Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A COVID Year

March 17, 2021

One year ago I was driving out of Las Vegas. My buddy had just placed third in the world in his division after a multi-day battle. COVID panic was setting in and already the shelves in Las Vegas grocery stores were bare of many common toiletries, basic medical items, and of course toilet paper and paper towels. I bought the last multi-pack of tissue boxes they had. My wife was texting me from home telling me to keep my eyes open as the supplies were all gone there.

We loaded up in my SUV for the drive home. Not just my buddy and I who had driven out together but another teammate hitching a ride back, as well as our billiards league president and his wife, who didn’t want to risk another night in Vegas and maybe having their flight canceled the next day.

As we left the city limits at dusk there was a storm in the distance to the east over the mountains, with occasional flashes of lightning. A beautiful, complete double-rainbow amazed us all from the same direction. And the radio station dedicated to people on the highway towards and from Las Vegas had their classic rock lineup interrupted so the Governor of Nevada could announce Las Vegas was shutting down. Hotels and casinos would cease all operations in just a few short hours. Everything was to shut down by his order. COVID was upon us and we needed to bend the curve of new cases to ensure hospitals weren’t overwhelmed.

The drive home was pretty quiet. Inside the car we were all disappointed the world tournament was cancelled and none of us got to play in our team events. I suspect everyone was slightly in shock – Las Vegas could just shut down? Just like that? Outside the roads were quiet as well. We passed by deserted truck stops and hotels with empty parking lots.

A year later. My wife and I sit in a pub in St. Louis. Masks everywhere, even though regulations in the City have relaxed in the past week or so. Restaurants can seat people indoors if they maintain social distancing and limit the number of customers they allow in. Back home our county has dropped out of the most severe tier of COVID urgency. Things appear to be easing back towards normality but the news feed is full of warnings of a third wave of COVID likely as restrictions ease and a population exhausted by a year of isolation champs at the bit to get back out and be with each other again. Overseas Europe and Asia are reporting spikes in COVID numbers and renewed and more vigorous restrictions.

None of us thought we would be here a year ago. We hoped and prayed things would go back to normal in a few weeks. They haven’t. And if things keep on at the current rate, normality is a long way off. A new level of fear and paranoia grips people. The airports we flew in and out of barked at everyone to keep their masks on and stay six feet away from each other, but we were seated shoulder to shoulder on the airplanes (masked, of course). Now that the election is history all the news stations seem able to talk about is COVID. News reports are beginning to admit what was obvious all along but nobody wanted to say – the vaccines are an uncertain bulwark against the virus, and even if they function as well as intended, people are going to need to get used to annual booster shots, similar to flu shots. Frankly we’ll be lucky if we only need one booster a year. I’m guessing we’ll be told to get at least two.

The world has changed. Not for the better. You don’t hear much of the ridiculous blather that was pushed early on in COVID, about how we’re all in this together and we’re working together for the good of the people. We weren’t. We aren’t. We’re tired and exhausted. Some people are terrified still and others are throwing all caution to the wind. The toll this all has and continues to take will only unfold fully over the next decade of more, ensuring multiple generations of social scientists of all stripes have plenty to dissect and analyze and hypothesize about. And the list of core memory moments in my lifetime increases from Reagan being shot and the Challenger blowing up and 9/11 to include COVID and a year-plus of trying to be a source of assurance in the midst of chaos, of calling people back to the Word of God that transcends all things, and has itself sustained many, many generations through far worse disasters and atrocities than this.

We are still here. And those with the Word know where we’re headed. May we all have the strength and grace and peace of God to know He’ll bring us there in his timing and his way.

Death – Again

February 16, 2021

I’ve written repeatedly over the years on the topic of how a Christian approaches death and burial (here, here, here, here, and here). I keep revisiting the topic because the topic continues to be revisited in our larger culture. Burial was considered the norm for many, many years. In part because of religious tradition and no doubt in part to simply not having many other options. But these days, options are what people are all about. And as awareness increases of the rather unhealthy amount of chemicals normally used to prepare a body for burial and the amount of space dead people take up, options continue to evolve. Not surprisingly some of these options embrace some rather non-traditional (to say nothing of unBiblical) approaches to creating a palatable way of thinking about death and the great beyond (or lack thereof).

