As I frequently rant, various phenomena have their own pace, or temporal domain. With hurricanes, it’s about 12 to 24 hours. With a pandemic, it depends on the disease, but for COVID19 it’s about two weeks. You can’t force that into some other paradigm like a 24 hour news cycle, or political campaign, or whatever. It just doesn’t work, and leads to stress, confusion, and bad decisions. I’d add that each phenomena also has a natural spatial domain or geographic region that makes sense to analyze. Those geographies don’t usually match our arbitrary political geographies. For example, what sense does it make to have a hurricane warning that extends to the Savannah River, “forcing” the evacuation of Hilton Head, when you can stand on the north end of Tybee under only a tropical storm warning, with no evacuation in force, and look across the river/sound and wave at the folks fleeing in terror. OK, a little exaggeration, but not much sometimes. With the pandemic, given different approaches (masks vs not), people moving back and forth (Effingham being a “bedroom” community of Chatham as a local Savannah GA example), not to mention the inconsistencies in reporting, it’s hard to define a spatial domain that works. The point, in scientific terms, is that the temporal and spatial characteristics of some phenomena doesn’t always fit with our arbitrary temporal and spatial definitions. That leads to a lot of noise that – you guessed it – people with agendas can exploit to say “things are great!” or “things are terrible!” and, based on the data, they are both somewhat right and somewhat wrong.
But for those of us who care about reality, how are things? Well, the virus is doing fine. Which isn’t good news for us who are foodbags for the thing. I’ve basically given up on a lot of the statistics based on case counts and positive results. It’s just too noisy. The main thing I’m watching closely right now is the excess mortality numbers, and how that compares with both reported COVID mortality and the expected mortality. In other words, how many more people are dying than the longer term statistics suggest should be the case? Now, that doesn’t tell us that COVID is responsible for all of those deaths, it does tell us if something unusual is going on, and from other evidence it is clear COVID is in fact responsible for most of them (a fact that some folks just can’t seem to get a handle on).
Here I’m using the from the National Vital Statistics System. Death reports are subject to delays, so for example today the “latest” data is only as of the end of September, since it takes around ten working days for reports to filter up to CDC – longer for some jurisdictions (yeah, unbelievable, but there it is). Despite all the flaws, this is probably giving us the most complete overall picture of the impact of the virus. So the “temporal” domain for our analysis is going to be number of reported deaths per calendar week. That helps reduce errors caused by weekends, Mondays, and Fridays, as well as just normal day-to-day fluctuations. For the spatial domain, lets look at the whole US, and some selected states. Even that is a bit risky due to reporting differences, etc. but we can see some interesting things at the state level. So here is a plot of the ratio of the number of reported deaths divided by the expected (based on the previous 10 years) number of deaths, per week for the 39 weeks of 2020 thus far.
So clearly, NYC had a Very Bad Spring with a lot of people dying who shouldn’t have. You can try to argue “well, it was older people, or in nursing homes, or people already sick” or some such excuses but the simple fact is that it wasn’t their time. Something (and we know it was COVID) was killing people over and above the usual causes of death. As you look at other states you can see different progressions – a mostly under control slow burn in Washington State, later peaks such as in the South East (GA/FL) and Arizona, etc. For the US as a whole, it’s the bigger population states driving things, but there was clearly the NY (and NJ) crash in the spring followed by a slow burn and second much smaller peak in mid summer. Lower population and rural states are starting to catch up a bit in the stats, but as you can see with a state like South Dakota it’s noisier.
What does it mean, and what does it indicate for the future? The virus continues to do a series of waves through different parts of the country. Now that fall/winter are here, we can expect another “wave” in the higher populated states since a) most people were not exposed to the first wave and b) compliance with mitigation measures is variable. Since states aren’t in isolation, and any “reservoir” of the virus will enable it to get back in to areas with it under control, that seems inevitable. One thing is that a lot of those vulnerable in, say, NYC were taken out by the first wave. However, people age, get sick with chronic diseases, etc., so there are now all new victims waiting to be infected. I suspect we will see “waves” of deaths rippling through the next year – probably no big spikes like the original NEUS spike, but lots of “slow burns” and increases in the rate between 10 and 30 percent above the normal mortality rate in most jurisdictions.
So what do you do? Same as it ever was – mask when encountering someone outside your household in an indoor environment for sure, or outside with prolonged contact; hand hygiene. Get a flu shot if it’s ok for you to do so – for one thing, we really want to not have any more confusion between flu and COVID than necessary, and it may give your immune system a little boost that might help. Try to take care of yourself and stay healthy. Because I doubt there is going to be a miracle vaccine for this thing, and it will just be a fact of life for the foreseeable future …