, and it’s rural Vermont, so there’s not actually that many people about (e.g. compared to Manhattan). But I’m going to start wearing one in crowded places (like the grocery store) because doing so could a) safeguard others against my possible infection (because asymptomatic people can still be contagious), b) make it less likely for me to get infected, and c) provide a visible signal to others in my community to normalize mask wearing. As we’ve seen in epidemic simulations, relatively small measures can have outsize effects in limiting later infections & deaths, and face masks, even if a tiny bit effective, can have a real impact.

Crucially, the available research and mask advocates stress the importance of wearing masks properly and responsibly. Here are some guidelines I compiled about responsible mask usage:

So that’s what I’ve personally concluded from all my reading. I hope wearing masks can help keep us a little safer during all of this.

Update: From Ferris Jabr at Wired, It’s Time to Face Facts, America: Masks Work.

It is unequivocally true that masks must be prioritized for health care workers in any country suffering from a shortage of personal protective equipment. But the conflicting claims and guidelines regarding their use raise three questions of the utmost urgency: Do masks work? Should everyone wear them? And if there aren’t enough medical-grade masks for the general public, is it possible to make a viable substitute at home? Decades of scientific research, lessons from past pandemics, and common sense suggest the answer to all of these questions is yes.

Update: The Atlantic’s Ed Yong weighs in on masks:

In Asia, masks aren’t just shields. They’re also symbols. They’re an affirmation of civic-mindedness and conscientiousness, and such symbols might be important in other parts of the world too. If widely used, masks could signal that society is taking the pandemic threat seriously. They might reduce the stigma foisted on sick people, who would no longer feel ashamed or singled out for wearing one. They could offer reassurance to people who don’t have the privilege of isolating themselves at home, and must continue to work in public spaces. “My staff have also mentioned that having a mask reminds them not to touch their face or put a pen in their mouth,” Bourouiba noted.

He also writes about something I’ve been wondering about: is the virus airborne, what does that even mean, when will we know for sure, and how should that affect our behavior in the meantime?

These particles might not even have been infectious. “I think we’ll find that like many other viruses, [SARS-CoV-2] isn’t especially stable under outdoor conditions like sunlight or warm temperatures,” Santarpia said. “Don’t congregate in groups outside, but going for a walk, or sitting on your porch on a sunny day, are still great ideas.”

You could tie yourself in knots gaming out the various scenarios that might pose a risk outdoors, but Marr recommends a simple technique. “When I go out now, I imagine that everyone is smoking, and I pick my path to get the least exposure to that smoke,” she told me. If that’s the case, I asked her, is it irrational to hold your breath when another person walks past you and you don’t have enough space to move away? “It’s not irrational; I do that myself,” she said. “I don’t know if it makes a difference, but in theory it could. It’s like when you walk through a cigarette plume.”

And from the WHO, here’s a video on how to wear a mask properly.

Update: One of the reasons I started to wear a mask when I go out in public was to “provide a visible signal to others in my community to normalize mask wearing”. Maciej Cegłowski’s post touches on this and other reasons to wear a mask that don’t directly have to do with avoiding infection.

A mask is a visible public signal to strangers that you are trying to protect their health. No other intervention does this. It would be great if we had a soap that turned our hands gold for an hour, so everyone could admire our superb hand-washing technique. But all of the behaviors that benefit public health are invisible, with the exception of mask wearing.

If I see you with a mask on, it shows me you care about my health, and vice versa. This dramatically changes what it feels like to be in a public space. Other people no longer feel like an anonymous threat; they are now your teammates in a common struggle.

Simulating Many Scenarios of an Epidemic

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2020

Back when the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to be taken seriously by the American public, 3blue1brown’s Grant Sanderson released a video about epidemics and exponential growth. (It’s excellent — I recommend watching it if you’re still a little unclear on how things are got so out of hand so quickly in Italy and, very soon, in NYC.) In his latest video, Sanderson digs a bit deeper into simulating epidemics using a variety of scenarios.

