Doomwatch, Tuesday 29 Sept 2020

Numerous potential flashpoints of doom out there … but nothing as of this morning above the “that might get bad soon.”

Tropics: Typhoon Kujira is off of Japan, no threat to land. Tropical Depression 18-E is off the coast of Mexico, again no threat to land. Closer to home (well, mine 🙂 ) a system is moving across the Caribbean that the global models are showing spinning up in a few days as it approaches the Yucatan Peninsula. NHC gives this a 50% chance of forming something in the next five days. Some of the usual suspects are already flogging the potential for the system to spin up. Here is what the GFS model is showing for next Wednesday, a sort of organized depression/minimal storm approaching the Mexican coast, and a second thing trying to spin up behind it …

DOOOOM! Or not. Probably not. But it might, so give me clicks! Or just relax and check back Friday.

but … models don’t always do so great in this kind of situation. They are getting better, but 7-10 days just isn’t there yet for anything other than entertainment purposes. A couple of things to keep in mind – note there is no “X” on the NHC map, just a diffuse area where something might form. Second, no discrete model runs or INVEST area ID has been assigned yet. The Tropical Weather Outlook doesn’t have the majik words “interests in <name of some area> should monitor the progress of this system.” So unless you are a die hard weather junkie, you’ve got plenty of other stuff to worry about!

Like the debate tonight between the raging dumpster fire and the older well worn house that looks comforting from the outside but has bats in the attic, rats in the cellar, and an ax murderer living in the spare bedroom.

Or the continuing slow burn of the COVID-19 Pandemic. I posted on this yesterday, and nothing I’ve seen in the last month or so says there is any progress – or significant new threats. As I write this the talking head on the radio news said “we have hit 1 million deaths, one fifth of those in the US.” Which is total bullcrap for reasons I’ve discussed before (globally there is a huge undercount; the US is about 5% of global population and if you take in to account the horrible reporting in most of the world, is about 5% of deaths, not 20%). Guess he doesn’t read this blog. Sigh.

The economy continues to send up flares, red flags, warning lights, and Edvard Munch style screams. But Congress is deadlocked over the aforementioned election thingee, there is no coordinated plan to try to stabilize things, so the ongoing collapse of key aspects of the economy like small businesses continues. The wave of potential defaults is on the verge of becoming a tsunami, and when that hits the over-leveraged capital markets, Bad Things Will Happen.

In the geopolitical world, Donbass, Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, Greece-Turkey, and Libya all continue to smolder. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is especially dangerous and tragic, given the involvement of Turkey in another potential attack on Armenians (which has a long and tragic history). It is one of many complex “frozen” conflict areas like Ukraine and the Balkans that were suppressed during Soviet times, but have flared up since. Why does this matter to you? The various tangle of alliances and obligations can rapidly drag outsiders in. Oh, did I mention oil? Because oil is involved as well … of course.

Oh, and Tampa Bay winning the Stanley Cup? Which sign of the apocalypse is that?

So we wait and see what happens. There’s always stuff to worry about, and it is best to be proactive when we can. But if you have a family emergency plan (always keep a week of emergency food, containers you can fill with water on short notice, and a contact plan), a weather radio, and are taking COVID precautions (masks when going to enclosed spaces, distance, good hand hygiene), you’ve got most of the bases covered, so enjoy life and don’t worry about all the might be’s until they become “probably”s …

Yet another rant about COVID data

It’s one thing for the media to have “death counters” and for talking heads to spend 15 minutes an hour talking about the COVID statistics. Sure, it’s overly dramatic, misleading, causing a lot of unnecessary FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt). But … entertainers are going to entertain. However, an awful lot of people are making life and death decisions based on week to week (even day to day!) fluctuations in COVID19 statistics. Does that make sense? Let’s take a look …

For a start, lets take a look at US Death reports, comparing the estimated numbers with the “final” totals for the latest reporting period, the week of September 12th:

Oops. Looks like there is a problem. First, (looks at calendar), it’s the 28th. The data for the week of the 19th is so incomplete it isn’t even showing up yet, only 25% or so of jurisdictions nationally have submitted data. Let’s put this in bold: we don’t really have solid numbers ( say, no more than 2% missing) for SIX WEEKS. Not six days, much less six hours (or, for TV folks, six minutes!). Here is a CDC paper describing the lags in the reporting system.

Now, let’s look at the reported deaths vs. the expected deaths. For expected we are using the average deaths in the US over 2000-2015, adjusted for current population. It varies from week to week during the year, more people die in winter than summer (mostly due to Influenza and Pneumonia). Here is the plot since February 1st of this year …

Two things are obvious from this plot: first, there is drastic under reporting in the most six to eight recent weeks (but we knew that from the previous graph). The second is that something out there is killing lots of Americans. So those saying COVID-19 isn’t that big a deal, well, that’s not what the numbers are showing – that’s not really the point of this graph, which is to show that the rapid tail off in recent weeks is probably due to reporting issues. We won’t have a good idea of what the data is for this week until November. That’s insane for a so called developed country with computers and telephones and stuff, but there it is.