The latest article is here. As opposed to burying, burning, or liquifying the body, this option turns human bodies into compost in the span of 30 days by letting nature take its course, probably with a bit of eco/bio – friendly encouragement. The result is compost, literally. Fit for use in your garden or wherever.

Once again, when I die, I expect my body will decay. That will happen regardless of the particular means by which my body is disposed of. But how my body reaches that state of decomposition and why can matter a great deal, particularly as a Christian who hopes and trusts in the resurrection of the dead, and therefore of the Biblical beauty and dignity and sanctity my human body is imbued with. Unlike many other religions and philosophies the Bible is unilaterally pro-matter. Matter matters, you might say. We are created physical and spiritual beings. Our wholeness exists in the combination of the spiritual and the material. The Biblical picture of life after death is not immaterial or incorporeal but very, very human. Perfected, to be sure, but human – body and spirit.

If you’re interested, a handful of good Biblical reference points on this would include Job, the Psalms, Isaiah, John, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, just to name a few.

As such, I want those who live on after me to know what my hope is. What my trust is. What I look forward to. And therefore what I do with my body as well as why I do it matters. That’s much more what people need to think about rather than the particular means.

What we do generally is associated with a why, though, and we may not control that why. So the composting company has a why to go along with it’s what, a means of helping people be comfortable with the idea of death itself as well as the particulars of their own death and the aftermath. The article references the idea of a giant circle of carbon exchange moving from the universe and into human bodies and back into the universe. Goodness. Am I really just a collection of carbon molecules? Am I not also spiritual and unique from any other person in all of creation? The Bible isn’t clear as to whether a pattern of carbon exchange will end when my Lord returns, but I’d much rather people understood that there’s a Lord who is returning than provide them some sort of psycho-chemistry lesson!

Not surprisingly, the Catholics are the ones objecting to this new body-disposal system, though I’d argue all Christians should object to it. A brief doctrinal statement on this issue can be found here, and does a great job of explaining why Church traditions are more than just traditions, but means of ensuring the proper message is sent and received by those who live on after the deceased.

It may well be possible for someone to choose the compost option and still strongly convey their hope in Christ through their memorial service. But the problem remains that only the people present for that service are going to hear the Christian message. Others who find out about how my body was made into compost are going to assume – rightly so – that perhaps the company’s way of explaining such an option appealed to me and was somehow my belief as well. That would be more than just unfortunate, it would be unfaithful of me to allow that risk.

I’m not a big one for visiting grave sites. I don’t have a personal need to do that. But I do see a value in having a place not just to be remembered, but to remind people that, barring our Lord’s return first, we’re all going to die. How do we live our lives in a way that acknowledges this without obsessing about it or pretending that our death is somehow made better by being ecologically sensitive? My death is transformed by Christ and him alone. Without such hope, being ecologically conscious or not really makes no difference and has no lasting meaning as we’ll all ultimately be vaporized when our sun explodes.

Condemning Without Examination

February 11, 2021

This article is a fascinating example of the importance of analyzing the intent of a communication. What is it the writer or speaker or producer wants to occur in my thoughts or actions after ingesting their work?

The tone of the article throughout condemns the various bans on facemasks throughout Sweden during the COVID pandemic thus far, repeatedly juxtaposing Swedish stances on the issue with the larger body of established evidence. We are to shake our heads at those poor Swedes whose government agencies have failed them during this crisis by communicating inaccurately and ineffectively. We will, rather the author intends it or not (which means they probably do) also likely lament the supposed fate of the Swedes. After all, if their government directly contradicted prevailing medical opinions, was silly enough to even communicate their concerns about the safety of facemasks to the international medical community, and then did a terrible job at communicating the need for facemasks and under what conditions, the average reader would likely conclude that things in Sweden are far worse than places that followed more conventional wisdom and communicated clearly and strongly to require facemasks as protection against COVID.