Like, if people stay away from each other I get how that will slow the spread, but what if despite mostly staying away from each other people still occasionally go to a central location like a grocery store or a school?

Also, what if you are able to identify and isolate the cases? And if you can, what if a few slip through, say because they show no symptoms and aren’t tested?

How does travel between separate communities affect things? And what if people avoid contact with others for a while, but then they kind of get tired of it and stop?

These simulations are fascinating to watch. Many of the takeaways boil down to: early & aggressive actions have a huge effect in the number of people infected, how long an epidemic lasts, and (in the case of a disease like COVID-19 that causes fatalities) the number of deaths. This is what all the epidemiologists have been telling us — because the math, while complex when you’re dealing with many factors (as in a real-world scenario), is actually pretty straightforward and unambiguous.

The biggest takeaway? That the effective identification and isolation of cases has the largest effect on cutting down the infection rate. Testing and isolation, done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

See also these other epidemic simulations: Washington Post and Kevin Simler.

Note: Please keep in mind that these are simulations to help us better understand how epidemics work in general — it’s not about how the COVID-19 pandemic is proceeding or will proceed in the future.

How to Shop Safely in a Pandemic

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2020

Note: Please check the updates below for some important corrections to some of the information in this video.

From Dr. Jeffrey VanWingen MD, a video on how to ensure that your grocery shopping experience is as safe as possible and to avoid potential COVID-19 infection from plastic and metal surfaces. I’m going to be honest with you: a lot of this seems like overkill (as it should — see the Paradox of Preparation). However, this is also pretty much what I’ve been doing after grocery shopping for the past 2 weeks because I am a fastidious motherfucker1 with plenty of time to wipe down groceries. If it comes down to a choice between watching 7 more minutes of The Mandalorian or wiping down my groceries before putting them in the fridge, I’m gonna wipe them groceries. Baby Yoda can wait.

See also this PDF from Crumpton Group about how to keep your household free of the outside effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Household members should understand that their principal effort should be directed towards isolating the inside of the home from the pandemic effects outside. All physical thresholds of the home will serve as a cordon sanitaire. Strive to decontaminate everyone and everything to the best practical degree before entering.

Many of Dr. VanWingen’s recommendations mirror those in the PDF. See also expert guidance on COVID-19 and food safety. (thx, meg)

Update: I have not had a chance to read it yet (was attending to some other things this evening — family, trying to have some normalcy), but I’ve been told that this thread is a good response to the video above. I’ll have a closer look at it tomorrow.

Update: Ok, I’ve read Don Schaffner’s thread criticizing this video. At least I think this is the video he’s referring to because he never says it outright — which I’ll get to in a minute. (Schaffner is a professor in the food science department at Rutgers who I linked to the other day in my post on COVID-19 and food safety.) As he notes, there are a couple of factual errors and VanWingen does offer some dubious advice, particularly about washing food with soap (which I didn’t take seriously). I do not believe, however, that VanWingen was suggesting that people leave frozen items and perishables in a warm garage for 3 days and that the normal rules of food safety are somehow countermanded by potential coronavirus contamination. If you want to leave that box of Cheerios that you don’t need in the car for 3 days, go right ahead. He definitely should have been clearer on that point though.