Essentially all of the numbers you are seeing reported on a daily basis are ESTIMATES – not actual data. Now, the CDC, NCHS, Johns Hopkins and others doing the estimates are trying to do their best, and everyone is trying to get COVID data expedited through the system, but that’s actually a problem because now COVID confirmed deaths are being treated differently than other cases. and due to inconsistent testing and reporting it’s clear that we are missing a lot of COVID related deaths. Why do I say that? Take a look at this:

In other words, either there is another respiratory virus out there killing folks (very unlikely), or we are under counting COVID-19 deaths by around 20% (5 or 6% of total deaths).

And remember anything since week 28 or 29 (Mid August) is incomplete … so don’t get duped by the apparent tailing off since week 29 or so in this graph.

I could grind through this on a state by state basis; some are doing better, others worse, but you get the picture: the data isn’t timely or accurate. This is why (much to the annoyance of some) I don’t get bogged down in what this or that article (or even specific credible study in isolation) is arguing, trying to use the COVID-19 statistics to prove masks don’t work, or do work for that matter, or if the mortality rates are going up or going down or reopening is or isn’t working. Because to be blunt, the data sucks and we just don’t really know other than generally or anecdotally. That’s not to say the data is worthless – certainly we can see trends, and professionals can extrapolate a good bit from incomplete data, but this obsession with the death statistics isn’t healthy. Cases? Forgetaboutit. That’s even worse due to testing, reporting, and societal issues.

All this noise is why you can find an “analysis” out there (some credible, some not) that supports just about any point of view you want to try to flog. But if you take a step back and aren’t trying to make some political point, the picture is relatively clear: the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is killing a lot of people who wouldn’t have otherwise died, we aren’t counting everyone who is being killed by it, and it isn’t going away.

Data Sources:
Excess Deaths Associated with COVID-19 (CDC).
Provisional COVID-19 Death Counts by Week Ending Date and State (NCHS).

Hurricane Watch; “New” COVID numbers from CDC?

Of the four systems the US National Hurricane Center has on their outlook (link), only two are very interesting at the moment. The first, just offshore from the Southeastern US, they give a 70% of forming a tropical depression or greater in the next 2 days. The fringes might cause some winds and waves in the Northeast and Canadian Maritimes and Bermuda, but any storm that forms is forecast to stay offshore. The second system is in the far southern Caribbean. It two is tagged at 70% over the next 2 days, 80% by day eight. Most models dissipate it, but a few have it as strong as a tropical storm making landfall on the Nicaragua or Belize/Yucatan coastlines in 5 days. In the West Pacific, Typhoon Maysak is sideswiping Okinawa today, and is projected to make landfall dead center over South Korea. Here is a track overview:

JTWC has backed off on the intensity a lot since yesterday, if it continued as forecast, it would have been an $80 Billion storm; now that is down to $37 Billion. I suspect it will probably end up around $10 Billion in economic impacts – big enough for sure, certainly a risk to life from mudslides and flash flooding. The misery a storm causes is often not linked to the dollar value, something to keep in mind about Louisiana after Laura …

If you’re confused about the news stories that came out this weekend regarding CDC’s mortality numbers, that’s not surprising. Consider these two headlines:
CDC: 94% of Covid-19 deaths had underlying medical conditions
CDC report on COVID deaths underlines virus’ danger

Like so many aspects of this situation, where you get your news probably governs what you think of the situation. So, did only 6%” of those listed in the U.S. coronavirus death toll actually die from COVID, or are only 5% people who would have died anyway? As usual, it’s complicated, and both points of view are both right and wrong and easily exploited by those who have an ax to grind. Most people who die of chronic diseases of some kind have multiple factors that would have killed them at some point, and these are related – if you have a heart condition, it makes diabetes more dangerous, and vice versa. Which one gets credit on the death certificate in any specific case is often subjective. In simple terms, the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 does in part is attack people in such as way that if there are any underlying problems it makes them worse. It also causes the immune system to go in to hyperdrive in some people, causing the bodies defense to turn on itself. What epidemiologists look for in a disease like this, or influenza for that matter, is excess mortality. How many people died who, despite the other conditions, would have made it through a given time period had they not contracted COVID19? That is where the Excess Deaths statistics are the place to start.

One problem with all this kind of analysis is it’s a moving target. To state the obvious, each year people are born, move through various stages of life (and therefore vulnerability to diseases like Influenza or SARS-COV-2), and die. The way the numbers are reported for COVID19 are really confusing and misleading on so many levels. We never do overall death counters for flu. It’s X died in a week, or in a season, and that is compared with the average mortality rate by cohort. Since this is a new virus the counter is starting from zero, but as we continue into the COVID19 outbreak, if we don’t reset the counter or start thinking in terms of excess mortality, it will exaggerate how bad it is. Over the last 20 years flu season numbers have ranged from 30k to 120k. This new virus this year will be high in year one because it is attacking a lot of people who were vulnerable, and the final number in the US will almost certainly be at least 300k, but in year two the vulnerable population will be smaller. Where will the COVID19 number settle? In the US, probably in the 200k range per year (absent a vaccine or better therapies of some kind).