But while this is likely the inference of the average reader, the article nowhere bothers to confirm this reaction (let alone dissuade it). The author clearly feels Sweden was out of place in the course of action it has taken in downplaying the efficacy and safety of requiring citizens to wear masks. The author certainly substantiates with external links that such a course of action stands in marked contrast to what most of the rest of the world recommends. But the real proof in whether a travesty has taken place or not is whether this decidedly different approach resulted in a pandemic situation worse than those countries pushing mask wearing. In other words, going a different direction can be good, bad, or indifferent based on the results. Or it can be simply dismissed as bad in itself – taking a path contrary to the established norms of the larger group is always bad, regardless of whether what the larger group recommends is actually helpful or not. That’s ultimately what this article leaves you with.

But that’s not necessarily true. It can be. But as a rule of thumb, a guideline to live life by, it can be very dangerous and misleading, and is actually a logical fallacy – an appeal to the majority (ad populum, to use the Latin). Just because more people think something is true – or because a particular group of experts think something is true – does not necessarily mean it’s true. It’s certainly something to take into consideration! But the demonstration of whether they’re right or not must lie somewhere else or in something more than opinion.

So let’s do some research. Sweden has a population of roughly 10,400,000 people. The World Health Organization says there have been just over 604,000 reported cases of COVID, and just under 12,4000 deaths. That pans out to an infection rate of the overall population of about 6%, and a mortality rate of COVID infection of 2%. For comparison, the US has a population of 330,000,000. The WHO reports US COVID numbers as just over 27,000,000 infections and 468,000 deaths. That comes out to an infection rate of 8% and a mortality rate of 1.7%. Arguing for any number of mitigating factors like population density and we could generously say that the infection rates are roughly similar and perhaps the mortality rates are a smidge higher in Sweden than in the US.

What about a European comparison? Germany has a population of approximately 83,000,000 people, of whom 2,320,000 have had COVID leading to 64,200 deaths. That comes out to an infection rate of not quite 3% and a mortality rate of not quite 3%. Germany’s infection percent is half of Sweden’s but it’s mortality rate is 50% higher. Interesting trade-off.

The United Kingdom has implemented increasingly extremely restrictions and punishments to discourage gatherings and travel and stem the high rates of infection. The UK has a population of 68,000,000, of whom 4,000,000 have contracted COVID and 115,500 have died. That yields an infection rate of almost 6% and a mortality rate of just under 3%.

So it would seem that while Sweden’s advice on health masks has been at times contrary to prevailing ideas on the efficacy of face masks, and at other times confusing to the point of being almost useless, the resulting levels of infections and deaths have not been noticeably higher than those countries that have imposed very harsh restrictions and mandated facemasks in all public spaces (at the very least!).

Perhaps COVID isn’t the best way to examine issues of what and how governments communicate to their people. Or if you’re going to do that, you should focus more exclusively on that rather than implied judgment about whether what was communicated (however poorly) was the right thing to try and communicate or not. I think you could write an article showcasing poor communication skills without also implying pretty heavily that not only was the communication poor, the message was wrong.

Contemplating Failure

January 13, 2021

At what point is it reasonable to contemplate failure? At what point is it reasonable to consider helplessness? Does the post-modern philosophical landscape even permit such an option? Or must everything be a strident, insistent-even-if-delusional declaration of eventual success and dominance?

I wonder this as I watch COVID numbers continue to tick upwards. Our state has been among the most strict in the United States in regards to limiting business operations and attempting to mandate personal behavior. Yet our state has been the media spotlight over the past month for skyrocketing cases of COVID-19, particularly in the greater Los Angeles area.

Nine months of devastating economic restrictions have put who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses at risk of failure. Nine months of unending doomsaying and worst-case scenarios have battered our collective psyches. Masks are the norm now inside buildings. People are literally afraid to get too physically close to anyone they don’t know. A cough or a sneeze sets an entire grocery store on edge.

Yet despite all of these mandates and what seems to be – at least anecdotally – fairly good compliance with them, COVID continues to rage, numbers continue to tick upwards. Case numbers are what catches our eyes. Mortalities are on a far smaller level, though of course no mitigating contextual data is given to determine whether these mortality rates are unusual or unexpected for any sort of respiratory infection. California struggles with a growing case number despite some of the strictest protective policies in the country. Neighboring states where people can still eat at restaurants or have a drink at a bar don’t seem to have as severe a situation.