But the bulk of VanWingen’s video was about how to handle your groceries and takeout food coming into your house to minimize the chance of infection. (And as I mentioned, much of it mirrors the advice in this document and in Dr. Michael Lin’s document from a couple of weeks ago — this isn’t just his opinon or my opinion.) If we are to take seriously a) the assumption that anyone could have COVID-19 (including yourself & grocery workers) that we are operating under w/r/t to handwashing & keeping a 6-foot distance, b) the preliminary results that suggest that SARS-CoV-2 can last on some surfaces for days, and c) that person-to-surface-to-person transfer of SARS-CoV-2 might result in infection (i.e. the reason we are doing all this handwashing and face not-touching), then we should be disinfecting surfaces that other people have been touching recently. Right? We should assume that all surfaces are contaminated. This doesn’t seem outlandish, especially when grocery stores are restocking shelves continuously — that bag of chips that you put into your cart may have been placed on the shelf only 30 minutes before. How is disinfecting your Oreos package when you get home from the store a bad idea? Sure, wash your hands before you eat, but if you have kids, you know how futile that can be sometimes, especially when Oreos are involved. So why not just clean the package? Ditto with transferring takeout food to new containers and giving it a blast in the microwave to warm it up.

Schaffner’s stance is that most surfaces aren’t contaminated to a high degree, which is undoubtably true. Having watched the video & read Schaffner’s advice (and other advice by other experts), where your personal comfort level with making sure the surfaces you and your family come into contact to are disinfected is up to you. Ultimately, advice from experts is still advice and you have to figure out whether it works for you. It’s easy to believe you should wash your hands frequently because that’s universal advice. But “you should disinfect surfaces you touch” and “you don’t have to worry too much about disinfecting your grocery packages” are genuinely conflicting bits of advice from well-meaning experts! You’ve gotta use your noggin and make up your own mind, based on your personal idea of risk and safety. It’s gonna land differently with different people.

Finally, I’m going to get a little cranky here, but I found Schaffner’s overall tone in the first few tweets of that thread mocking, ungenerous, and unhelpful. Instead of gently offering alternative authoritative advice, he subtweeted (by refusing to link to the video and calling Dr. VanWingen not by his name but referring to him as “the video MD”) and made fun of VanWingen’s outfit. I know it must be frustrating to see what you perceive as misinformation out there, but we do not need Doctor vs Doctor battles here. Everyone’s just going to get defensive and dig their heels in. </cranky>

Update: From Joseph Allen of Harvard’s School of Public Health, Don’t panic about shopping, getting delivery or accepting packages.

Yes, the virus can be detected on some surfaces for up to a day, but the reality is that the levels drop off quickly. For example, the article shows that the virus’s half-life on stainless steel and plastic was 5.6 hours and 6.8 hours, respectively. (Half-life is how long it takes the viral concentration to decrease by half, then half of that half, and so on until it’s gone.)

And here’s how to take reasonable precautions when getting a package delivery or going to the grocery store:

You can leave that cardboard package at your door for a few hours - or bring it inside and leave it right inside your door, then wash your hands again. If you’re still concerned there was any virus on the package, you could wipe down the exterior with a disinfectant, or open it outdoors and put the packaging in the recycling can. (Then wash your hands again.)

What about going to the grocery store? The same approach applies.

Shop when you need to (keeping six feet from other customers) and load items into your cart or basket. Keep your hands away from your face while shopping, and wash them as soon as you’re home. Put away your groceries, and then wash your hands again. If you wait even a few hours before using anything you just purchased, most of the virus that was on any package will be significantly reduced. If you need to use something immediately, and want to take extra precautions, wipe the package down with a disinfectant. Last, wash all fruits and vegetables as you normally would.

Important caveat: the coronavirus half-life times are for room temperature. For colder temperatures (like in the fridge or especially the freezer), the virus will last longer. So maybe wipe down that bag of frozen peas even if you’re not going to use them for a couple of days.

  1. Hey, if you don’t know what you should be doing in a certain situation w/r/t to coronavirus, just ask your most detail-oriented friend. You know, the one who shows up to things on time and is usually a fussy pain in your ass. They’ll have a plan all ready to go and will be happy to share it with you because they’ve been waiting YEARS for some shit like this to happen. NOW IS OUR TIME TO SHINE!

Can America Turn Our COVID-19 Failure into Some Sort of Success?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2020

From Ed Yong at the Atlantic, a great article on the current state of the pandemic in the United States, what will happen over the next few months, how it will end, and what the aftermath will be.