So what does all this really mean? As noted yesterday, COVID19 seems to be three to four times as deadly as a bad influenza outbreak. It’s sneaky, because fewer average people get obviously sick, yet more vulnerable people die. The arguments over the details of this or that statistic in isolation generally miss that bigger picture. And don’t forget, while you may think you are in the less vulnerable group today (be aware lots of people have underlying conditions and don’t know it!), you might be in that group tomorrow, and certainly will be at some point in the future as you age. So what do we do? You know by now: mask up out of your bubble, good hygiene, take care of yourself healthwise. Duh. Off to do some treadmill …

COVID19 Update; Just how bad is this thing revisited …

While we’ve been storm-watching there have been some developments in the pandemic realm. As I constantly try to remind people that despite the news cycle pushing for “breaking news”, events tend to move a their own pace. With tropical cyclones that time frame is generally about 12 hours. With a pandemic, the time frame is driven by the cycle of exposure, illness, and recovery, which is on the order of weeks. That makes it harder to deal with since today’s actions don’t show up in any real measurable sense for at least two weeks – even if we had good data. Which, as previously ranted, we don’t. But all that said, events have moved since the last discussion, so let’s revisit the situation. Long post, with lots of charts, numbers, and math …

First, let’s look at the big picture and numbers across the world and the US. While there have been upticks in cases in some countries like Germany, the mortality per 10,000 population has leveled off at numbers that appear reflective of the pro-activeness of government policies, the quality of the public health care system, combined with the seriousness with which the virus and protective measures are being taken. Here’s what it looks like in deaths per 10,000 populations for some selected countries as of Friday:

France4.62Slightly Increasing
Spain6.31Somewhat increasing
Italy5.91Slightly Increasing
United Kingdom6.20Slightly Increasing
Russia1.16Somewhat increasing
Iran8.49Rapid Increase
United States5.49Moderate Increase
South Korea0.45Stable
Mortality Rates across selected countries
Raw mortality rates over time … glitches in the reports and all!

It’s worth noting that way back on March 15th, the estimated seasonal mortality rate (end of August) for the Spain and Italy outbreaks were 6.0 and 6.2 per 10,000 respectively. So for all the angst over projections and computer models, they’ve actually done a pretty good job when given the proper inputs and interpretation.

As for the US, it’s harder to assess. The biggest problem is that the US acts more like 50 separate countries than a single nation – which is, of course, by design. A similar plot to the above for selected US states looks like this …

Mortality Rates over time in the US

So some states like New York and New Jersey are worse than Spain or Italy, while other are comparatively better, such as Washington being comparable to Germany or Canada. None are doing as well as the best of the European countries. Georgia, with a rate over 5, is on track to exceed the rate in Italy and, if the suspected undercount is true, probably already has. So why did we see horror stories about crowded hospitals, etc. in Italy and Spain but (New York aside) not in other states such as Georgia and Florida? Note the shape of the curves: the “flatten the curve” efforts worked. But … the problem is that we did not take advantage of that time to squash the virus or put in to place longer term measures to reduce that flattened rate, so the virus is continuing a “slow burn” through the population … fast enough to be a problem, but not so fast as to cause everyone to take it seriously.

Which raises the issue again of just how bad is the SARS-COV-2 virus (the beastie that actually causes COVID-19). A huge problem is that despite all the sturm und drang over testing, we don’t really have a good handle on several key metrics here in the US because the testing is, to be blunt, rubbish. But with some careful analysis of the available US data, we can in fact come up with some useful conclusions. First let’s look at a key chart:

Ratio of Hospitalized to Tested, New York and Georgia

The amazing thing is that despite the very different progressions of the disease in these two states, we ended up at the same place: about 11% of people who have been tested, and test positive, have ended up in the hospital at some point. If we do that for mortality, about two percent of people who have tested positive have ended up deceased. Adjusting for the testing issues, asymptomatic rate, etc., it seems that if everyone were exposed, about .5% would need hospitalization, and .1% would ultimately die.

For the 2017 influenza outbreak, adjusting for the protective effect of the vaccine, about .4% of people who got infected required hospitalization, and 0.03% died. So … COVID19 is 3 or 4 times worse than a bad Influenza from a mortality rate but … the average person is more likely get symptomatically sick from the flu. But if you do get sick with COVID, you’re more likely to end up in the hospital and die. Naturally, that makes taking action harder since many people look around and say “hey, nobody is getting very sick” because so many have mild (or no) symptoms whereas with the flu, lots of people get visibly sick.

