The last day or so have seen disturbing headlines about the “surge” in COVID-19 cases, “record new US cases,” and the NYT this morning has the calm and rational headline “How the Virus Won.” So how bad is this? Like so many aspects of this pandemic, the answer is “it depends on how you look at it.” But it’s not good, that’s for sure. Let’s look at the data which, as I have ranted, are embarrassingly bad for a so called developed country, and see what we can see.
First, let’s look at the trends in people testing positive for the active virus. With the caveat the data is still a mess (antibody and active virus tests are still not clearly split in some jurisdictions, and testing positive isn’t necessarily a “case” in the classical definition due the high asymptomatic rate with this thing, etc), it’s not headed in a good direction in many states:
I’m deliberately not smoothing this because I think smoothing makes you think the data is better than it is, and masks how this virus seems to work (super-spreaders, big jumps up and down in the spread rate). But you can clearly see two groups of states: the initial outbreak, rapid spread states of NY, NJ, Louisiana (mainly New Orleans), and the “slow burn” states (everybody else). In the “slow burn” states like Georgia and South Carolina we are seeing a really bad trend over the last 10 days. We aren’t seeing New York/NJ/LA kinds of spread – largely due to the much lower population densities, and the fact that 30-40 percent of the population are still taking mitigation measures. But let’s pull out the overall national trend …
It’s disturbing, but not panic-worthy yet. As can be seen, other than the initial run-up in NY/NJ, there have been previous quick jumps similar to this. I *think* it’s real, and *potentially* the start of another run-up, *definitely* a wake up call, but the data is so bad I’m not willing to jump on that bandwagon that this is the start of another NY style out-of-control phase 2 of the outbreak just yet. If it persists through the weekend then we can start to freak out. Here’s the overall confirmed positive (viral only, with some contamination):
In the “good” news category, the hospitalization rate (how many end up in the hospital) and mortality rate (how many who catch the virus die) are pretty stable, and the trend is not bad. Note that in absolute numbers, yes, the numbers are headed higher – Georgia reported 1124 COVID-19 patients in-hospital yesterday – the highest since May 16 (and it is likely higher given the delayed/bad reporting). But the probability of the virus being fatal, if you test positive and end up in the hospital, is actually down slightly. This is likely because many of the most vulnerable have already fallen, or are being protected somewhat. So the virus isn’t getting worse, it’s just spreading.
Cautionary note: I’m seeing folks looking at ZIP code level and city level data, such as in the Savannah GA area. Don’t waste your time. At that level it is so noisy and contaminated it is worthless. County level you can sort of maybe draw some conclusions from, but with a lot of caveats.
Internationally, the story is mixed. Much of Europe has leveled off. The big outbreaks, Spain, Italy, UK, are leveling off (albeit beware data issues in Spain). Sweden continues a jumpy climb but the rest of the Nordic countries have leveled off and have things under control. Russia’s trajectory is still in the “slow burn” category nationally; Moscow Oblast, which is driving their numbers, seems to be leveling off, so in that sense is similar to the US with a couple of big cities driving the overall numbers. Data issues really cloud the picture in most of the rest of the world. On the surface, the US is in the lower tier of countries when normalized by population, but as seen above, the virus is in the details.
So what do you do? The advice hasn’t changed much. Mask up in public, social distancing, good hygiene. Avoid distant travel if at all possible, avoid groups, stay in your social “bubble.”
Administrative note: I’ve set up a dedicated Twitter feed for Enki Research if you prefer to get your doom that way: @EnkiResearch