With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.

Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle.

Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared. “Much worse,” said Ron Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. “Beyond any expectations we had,” said Lauren Sauer, who works on disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “As an American, I’m horrified,” said Seth Berkley, who heads Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The U.S. may end up with the worst outbreak in the industrialized world.”

If you’ve been reading obsessively about the pandemic, there’s not a lot new in here, but Yong lays the whole situation out very clearly and succinctly (he easily could have gone twice as long). The section on potential after effects was especially interesting:

Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. “This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’” says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.

Aspects of America’s identity may need rethinking after COVID-19. Many of the country’s values have seemed to work against it during the pandemic. Its individualism, exceptionalism, and tendency to equate doing whatever you want with an act of resistance meant that when it came time to save lives and stay indoors, some people flocked to bars and clubs. Having internalized years of anti-terrorism messaging following 9/11, Americans resolved to not live in fear. But SARS-CoV-2 has no interest in their terror, only their cells.

I really hope that Betteridge’s law is wrong about that headline I wrote.

“What I Learned When My Husband Got Sick With Coronavirus”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2020

Today’s must-read is What I Learned When My Husband Got Sick With Coronavirus by NY Times editor Jessica Lustig. If you’re on the fence about whether COVID-19 is worth all this fuss, Lustig’s account of caring for her gravely ill husband in a Brooklyn apartment while trying to keep herself and their daughter from getting sick should help straighten out your thinking.

Now we live in a world in which I have planned with his doctor which emergency room we should head to if T suddenly gets worse, a world in which I am suddenly afraid we won’t have enough of the few things tempering the raging fever and soaking sweats and severe aches wracking him — the Advil and Tylenol that the doctors advise us to layer, one after the other, and that I scroll through websites searching for, seeing “out of stock” again and again. We are living inside the news stories of testing, quarantine, shortages and the disease’s progression. A friend scours the nearby stores and drops off a bunch of bodega packets of Tylenol. Another finds a bottle at a more remote pharmacy and drops it off, a golden prize I treasure against the feverish nights to come.

His doctor calls three days later to say the test is positive. I find T lying on his side, reading an article about the surge in confirmed cases in New York State. He is reading stories of people being hospitalized, people being put on ventilators to breathe, people dying, sick with the same virus that is attacking him from the inside now.

This is a rough read, no doubt about it. I started crying at the part about his father’s sweater.

COVID-19 and Food Safety

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2020

Like many of you, I’ve been wondering about COVID-19 & food safety. Is it safe to eat takeout prepared by your local restaurant? To answer that and many other questions, Kenji Lopez-Alt has compiled a comprehensive guide to food safety and coronavirus for Serious Eats. Kenji is the most fastidious and exacting food person I know — how could you think otherwise after having read The Food Lab? — so I take his thoughts and research on this very seriously.

Even so, plenty of folks — myself included — have been confused or curious about the safety of allowing restaurants to continue preparing and serving food. Is it actually safe? Should I reheat the food when I get it home? Is it better to support local businesses by ordering food, or am I only putting workers and delivery people at risk? And if I’m cooking my own food, what guidelines should I follow?

To answer these questions, I referenced dozens of articles and scientific reports and enlisted the help of Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist from the North Carolina State University and cohost of Risky or Not and Food Safety Talk.

Let’s get right to the nitty gritty:

Q: Can I get COVID-19 from touching or eating contaminated food?

According to multiple health and safety organizations worldwide, including the CDC, the USDA, and the European Food Safety Authority, there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 has spread through food or food packaging. Previous coronavirus epidemics likewise showed no evidence of having been spread through food or packaging.

Be sure to read on for answers to questions like “Are we going to run out of food?” and “Am I more likely to get COVID-19 from take-out, delivery, or cooking at home?”

The FDA has a coronavirus safety page on their website as well.

Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal (GI) viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that often make people ill through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.