Is it possible to admit our attempts to outsmart the virus have failed? Is it reasonable to do so? At what point – if any – do we resign ourselves to the reality of a contagion we can’t contain? Are we capable of saying our intentions were good but ultimately of uncertain effectiveness?

Perhaps this isn’t possible to a Western culture where scientism is fast becoming the official religion, where God is presumed dead or non-existent and we are the determiners of our own fates. In a culture where the State is presumed to have all the answers it becomes rarer and rarer to admit that efforts were unsuccessful, let alone misguided. Everything must have a patina of success to it, even if the core is considerably tarnished. We must constantly slap ourselves on our collective back for our ingenuity and resourcefulness and tenacity even if we can’t prove that what we did or didn’t do actually had much of an effect.

My Biblical Christianity, in contrast, does allow for this. Allows for us to do the best we can but also admit that our best efforts may be, definitionally, not only inadequate but misguided and ultimately even, at odds with an authority higher than our own. My Biblical Christianity allows for a world in which we are not the eventual victors by our own efforts, but rather rescued from our good intentions that are fatally flawed and marred by sin, including our ability to admit our inabilities and limitations.

Some might see this as a fatalism of sorts that destroys the importance of striving for better. Historically though, this is obviously patently untrue as Christians have been at the forefront of working to make the world a better place for everyone. Rather than resign ourselves to God’s uncontrollable and largely unknowable divine workings, we rest in his love and grace and forgiveness and take seriously his original commands to us to be caretakers of his creation (Genesis 1:28). Biblical Christianity both conveys the truth that we can and do and should take seriously that we can effect positive changes in the world, but also that there are limitations both to what we are intended to accomplish and what we are able to accomplish. This emphasizes not so much our failures and limitations as the goodness and grace of God. We are forbidden from seeing ourselves as the ultimate authority and therefore do not labor in vain under that burden. Rather we are free to apply ourselves the best ways we can conceive of. It should also mean we are free to admit when our efforts have been incorrect or ineffective without stigmatizing ourselves or others for it.

Perhaps our efforts to contain the Coronavirus have not been successful. Perhaps they’ve even been somewhat pointless. Perhaps rather than trying to keep it from spreading at all we should focus our efforts on protecting those who are most vulnerable while allowing the younger population in work and school to shoulder the difficult but necessary work of gaining some sort of herd immunity that alone will ultimately render the virus less dangerous to everyone.

This is the long-game point of view. I believe it is the point of view of most scientists and immunologists. Someday COVID-19 will be no more dangerous or feared than the common cold or flu. This means it will still be dangerous to a small population group and that will likely never change, but the vast majority of the rest of the population will not be unduly threatened by it. Some experts hope vaccines expedite this process. But we also have no idea whether a vaccinated person who does not develop the symptoms associated with Coronavirus is capable of carrying the virus and infecting other people. We have no idea how long immunization to the Coronavirus lasts, and evidence seems to suggest it doesn’t last more than a few weeks or months at the most. The net result is an approach to the virus that demands fearfulness even when following all the proper protocols.

Perhaps this isn’t the best approach. Perhaps this only draws out the damage a new virus causes not only physically but psychologically and emotionally and socially. I just wonder if anyone is capable of admitting this might be the case and exploring that possibility intelligently, or if any such admission would immediately be silenced as traitorous unless backed with clearly defensible data. I tend to suspect it’s the latter option. In which case I guess the only thing we can do is pray for continued strength and healing even with potentially flawed policies in place. And we can keep an eye on places where alternate approaches are being tried in hopes those prove more successful. And we can continue to speak our truth about our proper role in creation. Caretakers, not owners. Creatures, not gods. We can encourage one another to continue doing our best and we can also consider a variety of options rather than insisting on a single approach.