Of course, those are whole population statistics. Obviously older people, or those with underlying health issues, are more vulnerable. The discussions over racial disparities are interesting – it seems that if you control for economic disparities, the racial component is greatly diminished. Other recent research is showing a lot of longer term impacts even for asymptomatic people, things like hidden lung and cardiovascular damage. This virus triggers the immune system, which goes on a rampage and does as much damage to your body as the virus itself, to systems that the virus isn’t attacking. That is called an autoimmune response, and is one reason why the 1918 influenza pandemic was so deadly to younger people (who have stronger immune responses).

So what does all that mean? Same as it ever was: mask up when going out, try to limit contacts outside your bubble, good hand hygiene.

In other developments, it seems increasingly possible that immunity to this virus will be limited to some period of time like months or a season, similar to the cold or influenza. That’s bad news – it means that it will come in cycles, and vaccines or immunity protection will be short lived compared to other diseases. It’s good news for the pharmaceutical industry though, since the profits will return every year. The US Government has been pumping billions into developing an vaccine domestically as have been other nations – and both nations and private companies have been undertaking massive espionage efforts to keep up with, steal, and (if rumors are true) even sabotage advances made by others. Which leads to this interesting tidbit from last week:

You may recall that both Russia and China have announced potential vaccines. Well, last Thursday the US slapped sanctions on a variety of Russian and Chinese entities doing vaccine development, including the Russian Health Ministry’s N. F. Gamaleya Federal Research Center for Epidemiology & Microbiology that has developed the “Sputnik V” vaccine. It should be noted that this institute has also developed a MERS vaccine (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which is also a coronavirus), Ebola, and universal Influenza vaccines. The US claims the sanctions are over biological warfare related work of Defense Ministry institutes that Gamaleya works with. But given the close ties between the US DOD, CDC, and US Pharma companies, if other nations used a similar standard no one would do business with the US. Whatever you think of the standards and methodology used in Sputnik V development (and as I argued previously, it’s different, but I suspect no more or less dangerous than the US “warp speed” approach), this smacks of using security excuses to try to kneecap potential economic competitors, and is a reason European countries increasingly distrust the US. The US attempt to buy up the patents and research from a German company that had made advances in vaccine development has also left some bitterness in Europe, as has prior efforts to sabotage the North Stream 2 natural gas project in favor of LNG exports. Before somebody says it, this kind of thing is done by both Democrat and Republic administrations, and in fact the protocols used this time against the Gamaleya Institute were put in place during the Obama era …


Sunday Morning Storm Updates (23 Aug 2020) #Laura and #Marco

TLDR: Marco is still headed towards the Louisiana Coast, where preparations for a hurricane should be underway for a Monday landfall. Laura is traversing Hispaniola, headed for Cuba, and is managing to remain intact, dumping rain and gusty winds across the region today (and the Keys/S. FL/Bahamas tomorrow) . Laura is expected to enter the Gulf follow Marco into the Louisiana coast , and maybe the stronger of the two by that time. Longish post this morning, lots to cover …

First, as always, for the official forecasts the National Hurricane Center’s “Key Messages” are the best place to start:

For those in the potential impact area, this year there is a new twist: the COVID19 pandemic. Here is an excerpt from a post I did at the beginning of hurricane season; you can read the whole thing here:

In a pandemic, you want individuals to severely limit contact with people outside their immediate circle, to avoid spreading the disease.  This is the basic concept behind “social distancing” and limiting travel:  every additional person you come in to close contact with, be it from breathing the same air or touching the same surface, you increase your chances of getting – and spreading – the virus.  This is especially true for travel.  You really don’t want people traveling outside their immediate communities.  Even one person can cause an explosive outbreak, as was seen in the Albany Georgia area.  So you can see how an evacuation is absolutely incompatible with trying to keep a pandemic under control.  Scattering people across the region (and in fact country), traveling by car (which means rest room visits, stopping to eat, and so forth, in multiple locations) staying in crowded shelters or hotels, then bringing them back together a few days or week later, is probably the worst possible thing you could do.

So, what should emergency managers do, and what should the general public do?  My suggestion is to go back to basics.  What is your risk from physical harm?  And for that, we need to go back to the basic rule of thumb with respect to hurricanes: the majority of deaths are from storm surge and inland riverine flooding.  Especially for weaker storms (Cat 1 or 2), wind is not such a direct threat to life if you live in a reasonably well built home (although having a tree fall on your house is terrifying, and potentially deadly, we’re talking about overall statistics here).  So the cardinal rule is “evacuate from water, shelter from wind” with the caveat that for mobile homes, almost any winds above tropical storm strength are potentially deadly, so they need to seek shelter.

If you need to go, go. Take masks with you if you have them (and if not why not?) because shelters will likely run short. Be scrupulous about hygiene. But remember: if you left a vulnerable location, the risk from the storm far outweighs the risk of COVID.

