Covid-19 Update 6 March 2020

Now at 90 countries affected.

In a terrible respect, I may have more insight than some as to the unfolding Covid-19 story, because 11 of the 12 deaths in the US from the virus have occurred within two or three miles of where I live.

The US is now the country with the fifth largest number of fatalities (although ranked as ninth in terms of total cases), and while it is very difficult to conclude anything meaningful about rates of fatalities, we definitely have a higher than “normal” rate.  However, this is not necessarily a negative reflection on any element of our healthcare system, but is probably because the disease is going around the residents of an Old Folks Assisted Living Home, and with elderly and already frail/unwell people being infected, it is unsurprising that the disease is proving more deadly than would otherwise be expected in the broader population.

Panic Buying

Being at “ground zero” of the coronavirus attack, I visited Costco last Saturday morning to see how people were responding.  It was a zoo – a struggle to get into the car park, more of a struggle to find somewhere to park, and then very busy in the store.  By the time I got into the store, it was down to only the ultra-deluxe toilet paper and shortly thereafter that was sold out too.  Other paper products were also in short supply, and – perhaps more alarmingly – all the cheaper cuts of meat had disappeared, with people hovering anxiously around the meat case waiting to snatch up any additional trays of cheaper meat that were occasionally coming out from the back.

At Walmart, I noticed they too were almost entirely out of paper products; other aisles had some empty shelves in them too, but that sometimes happens at Walmart anyway.  On Thursday, at a regular supermarket, I noticed they were almost completely out of bottled water.  That is most puzzling of all.

We have perfect pure water coming out of our taps any time we turn them on.  I’ve never understood why people pay thousands of times more for bottled water that was in reality originally sourced from a municipal water supply in any case, rather than just turning the tap on in their home and having the same water instantly delivered, without any micro-plastic contamination, and instead of paying a dollar or whatever for a gallon or less, you are paying pennies per hundred gallons.

I’ve been trying to practice what I preach about good hygiene for several weeks now, and have not been in much contact with other people, anyway.  So I’ve been feeling good about minimizing my risk of contracting Covid-19, at least until Wednesday, when I came down with a cold.  This was a very sobering event – here I was, doing the very best I consciously could to avoid any type of new infection, and still I manage to catch a dose of the common cold.  It is a silent reminder to us all of how insidious the spread of some of these things can be.  Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten so many of the free Costco samples last weekend!

Medical researchers now believe there are two strains of the coronavirus causing the Covid-19 illness.  The main difference between them?  One is very much more deadly than the other.  The only good news part of that discovery is the more deadly one is not as effective a spreader, because people get sick faster and get taken out of circulation and are less able to spread the disease during the short period between becoming infectious and being impacted by the disease.

Numbers and their Meaning

I continued to track the number of countries affected by the virus for the last seven days, so we now have a longer data series to look at – see the chart at the top of the page.  I think I’ll stop this now for two reasons.  First, I’m not sure how to handle countries like Belgium, Egypt and India – these are countries that had a small outbreak, then resolved it with all patients either cured or dead, and then, some time subsequently, had a new outbreak occur.  Should they be counted a second time as a newly affected country or not?  (I’m not counting them twice).  Secondly, now that we have almost 100 countries affected, pretty much every major country has now been added to the list, so we might see the rush of new countries slow down, but not because the disease itself is slowing down, but because it is running out of new countries to infect.

There’s also the reality that a country count is a very rough measure anyway.  Why should a huge country like China or US count the same as tiny countries such as Luxembourg and Lichtenstein?  It has been an interesting measure for a while, but I think the point is now abundantly clear and doesn’t benefit from this  always very rough measurement.

China seems to have its outbreak more or less under control, and most days now South Korea is reporting more new cases than China.  But China is still reporting anywhere from 100 to 500 or more new cases every day, so “under control” is a relative term.  To put that in perspective, remember that in the US we have, at present, “only” 226 cases in total reported, whereas China is adding sometimes more than twice that number of new cases each day.

China’s slowdown in new cases has meant the daily total of new cases from everywhere looked fairly good for a while, but as you can see from this chart of daily new cases reported outside of China (immediately below), the reality is anything but good at all.

A very alarming rise in cases

Japan is struggling with its outbreak (currently 364 cases and six deaths) due to the ever closer scheduled date for the Olympics.  Two things are being considered (as well as simply continuing with the Olympics as planned) – either delaying the Olympics until perhaps November, or holding them as scheduled in July, but without spectators.  This latter solution of course leaves the many thousands of athletes and support team members exposed to any risks (and from Japan’s always somewhat insular perspective, bringing infections with them from their home countries), and would negatively impact some of the always challenging economics of hosting the Olympics due to no revenue coming in from tens/hundreds of thousands of international visitors eager to watch events, and the ticket sales for the events.

There are lots of other complete or partial cancellations for events scheduled in the next week or two or three.  It is harder to know what the reality might be by the time the Olympics roll around (scheduled to start on 24 July).

Locally, many companies are now allowing/encouraging/requiring all employees who are able to do so, to work remotely from home rather than go in to the office.  That includes Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter.  On the plus side, the Thursday commute was astonishingly easy and uncongested.

Death by Political Correctness?

