With the late season storms both here and in the West Pacific, and the developing catastrophe in Nicaragua/Honduras, haven’t formally checked in to see how the virus is doing until today … Yep, the virus is doing fine. Humans? Not so much. True, it’s not a Monty Python style dystopian “bring out your dead” kind of pandemic, but a lot of people are still passing away from this thing who would not have otherwise died. How do we know this? Forget the death counters popular on TV. As I have discussed before, the absolute numbers aren’t nearly as important as the concept of excess mortality – how many people are we losing who wouldn’t have died otherwise? For some more background on that take a look at this post. For those paying attention let’s jump right to the numbers. Here is the overall US chart for deviations in mortality over the last four years, as of the last week of October. Above average is above normal, below zero is below average. No, the numbers aren’t any more recent than the end of October. I’m so tired of ranting about the craptacular public health data reporting system in this stupid country, a system that is even worse than the stupid election system that can’t manage to count live ballots any better than it can dead bodies – the gallows humor there writes itself these days.
So it’s absolutely, unambiguously clear: something is killing ‘Muricans this year at greater numbers than past years, and it’s pretty clear it’s the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. And it’s not “just the flu”. “Just a bad flu” is what that spike in late 2017/early 2018 is. No, it’s not “Spanish Flu” bad, much less the Black Death, but it’s bad enough. Even correcting for the mild 2019 influenza season, (which is partly responsible for the early spike in COVID deaths – vulnerable people who would have died in 2019 lived into 2020 to fall victim to COVID instead), COVID has really distorted the mortality statistics.
What about the State of Georgia? Here’s that graph. Note with ha smaller sample size, it is “noisier”, but clearly the same story …
Before anybody says “oh, it’s getting better!” Remember these numbers are a couple of weeks old, and the lag between infection and death is around 4 weeks, so this is maybe 6 weeks behind the curve. The last few entries are certainly low as it can take four weeks or so to collect all the mortality data (insert primal scream here).
This graph looks like the normal cycling of a mostly out of control virus, where people notice it’s bad, react, it drops some, then they get complacent, and it rebounds, as well as the fact that we are seeing the virus move in to different populations in different areas. The other problem is that we are entering the normal respiratory virus season, and, flawed as they are, the other metrics – case counts, hospitalizations, positivity rates, and so forth – are all trending upwards. So it’s likely these numbers are about to trend higher.
Again, the problem with SARS-COV-2/COVID19 is that it’s bad – but not bad enough. It slots nicely into a place that scares some people in to overreacting, and others into under reacting, exacerbating existing fault lines in society depending on where you fall on the security/freedom and personal/collective responsibility prioritization scales.
So what do we do? Mostly it’s common sense. But that is in remarkably short supply. The problem is a critical mass of the population across the country (and even world)has to act responsibly. Otherwise the slow burn – punctuated with flare ups – will continue. And with flare-ups politicians will feel forced to “do something” dramatic, most likely things like shutdowns and restrictions which won’t work in the long run, but will further the social and political divisions, not to mention the incredibly fragile economic situation. An interesting question arises: If the mortality rate settles in to a new, higher value, say 20-30% above the previous average, will people ultimately just accept that and get on with life? It’s going to be interesting to watch the media coverage with respect to the statistics as the likely change in administration progresses. Will things actually be better next year, or will they just seem better with an (on the surface anyway) more coherent approach and a vaccine? When will the media give up on coverage and move on to other stories? Hard to say. Those are all issues just as important – maybe more so – as the biology and epidemiology of the virus itself.
I’m also very afraid that the vaccine won’t be the deus ex machina that people are hoping it will be. For starters, the 90%+ effectiveness reports are unlikely to be seen in widespread use. Those number always come down once things move in to general use, so there’s an expectations problem building. There’s also a fair enough chance one or more of several potentially unfavorable scenarios will come to pass – not the least of which will be that in the rush to get vaccines out, long term adverse reactions will start to crop up in six months or a year once widespread vaccination takes off. The other is potential risk is that immunity will decline rapidly and be seasonal at best. Great for the bottom line of Big Pharma, probably not so good for the rest of us.
Sense some frustration here? Yep. COVID19 long ago stopped being a mostly scientific problem, and after the behavior of both political parties in the US the last few years, only a hard core political activist affiliated with one of the tribes can be optimistic (aka delusional) about all this. Those of us in the real world will just have to continue to suffer through their shenanigans and try to keep out of the way …