So where do things stand this morning? Here’s the latest (just before 7am ET) IR satellite image. Cold cloud tops(reds/blacks) indicate stronger convection.

Click to embiggen …

NHC’s thinking at the moment is that the wind shear over Marco will relax a bit and allow it to become a hurricane later today. But conditions are less favorable tomorrow, near landfall, so it is a tricky forecast. Either way, plan for a hurricane, expect (hope) for a small tropical storm. As for Laura, it is growing in size if not in intensity, but given the size, that is allowing it to traverse the otherwise damaging high mountains of Hispaniola intact. It will likely also make it past Cuba as a storm, and conditions are forecast to be favorable one it reaches the gulf. Here are two snapshots, at 9am tomorrow, and at 5pm on the 26th (Wednesday) from an animation test.

Marco, 9am Monday, just off of the Delta (Laura over Cuba, still a minimal tropical storm)
Laura, 5pm Wednesday

The tracks are a bit more offset than last night. But that’s really just noise because while we are pretty sure both storms ill make landfall somewhere between Pensacola and Houston (which is pretty amazing given the complexity of the situation), the details are beyond the state of the art.

Why Louisiana? It’s really simple – there is a big high pressure ridge just over Bermuda that extends across the Southeast. That is pushing Laura to the west. There is a “weak” area over the Gulf where the winds are turning north – that is where Marco is today. So both storms are in the same steering environment, and will therefore end up in roughly the same place … here’s the winds at about 5000 feet above ground, from the GFS model, for 8am this morning:

Click for the details

The “where” question for both storms seems fairly straightforward (although Laura might well end up in Texas), the “how bad” remains to be seen. If they do end up in the same area of Louisiana, the rain flooding could be pretty bad as the rains from Marco won’t have time to drain out before Laura arrives. The next three days will likely be a series of ups and downs as the intensity and exact tracks resolve.

By the way, in the Pacific, Typhoon Bavi is forecast to become a major hurricane over the next two days. At first it looked like it was going to cause major damage to South Korea, but now seem it will skirt the west coast and travel up the Yellow Sea before hitting North Korea, where it will likely inflict significant damage. The major citiy of Inch’on, the capital Seoul in South Korea, and Namp’o and the capital P’yongyang are all in the potential swath of tropical storm force winds. Let’s hope this does not destabilize an already unstable situation; the PDRK sometimes lashes out after natural disasters to get more aid and distract from internal problems.

The Five “V”s (Mon 17 Aug Overview)

Lots going on today in Doomwatch. We’re entering the core of the Northern Hemisphere hurricane season and there are a couple storms to look at, and two on the horizon that might make news this week, no major earthquakes, some geopolitical risks (two of the “V”‘s), and a Pandemic update. Here’s the details …

Vortexes (Hurricanes): In the Atlantic Kyle is no more, and Josephine is breaking up. There are two strong tropical waves, only one shows up in the “TC Vitals” files as of 6am ET and has active major tracking models, with the temporary ID AL97. Current guidance has it crossing the Windward islands as a depression before crossing the Caribbean and perhaps long range hitting Yucatan or entering the Gulf. NHC gives it a 50/50 chance of spinning up, the Caribbean Islands should be watching, nothing to worry about elsewhere for a few days. Further east, off of Africa, is another system NHC has tagged at 60%. In the East Pacific, several of the models show Tropical Storm Genevive undergoing rapid intensification over the next two days, jumping from a tropical storm to major hurricane. While not a direct threat to land at the moment, GFS shows it weakening but getting dangerously close to Baja. The Mexican coast definitely needs to be ready for high waves, and maybe some winds as it blows by. Likewise, in the West Pacific, WP99, while presently a weak subtropical storm, is forecast to explode in intensity as it enters the South China Sea before striking southern China and northern Vietnam. No official forecast yet, but worth keeping an eye on for interests in that area.

Vibrations (Earthquakes): Scary quiet. A few scattered events, none causing significant damage. Won’t stay that way of course, but we can’t forecast earthquakes yet.

Voting (geopolitics1): The first geopolitical issue I’d like to say at least a couple of words about is voting by mail. As usual it is fascinating/depressing how issues play out here in the US, with both sides being both right and wrong, and the reasonable middle shouted down and marginalized. Of course people have used absentee voting by mail for decades – I’ve done it myself while in school or out of the country “on government service.” With proper preparation, there isn’t really any reason it can’t be done securely. But for most states, having a few thousands, even 10’s of thousands, of absentee mail votes is a very different thing logistically and from a security standpoint than having to deal with millions, even the the entire balloting system, done by mail. The vast majority of the local jurisdictions (counties) that will have to deal with it aren’t prepared, don’t have the money to do it, and at least half the country doesn’t want to do it both for practical and political (they think it will hurt them) reasons. Both parties have been trying to put their fingers on the scales as this issue comes to a head with the pandemic, rather than deal with it rationally. Either way, it will be a goat rope.