Reading between the lines, many parents have apparently been pressuring some of the local school districts to either close or at least offer the option of remote-learning instead of in-person classroom attendance.  But political correctness is of course the prime issue to consider by the administrators, and unbelievably, my daughter’s school district said that because there was a possibility that some students might not have access to a computer or internet (my daughter is unaware of anyone in her entire school without both a computer and internet – indeed, the school has issued every student with a computer and much of the work they are assigned requires use of both computer and internet at home) it would be unfair to offer remote learning either as an option or alternate to regular classes.  So, based on the unlikely possibility that some tiny fraction of one percent of students might not have internet, the entire school district will stick to regular in-person classes.

I was thinking that at least the children are not in a prime at-risk-of-dying age group, but Anna (my daughter) quickly pointed out that while this is so, they can in turn pass the virus on to their parents, grand-parents, and other people everywhere.

One wonders how many tens/hundreds/thousands of people will die from political correctness.  One also worries how it is that our educational system is infested with such fools, and the examples they are setting for our young, but that’s a way-off-topic worry.

Another example in the “not sure whether to laugh or cry” department of political correctness is a problem on flights.  The security ban on larger sized containers of liquids is somehow interfering with the ability of flights and flight attendants to have adequate supplies of hand sanitizer on board.  We’re tempted to call BS on this claim, because as we all know, there are plenty of bottles of liquids (ie drinks) on a flight, so why not bring hand sanitizer onto the plane via that supply route?  But here’s the CNN article with the claim.

Still talking about death by political correctness, WHO have now revised their earlier laughably-low estimate of mortality rates for the virus.  We totally agree that it is more art than science to accurately establish mortality rates, and look at our own example in the US, where the mortality rate is skewed much higher than “normal” due to the cluster of cases in a nursing home.  But neither we nor pretty much anyone else with basic arithmetic skills agreed with the original WHO estimate of about 2% fatalities, and WHO are now saying 3.4%.

The current percent of closed cases that were closed by patient death rather than by patient recovery is sitting at 5.7%.  Even that is a far from absolutely accurate way of calculating numbers.  But at least the gap between WHO calculations and observed numbers is narrowing.

Keep in mind that regular ‘flu has a less than 0.1% fatality rate.  So if WHO is correct, Covid-19 is 34+ times more lethal than regular ‘flu.

The other key metric is how easily it is passed on to others.  Regular ‘flu has a 1.3 ratio – each infected person typically infects 1.3 more people.  So why doesn’t everyone end up with regular ‘flu?  Because of those 1.3 people, more than 0.3 of them have either had a ‘flu shot or acquired immunity via previous exposure, and so the net effect is that each infected person creates less than one new infected person, and so each year’s ‘flu outbreak dies out again.

We are totally lacking in meaningful data to estimate this factor for Covid-19.  But estimates are all much higher than the 1.3 of regular ‘flu, and because there is little/no immunity for Covid-19, each newly infected person is very likely to become a viably infected new disease carrier.  Estimates range from about 1.5 to 3.5.

When Will This All be Over?

When will this all be over and we can go back to our normal lives again?  It seems, presently, that our best hope is that as winter turns into spring and summer, the warmer weather will shorten the viable life of the virus when in the air or on surfaces, reducing the rate of pass-on infection, and allowing it to die down or even out, in the northern hemisphere, other than regular “breakouts” from people traveling between remaining active infected areas (for example, in the southern hemisphere while they have a winter during our summer) and their homes.  However, if activity remains at a low level over our summer and into fall, that gives us time to get closer to vaccines and treatments and might mean that next winter we’ll be better equipped to minimize its re-appearance.

An off-the-wall thought.  Maybe now is the time to consider buying a motorhome, and using it to travel within the US (or wherever you live).  That’s a possible way of making like a snail and carrying your own protected environment with you wherever you go, and allowing you to minimize your interactions with large groups of people such as would be encountered in airports and hotels and restaurants.

Each day brings about more news of airlines reducing their scheduled services, inviting/asking/requiring staff to take leave without pay, and now we’re starting to see airlines also coming out with sale prices.  Alaska Airlines seems to have been the first in the US, but expect this to become a thing everywhere, either via announced special sales or just quietly in the form of more cheap seats available on flights.

Every day also seems to see a new headline with a new larger estimate of how much money the airlines might lose as a result of the virus (here’s a Thursday one suggesting $113 billion).  But that number’s about as real as a $3 bill.  It is an estimate of gross passenger revenue lost; it is not an estimate of actual reductions in net profit.  Sure, the airlines will definitely suffer, there’s no doubt about that.  But their actual bottom line losses will be very much less than their top line reduction in gross sales.

All the major airlines in the US are now offering some form of change/cancel waiver due to the Covid-19 virus.  But there’s something really strange with the logic in all of them.  They only apply to tickets bought since late February.  Surely it would be fairest to apply these waivers to tickets bought by people before Covid-19 became a generally understood thing?

An interesting twist on treating people’s concern about traveling on public transport and unavoidably close to other people was either in China or Japan this week (sorry, forget which country).  Their rail services have been blocking out lots of seats so each carriage only has half or fewer people now assigned to it, reducing the amount of person-person contact and risk of disease transfer.

We’d love to see airlines do the same.  They could block out all the middle seats to start with.  And with the apparently very light loads on flights now, that would be very easy to do.

And lastly for this update, who says that newspapers are dead in this modern electronic world?  A newspaper in Australia has come up with a surprising new reason to buy a copy.

Please click here for a listing of all our Covid-19 articles.

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