If the Lord Wills

December 14, 2020

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

I was talking with a friend the other day who cited something I’ve heard floating around a bit the latter part of this year. I’m not going to go see my parents this year for the holidays so that I can see them next year for the holidays. The idea being that because of the risk of COVID and the higher danger to older people more likely to have co-morbidities or weaker immune systems, the responsible thing to do is stay away from them (and have them stay away from everyone else) and then next year we’ll all be healthy and COVID will be gone and we’ll celebrate together then.

I understand the rationale. I don’t fault people for saying it. I know they mean well. And as I’ve maintained since all this started back in March each person has to figure out how to navigate the COVID landscape for themselves within the larger guidelines suggested or mandated to us by various government or health officials.

That being said, I always want to remind Christians to weigh this in the balance with James’ words above. There are no guarantees as to what the future holds, other than that our Lord is returning at some point! We make our decisions with the best available information and as we feel led or compelled to by the information at hand, but that doesn’t mean it will play out the way we hope it will. That’s not in our control. This means two things.

First, it doesn’t mean we switch our brains off and pay no attention to planning or available information or reasonable levels of prudence and wisdom. To say we are not in control is not to say we have no control. It’s just that our control is limited – a fact we dislike and often seek actively to avoid completely in our considerations. Christians who refuse to use the minds God gave them and the knowledge available around us are not being faithful, and those who are not Christian and wish to maliciously characterize a life of faith in Christ as one devoid of intelligence or thougthfulness are being disingenuous, to say the least.

Secondly, it means that Christians should temper our plans for the future with the understanding things are not fully in our control. And this is the important aspect to keep in mind with the adage above about keeping distant now to ensure opportunities to be together when the pandemic has passed. Although a great deal of hope is being foisted onto the shoulders of various vaccines available in various degrees, we don’t know how that will play out.

We can certainly hope that vaccines roll out as scheduled (or faster) function as intended and with similar rates of protection to what has been seen in human trials. But even if this is the case, the likelihood of COVID fears dissipating fairly soon is unlikely. Even if rates drop, the vaccines don’t seem to offer long-term protection from COVID, meaning that additional doses will be necessary to ensure the virus loses access to a large enough spectrum of the population long enough to begin dying out of circulation. That’s likely to take at least another year. It could take longer – we just don’t know. After all, it was just two months ago the media was laughing at our president for claiming vaccines would be available before the end of the year. Now that the election is over, what a shock to find out he had been right. Hmmmm.

Anyways.

That’s all COVID stuff. Ministering to older adults, many of whom have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren they miss dearly and look forward to seeing any chance they get, I know how hard the social isolation has been on them. I also know a fair number of these older adults are taking directions from their kids, and being more careful than they themselves might be left to their own devices. And I also know that things can change quickly as people get into their 70’s and 80’s – more quickly than they or anyone else expect, and sometimes with less advanced warning.

All of which is to say that not seeing your family is no guarantee you’ll get to see them next year, even if none of you contract COVID or have any complications from it. As James reminds us, life is fleeting. All too brief as well as unpredictable. And this at least needs to be discussed as plans (or no plans) are being made for Christmas time.

Again, it isn’t as simple as saying go see your aging parents or grandparents because you may not get another chance to. But it is worth reminding people that life is fleeting, like a mist. Talk about it together. Pray about it together. Make decisions together. Grant a great deal of grace and forgiveness in the midst of all the stress and craziness of this past year. And also take seriously the sovereignty of God in all things, even pandemics. Life is a beautiful gift we don’t have absolute control over but receive day by day as it is given to us without any assurances of the next minute let alone the next year.

You may reach the same conclusions you were inclined to before, but you’ll all be better for the discussion and the prayer and the deliberate inclusion of the faith you proclaim in the process.

Painfully Helpful?

October 5, 2020

For those who have a hard time thinking the Genesis account of creation and humanity being descended from one single set of parents could be true, I think this is an interesting and relevant article. Being neither a geneticist or a genealogist, it’s possible I’m not understanding it correctly. But the main gist is we’re more closely interconnected than we (and evolutionary theory) tend to think we are.

Though scientists are quick to discount that a single couple – married to each other, actually – could be the source of all our genetic linkages, if I’m understanding this correctly there’s not a scientific reason we couldn’t be, other than that it would too closely sound like Genesis and we can’t have that.