Violence (geopolitics2): I’m seeing some scary signs that a couple of global players are gearing up to take radical action depending on which way the US election goes (Trump, Biden, or chaos). We’re already seeing some opening salvos, as an unknown party (ok, it’s the US and Israel, with likely help from the Gulf States) are taking advantage of Iran’s weakness over the pandemic (they have been hit extremely hard) and fears over a less confrontational policy if Biden wins to start striking various Iranian nuclear facilities. The geopolitical shift last week of the UAE and Israel striking a series of deals was earthshaking – if you haven’t been paying attention for the last 30 years. The Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, have been working with Israel for decades. This just codifies and makes public what has been the realty for some time: a Jewish/Sunni alliance against the Shiites (Arab vs Persians, lots of cultural and religious divides here beyond the arbitrary national boundaries a couple of English and French dudes literally sketched on a napkin in 1916). It’s not earthshaking (enemy of my enemy is my friend argument), but the public announcement perhaps is part of the groundwork to confront Iran more openly.

Virus(Pandemic): Various researchers (including Enki way back in April) have been saying for some time there were signs the “excess mortality” from COVID-19 was much higher than the reported deaths. CDC has started becoming more public in their statements on this issue as the research has solidified. What do we mean by “excess deaths?” This year significantly more people are dying, especially from pneumonia like illnesses, than we expect based on historical statistics. The logical explanation is COVID, since the more people we test, the more we find have it (and we cant can’t test as many as we should). Of course there could be another virus out there that acts similar to the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID19 and has managed to go undetected, but that’s not likely.

As said many times, COVID is scary and bad enough to need us to take action, but not so “people dropping in the street” bad that it’s obvious. And like everything else in this benighted land it is convolved in partisan politics and the “culture wars” (that are in reality just a manifestation of party manipulation IMNSHO). With schools reopening in some areas, fatigue setting in, a third of the population scared and over-reacting, a third dismissive and irresponsible, and a third just confused, the slow burn is likely to continue.

Vaccines (Pandemic): huh. Guess there are six “V”‘s. Lots written in the US media, virtually all skeptical and much of it snarky, about the Russian announcement of a COVID vaccine going in to wide scale production and distribution. As usual, much of the coverage is based on biased or bad translations of original sources. A couple of things I haven’t seen seriously discussed in these reports. First, Russia has been working on vaccines for related viruses for at least a decade. Second, there has been a variety of testing and human trials in the military since at least June. So while Russia isn’t doing things the way we do here with distinct phases (trails), and perhaps taking chances we wouldn’t (I think it’s unfair to call them shortcuts), that doesn’t mean they are being unreasonable or irresponsible in context. Is politics involved? Of course. But in the US the race for a vaccine is involving politics and enormous amounts of money, maneuvering, and lobbying, so hard to say it’s so different.

So that’s the big picture this Monday morning. Try to stay safe (wear a mask when outside your home).

Doomwatch, 20 July 2020 (Tropics and Pandemic)

There are a couple of weak tropical systems that the US National Hurricane Center is watching in the Atlantic and East Pacific, but nothing in the West Pacific this morning.   Here’s the view from GOES East of the Atlantic:

The only actual system (EP072020, East Pacific TD#7) is in the shadows as of 10am, off the Pacific Coast of Mexico, no threat to land.  The two “watch areas” have low formation probabilities; the mid-Atlantic invest area (AL99) perhaps a bit more, but still low over the next 5 days at 20%.  If you just need a spaghetti map, here’s an early look using the shallow (TABS) and mid level (TABM) steering currents, as well as some statistical models.

In viral doom, the data hasn’t really shifted that much over the last few days – as previously ranted, pandemics move slowly, with time scales in weeks.  Since we’re coming off a weekend and the data is catching up from that, I won’t post a plot, but the trends haven’t really changed much.  The precentage of people testing positive per test (the positivity ratio) as well as raw total positive patients showing up for treatment are still increasing far faster than anybody wants to see, mortality is up, not as much as the pessimistic predictions but worse than the optimistic scenarios.  Despite the Sturm und Drang, political posturing, and cultural gamesmanship, it is increasingly clear that masks outside the home are probably the best tool we have right now, especially if we want to resume something like normal lives.  So please just do it.

Mad dogs and Georgians going out in the midday sun …

Apologies to Noel Coward, but it works on so many levels.  The tropics are quiet, and there haven’t been any major earthquakes.  It would be great to discuss the “La Nina Watch” that long range forecasters have put out as well as some other climate research. There is cat business to report as well. But the US is increasingly in crisis, and a rant about Georgia’s response to the pandemic is required.  Long time readers will realize this isn’t political: to be clear, both dominant parties in the US utterly disgust me.  Both are acting irresponsibly with respect to the COVID-19 response. Of course individual politicians on both sides care. They aren’t stupid.  Partisans on both sides using inflammatory language to describe the other aren’t helping the situation.  But Politicians are so focused on proving the other side wrong, and not being wrong themselves, they can’t see through to doing the right thing.  And as a long time student of how societies function in response to stress and disasters (or, more often, don’t function), I’m increasingly concerned they are setting up American society for a major catastrophe.