In a piece from March 14, Amanda Mull talked with epidemiologist Stephen Morse from Columbia University about food safety:

Even if the person preparing it is sick, he told me via email, “cooked foods are unlikely to be a concern unless they get contaminated after cooking.” He granted that “a salad, if someone sneezes on it, might possibly be some risk,” but as long as the food is handled properly, he said, “there should be very little risk.”

And Don Schaffner, a professor in the food science department at Rutgers, has been posting information on food safety & COVID-19 on Twitter.

Even if a sick worker sneezed on my food (I know that’s gross), my risk of contracting COVID-19 from it are very low.

First it’s important to realize that this is a respiratory illness as far as we know. The biggest risk is being around sick people who are shedding the virus when they sneeze or cough.

Even if the virus did get onto food, we’re going to put that food in our mouth and swallow it so the virus will end up in our stomach. Our stomachs have a low pH which would likely in activate the virus.

Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2020

On March 10, Tomas Pueyo published a widely read and praised article called Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now. Yesterday, in the wake of the Imperial College paper and the criticism of it, Pueyo has published a second article: Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance. I urge you to read it — it’s sobering yet hopeful. A summary:

Strong coronavirus measures today should only last a few weeks, there shouldn’t be a big peak of infections afterwards, and it can all be done for a reasonable cost to society, saving millions of lives along the way. If we don’t take these measures, tens of millions will be infected, many will die, along with anybody else that requires intensive care, because the healthcare system will have collapsed.

As the title indicates, Pueyo and his collaborators are suggesting an approach that combines initial aggressive action followed by a longer period of efficient vigilance. First comes the Hammer — we use aggressive measures for weeks, giving our healthcare system time to ramp up & scientists time to research the hell out of this thing and for the world’s testing capability to get up to speed.

And then we Dance.

If you hammer the coronavirus, within a few weeks you’ve controlled it and you’re in much better shape to address it. Now comes the longer-term effort to keep this virus contained until there’s a vaccine.

This is probably the single biggest, most important mistake people make when thinking about this stage: they think it will keep them home for months. This is not the case at all. In fact, it is likely that our lives will go back to close to normal.

But, here’s how the Dance works:

How come South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan have had cases for a long time, in the case of South Korea thousands of them, and yet they’re not locked down home?

In this video, the South Korea Foreign Minister explains how her country did it. It was pretty simple: efficient testing, efficient tracing, travel bans, efficient isolating and efficient quarantining.

That way, most people aren’t locked down, just those who need to be — the sick, the people who have been with those who have gotten sick, etc. Most people can go back to work, back to fairly normal routines.

I call the months-long period between the Hammer and a vaccine the Dance because it won’t be a period during which measures are always the same harsh ones. Some regions will see outbreaks again, others won’t for long periods of time. Depending on how cases evolve, we will need to tighten up social distancing measures or we will be able to release them. That is the dance of R: a dance of measures between getting our lives back on track and spreading the disease, one of economy vs. healthcare.

This piece in the Atlantic, This Is How We Can Beat the Coronavirus by Aaron E. Carroll & Ashish Jha, advocates for essentially the same approach.

We can create a third path. We can decide to meet this challenge head on. It is absolutely within our capacity to do so. We could develop tests that are fast, reliable, and ubiquitous. If we screen everyone, and do so regularly, we can let most people return to a more normal life. We can reopen schools and places where people gather. If we can be assured that the people who congregate aren’t infectious, they can socialize.

We can build health-care facilities that do rapid screening and care for people who are infected, apart from those who are not. This will prevent transmission from one sick person to another in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. We can even commit to housing infected people apart from their healthy family members, to prevent transmission in households.

An Epidemic Graphing Calculator

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2020

Epidemic Calculator

By manipulating values like R0, incubation time, and hospitalization rate with this this epidemic graphing calculator, you really get a sense of how effective early intervention and aggressive measures can be in curbing infection & saving lives in an exponential crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.