Curious and open to better explanations or applications of this article if you’ve got them!

Isaiah 55:12

September 17, 2020

Conventional wisdom divides material into animal, vegetable and mineral. Helpful at one level but perhaps damaging at another, as we tend to ascribe certain characteristics to one group more than the others, characteristics of thought, motion, feeling, etc. Frankly we’ve often relegated these things just to the narrow category of humans within the larger animal classification, though that’s finally beginning to change as we come to understand other animal life better.

But perhaps this is only the first small step in a much wider understanding of the world around us, one that might see trees and other plants viewed in a whole new light that necessitates a whole new acknowledgement of relationship between us and them.

Maybe Scripture isn’t simply using anthropmorphisms, and trees and other vegetable classifications are far more complex than we’ve assumed. Science will take credit for discovering this but Scripture has used that kind of language for a lot, lot longer.

Makes me wonder if maybe, along a similar line of reasoning, our understandings of Isaiah 55:12 and the mineral world have room to grow as well!

Coronavirus Roundup

July 23, 2020

A few miscellaneous items related to the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly in the United States but also around the world as well. After all, who can escape the daily headlines with staggering infection counts and updated fatality tallies? And if these things are being reported so loudly and often, they must be important, right?

Certainly they are important. It’s not as though Coronavirus appears to be fictional. The question becomes what sort of important are they, and how do we make sense of them with other important things?

For instance, we’re being quoted daily the number of new fatalities linked to COVID-19. Certainly we don’t get daily death tallies for other illnesses, diseases, or accidents. Surely the death figures for COVID-19 must be devastatingly abnormal? Surely far more people are dying in 2020 – and primarily related to COVID-19 – than in other years?

What if that doesn’t appear to be the case? What if death rates aren’t massively higher than in other recent years? Could that tell us anything about Coronavirus or how it’s being treated or reported?

More and more I hear different industry experts and commentators talking about how they don’t anticipate any change in how things are being done right now until a safe and effective vaccine is developed. Considering vaccines aren’t necessarily discoverable on demand, this seems like a problematic place to lodge your hope. Add to that how effective or safe is defined with no long-term studies and things get further complicated. And add to that the possibility that antibodies may not last, or may not act like other antibodies and it gets even more complicated. After all it would be pretty frustrating to push (or demand) everyone get vaccinated only to find it didn’t offer long-lasting protection.

And protection is what we’re after, right? We want to know we’re being protected. That’s what our governments are there to help do, right? Protect us?

Or maybe just some of us?

Evidently some people aren’t as deserving of protection as other folks, which is disturbing to say the least. But this is an issue European nations find far less disturbing now than they did when, say, the Nazis were deciding which people merited living and which ones didn’t. At least this is Great Britain we’re talking about, rather than America.

Oh, whoops. Perhaps the problem isn’t as distant from the land of the free as we’d like to imagine.

So this COVID-19 thing has a lot of dimensions to it. But in the midst of it, don’t think that while your businesses and schools and churches might be shut down, that your legislators have stopped working on their pet projects.

AB 2218 was introduced into the California Legislature back in February of this year. In other words, a lifetime ago in Coronavirus terms. I’m sure it didn’t seem so unusual back then, wanting to take money from the general fund to specially fund and provide for transgender individuals and their very specific needs. Whatever those are, as defined by special interest groups where the president/CEO is transgender and 75% of the employees are transgender (Section 2.f.2.A-C). Doesn’t sound like a very diverse workplace, frankly.

Back then in February, it was apparently suggested that a specific amount of money be appropriated from the General Fund for these very vague purposes. Fifteen million dollars ($15,000,000). However despite the pandemic raging and society crumbling and all that, this bill was amended in Assembly not once but twice (May and June). Somewhere in those amendments the dollar amount was eliminated. Meaning there is theoretically – or literally – no limit to how much money from the General Fund could be appropriated for these purposes. After all, this Bill clearly defines the huge need. It asserts at least 218,400 Californians identify as transgender. That’s a huge number. But considering California has an estimated 40,000,000 residents (and that’s probably a low figure given our very hospitable attitude towards unregistered folks), the figure comes out somewhere in the neighborhood of .00546 percent of our overall population.