To try to boil it down to the essentials, the US financial system is on the verge of collapse.  Forget the casino (aka Stock Market) – that has been disconnected from the real economy for a long time.  Small businesses, especially service type businesses, are defaulting on leases and mortgages at historical rates.  Economic activity is crashing, and the underfunded, short term band-aids like PPP are running out.  And money flow through the economy is declining.  Take one small indicator: the rate of approval of small business loans.  Institutional lenders were approving 66.5% of loan applications in February.   By April that was down to 18.1% – and the number of applications was a fraction of the amount two months earlier.  Banks are setting up huge reserves to prepare for loan defaults.  It’s an insidious catch-22: banks are reluctant to loan money that can keep a business going and recover because they are afraid that existing loans are going to default.  This is part of the circular firing squad is in play in the property markets: businesses can’t pay rent to property “owners” who really don’t own those properties; they need the rental income to pay their mortgages to the banks.  Who used those assets and and income in further complex financial instruments within the capital markets.  This is called leveraging.  So that small business going under and defaulting on $1000 of rent has the potential to unravel millions of dollars of related financial activity.  Throw in the social unrest and move to address some long ignored social fault lines, it’s a toxic mix.  People are scared.  They should be.

On top of all that, there is no doubt the spread of the virus is out of control.

What does that have to do with Georgia?  Everything.  We have a politically inspired catch-22 in play.  Republicans are focused on getting the economy back in operation, and demonstrating they are properly running their states (and via Trump the country).  Democrats are focused on the public health aspects, and demonstrating the Republicans are incompetent and should be replaced.  Each are playing power games and trying undermining the other, and are so focused on their own agendas they are ignoring the correct (in context) concerns of the other.

Enter the Governor of Georgia.  Yesterday Kemp issued an executive order that is one of the more irrational pieces of stupidity to come out of this episode – and that’s saying a lot.  The key bit of insanity is on page 32 that overrides any requirement for face masks put in place by cities and counties.  We’ve learned a lot about how the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 spreads. The initial fears about surface spread,  airborne transmission,  and so forth, have proved overblown. It is fairly clear now that the vast majority of spread is by droplets expelled during breathing/talking/sneezing/coughing.  Masks – even simple cloth masks – work.  Period.  In this report (link) …

In May, two hairstylists at a Missouri salon who had COVID-19 but wore face masks cut the hair of 139 masked customers for roughly a week, and did not infect a single client. They also did not infect any of the clients’ contacts or any of the other stylists in the salon, researchers report.

Yes, the order “encourages” the use of masks, but elsewhere it does a lot to undercut that message.  If Kemp really wants to get Georgia back to work and school, it’s simple: require everyone leaving their home to wear a mask.  Undermining that concept is irresponsible.  

In the “equal time equal stupidity” department, some states such as California are putting “shelter in place” restrictions and shutting down businesses again.  This, too, is irresponsible.  In the first place lockdowns won’t work at this point. The California Republic doesn’t live in a vacuum.  As soon as the orders are lifted, the virus lurking in neighboring states will come back and they will be right back where they started.  In a viral outbreak, you use a lockdown to stop the immediate spread, and use the time to put in to place the public health measures to control it – things like contact tracing, testing, research to figure out how to deal with it when you reopen.  Shutdowns only work if a) everybody does it, and b) you use the time wisely.  In the US neither happened.  So doing it again just won’t work and, now we just can’t afford it.  Another wide shutdown risks collapsing the economy (and its going to be damn hard to prevent that anyway).

During the Revolutionary War, Ben Franklin famously said “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”   To hang together in this crisis we all have to wear masks (to stop the virus), and we have to restart business and school (to save the economy).  Doing the first allows the second.  Doing one or the other in isolation won’t work – and will make things worse.

Georgia COVID deaths: the critical week ahead

Before we revisit the mortality projections, let’s take a look at the big picture. As I have said many times, each disaster has its progression in time.  Earthquakes are measured in seconds, hurricanes in hours to days, pandemics in weeks (and foreign policy or environmental disasters often in years to decades from their roots).  For example, while it might seem longer, the sharp rise in positive test ratios (again, not an increase in the number of tests, but the percentage of those tests coming back positive) in states like Florida, Arizona, Louisiana, South Carolina, and to a lesser extent Georgia, began about 20 days ago.  If the pandemic follows the experiences in the Northeast and Europe, the upcoming 10 days will see a significant increase in mortality across these states.