Now there are roughly double the number of Coronavirus infections (remember Coronavirus? That’s where we started this post!) in California as transgendered people. I think it’s safe to say that the Coronavirus case numbers will grow much more rapidly than the transgendered numbers. And currently most of the counties in this state are under some sort of restrictions or lockdowns due to inadequate medical facilities to handle the potential surge in need for hospital beds and ICUs and qualified medical staff.

So why in the world would our lawmakers decide that right now, in the middle of a pandemic when California is reporting more cases of COVID-19 than any other state in the country, right now we should free up unlimited funds for the support of transgender folks? Why aren’t they figuring out how to direct more funds to those areas areas with the least medical support or the highest rates of hospitalizations? Or at least I’d think they’d be working tirelessly to direct any available funding towards relief of from the Coronavirus, and providing support services for people and families who have lost their jobs and businesses and savings.

So yeah, curious times to be sure. Good to keep your eyes and ears open. You never know what you might learn.

Which Numbers?

July 14, 2020

Numbers are interesting things. Or more accurately, what numbers are cited and how they’re cited are interesting things.

Here in the US we’ve been dealing on a large scale with the Coronavirus since early March. Early on as lockdowns were put in place around the country the reports I remember were of massive death rates in Italy as well as sporadic reports of huge fatality levels in New York City. Articles with pictures of bodies stacked on the sidewalk because hospitals and mortuaries were unable to deal with the rapid spike in deaths related to COVID-19. Most everyone was pretty willing at that point to go along with demands to shelter-in-place and shut down non-essential businesses. The goal was not to eliminate infections necessarily, but to bend the curve, reduce the steep rate of new infections so hospitals would not be overwhelmed with dealing with incoming patients.

Here we are four months later and lockdowns are being reissued after a month and a half of eased restrictions. There is fearful talk about rising infection rates (as opposed to fatalities). But the talk now is not about fatalities any longer but infection rates. We’re told about how many new cases of COVID-19 are being discovered. Presumably with wider testing. This is of course concerning. Or is it?

Assuming the Coronavirus is as contagious as we’re told it shouldn’t surprise us that as testing rates go up so will the number of cases reported. Especially if, as sporadic articles maintain, the virus is airborne and can remain in the air for longer periods of time as opposed to mainly being spread from speaking, coughing, etc. in close proximity to one another. In which case, infection rates have likely been much higher than reported all along (something I’ve maintained since March), when testing was non-existent and then at lower rates than it presumably is now.

This is of course bad news. Anything that makes people sick is cause for some level of concern. Every year we know the flu is going make the rounds and a lot of people will get sick (far more than are reported to be infected with the Coronavirus, so far) and many will even die from it. But because we’re used to it, we don’t really take many precautions other than the flu shots that are now aggressively pushed each year despite offering questionable protection.

The Coronavirus is new and therefore we’re much more nervous about it as information is difficult to sift through to determine the real risk it poses. So far what we’re told is that it’s the greatest risk to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions that weaken their ability to fight infections in general. I don’t doubt this is true – my question is how serious the risk is.

Consider this collection of data from the CDC.

The first chart is a week-by-week breakdown of fatalities associated with the Coronavirus either alone or in combination with other illnesses. The first column is just deaths attributed in some way to COVID-19. Note how the numbers increase rapidly from the first reported cases in February. They peak the week of April 18, 2020 when there were nearly 17,000 deaths associated with COVID-19 in the United States. Then look how those numbers decline just as precipitously to under 200 as of the week of July 11, 2020. There are some disclaimers to note, such as the data (particularly the most recent data I would presume) is not necessarily fully accurate due to discrepancies in timing as to when data is received by the CDC. But in any case, it’s clear that COVID-19 related fatalities are nowhere near where they were in April at the height of our fear and worry. The disease is killing fewer people than it used to, despite shocking rises in reported numbers of infections in recent weeks.

Two columns over the Percent of Expected Deaths is also fascinating. This column compares the weekly data to historical data from 2017-2019 and shows how the 2020 fatality data compared to those previous years. In other words, did more people die in these weeks in 2020 than died in previous years in the same weeks when Coronavirus wasn’t in the picture? These figures peak in the same week – the week of April 18 – with a 40% increase in fatalities compared to previous, non-COVID-19 years. And then the percentage begins dropping so that by mid-June overall numbers of deaths are roughly equivalent to previous years. Although data is likely incomplete after mid-June as per the disclaimer notes, again the trend is clear that the virus is not as fatal as it was initially. I’m curious as to why that would be.

In the second table, I find it interesting that while California gets a lot of news play, our infection levels are rather low compared with other places and our fatality levels are essentially identical to previous, non-COVID-19 years. Unlike, say, Massachusetts, which I never hear about in the news! They have roughly 2000 more cases of COVID-19 than California despite a population 1/6th the size of ours. Fascinating.

It’s good to be cautious here. We have an odd habit in our country of emphasizing death counts that is misleading in terms of the real damage done. This is true in terms of our reporting of wars and other international engagements. You hear how many of our soldiers are killed, but never additional information on how many are severely wounded, as in limbs blown off or life-long paralysis or blindness or other severe, life-altering injuries. Likewise, with COVID-19 there are people who do get seriously ill but don’t die from the disease. So just looking at death statistics certainly doesn’t convey the full impact of the virus.

But it does make me wary about the heavy push for a vaccine as an answer to this situation. I’ve never thought it reasonable to assume we could produce a vaccine for this on demand. Vaccines aren’t that simple – otherwise we’d have a vaccine for the common cold! I worry more that if and when a vaccine is developed, there will be a push to make it mandatory – a push based on maintaining fear levels of Coronavirus into next year.

At least as I interpret the data, it seems more reasonable to say (as I did months ago) that likely infection rates are far higher than reported because of inadequate testing capabilities, so the apparent increase in infection levels now that testing is more pervasive is not really an increase in the percentage of people getting the virus, just a rise in the number of them detected. All of which means the virus is far less lethal than widely reported, even if it does still pose a risk to certain at-risk populations who would also be equally at risk from the flu and other more common and known viral strains.

Instead of emphasizing vaccines as the hope for moving past this, it seems far more reasonable to rely on herd-immunity since the vast majority of people who get the virus are only mildly affected and make full recovery. Assuming this process of infection and recovery leaves people with life-long antigens that make repeat infection impossible, within a few years the Coronavirus will no longer be much of a threat, and will be a decreasing threat to people as they age and develop other complicating health issues since they likely will have already had COVID-19 and won’t get it again when they’re weaker and less able to fight it off.

I’m happy for someone to explain how or why my analysis and conclusions are wrong. Data is time-consuming to sift through and there are a lot of anecdotal articles (or more accurately editorials) out there to complicate things further.

Apples & Oranges

June 29, 2020

I am not qualified to assess whether the US infection levels of Coronavirus are increasing as is commonly reported, staying the same, or perhaps decreasing. Variables in terms of reporting methodologies, the number of people being tested, and probably dozens of others I’m not even aware of are more than I’m willing or able to quantify. I’ll assume our infection levels are increasing somewhat after we bent the curve in April.

However article leaders like the ones in this news report are not helpful.

The US is compared unfavorably with New Zealand, South Korea and Singapore in our rising infection levels. The first thing I went and did was check on the populations of these countries. All of them are substantially smaller than the United States in terms of population. South Korean is roughly 1/6 of our population at 50 million people, while New Zealand and Singapore have approximately 5 million, or 15% of the US population level of roughly 330 million people.

Now maybe the article takes this into account and is comparing infection levels adjusted for population. It doesn’t indicate it, however. It seems to at least acknowledge that the geographical size of the US and therefore the reality that infections can surge in one area and then another is something different from the other countries it cites. So there’s that.

So be careful out there, but also pay attention. As I was crunching some local numbers I realized that for our particular county, infection rates are at less than 1% of the population. Of course, that’s just the cases that are tested or confirmed somehow, but still. It’s a much smaller number of people than you would think given the unrelenting news coverage.