Georgia is an interesting case.  If the data can be trusted (and I’m somewhat skeptical), Georgia was in a “slow burn” both during the “shutdown” (which was a bit porous), then opened earlier than other states.  Georgia’s mortality “curve” was not as flat as other states, but the increase in positives and hospitalizations has not been as sharp either.  Here is what the curves for positives looks like (again, we don’t have a good “case” count because of all the asymptomatic cases and lack of comprehensive, random testing):

And here are the mortality curves (remembering these tend to lag 20 to 30 days behind the positive curves):

If you blend in all of the various data (positivity rates,hospitalization rates, mortality rates, complications among those who have recovered, and so forth), what we are seeing is a mixed picture.

So let’s revisit the graph from about a week ago, with the forecast for deaths in Georgia.  I’ve added two other lines.  The first is an optimistic projection, in yellow.  While I never saw advocates of that position put their forecasts in to hard numbers, I used their stated assumptions (that the vast majority of new positives were among young people, and their mortality rates were uniformly lower based on the early mortality data among those groups).  The second new line, in green, is the pessimistic assumption, that the observed rates will persist as the virus expands into a younger population with only marginal improvements.  The orange line is the “balanced” projection based on the May 30th data and trends, the blue line are the reported deaths.

To state the obvious, the pessimistic line is way off.  Clearly improvements in treatment, as well as the increasingly younger patients showing up in the hospitals, has meant the mortality rate has come down.  Yet, not as much as the optimists (the yellow line) were arguing/hoping.  The “balanced” projection is doing better, but is still high, although the divergent trend in the last couple days might be due to the weekend.  The upcoming week is critical both from a policy standpoint as well as seeing into the future, as we see how the increase in positive tests 20 days ago (and increasing hospitalizations) translate into mortality.  Will it stay in that middle ground, increase, or decrease?  We should know in about 10 days (weekends screw up the data in Georgia and many other states due to reporting issues).

So what does that all mean?  From a personal action standpoint, not much.  Get a mask and wear it properly in the appropriate situations – inside with people outside your family, outside where close contact (less than six feet or so) is unavoidable. Keep in mind masks do you some good – but mostly prevent you from spreading if you have it – and remember you might be and not know it.  Use good hand hygiene.  If you think you might be sick stay home.   The same stuff that has been said for weeks.

From a societal standpoint it’s complicated.  Because the COVID19 data is mixed, and it’s not either an “in your face” catastrophe or an equally obvious “nothingburger”, it makes it easy for partisans to argue either way and pretend their policy options are “right.”  Compromise is essential – but sadly that doesn’t seem to be in the short term political interests of either side trying to create advantage for the upcoming election.  In my opinion reimposing shelter in place orders is not practical and is causing more damage than good.  The reason is that unless you enforce it uniformly across the country, there will always be brewing pockets ready to spread as soon as you release the restrictions.  The only way to beat this thing is by personal responsibility and encouraging, even mandating it, but figuring out a way to do it that without damaging our increasingly fragile civil rights.  What about schools?  That’s a really hard one. I think it is important to restart in-person instruction – most independent studies show virtual instruction just isn’t as effective as in-person classes.  But I don’t see how you can do it unless students are required to wear masks and aggressive steps taken to protect staff.  Ideally classes would be kept together, which is practical with elementary school but increasingly problematic in the upper grades.  It’s a hard problem, and public health and educators need to be working in close cooperation to figure out creative solutions.

In short, everyone needs to be reasonable and try to solve this rather than score points. You’re not being a sheeple to wear a mask and being careful; likewise, it’s not heartless to say we need to try to get our economic, educational, and social lives back to normal.  Balance.

Georgia 21 Day COVID-19 Death Forecasts

Nothing much going on in the tropics (couple of suspect areas off the west coast of Mexico), no recent earthquakes, so let’s take a closer look at Georgia COVID-19 fatality numbers, and how to to use them to get a look into the future.  Yes, there will be math! And an equation!!

I’m really tired of hearing people say “the spike is because of testing” or  “the fatality rates are dropping!” implying that things are not headed the wrong way. Well, the rates are dropping are a little, but that’s not helping as much as you might think.  Lets look at the ratio of people dying to new positives. That’s OK in concept, but most people doing those graphs are failing to account for how the disease progresses.  On average, it is three weeks between someone testing positive and the date they expire (and exposure to expiration time lag is probably more like 4 weeks).  If you don’t take in to account that 21 day time lag, you can reach a wrong and dangerous conclusion.  Here is what the wrong calculation (just taking the deaths and dividing by positives) ratio, and a much better calculation (taking in to account the three week delay) looks like if we plot it.  Orange is the 21 day lag ratio, and blue is the “wrong” way that is duping people …

So, yes, better treatment and more younger people catching this is probably improving survival rates.  But it’s not as dramatic as the proponents of that view suggest.  The proof, of course, is in the prediction.  Let’s go back in time to the days of yore, May 30th.  At that time the lag21 Positive Fatality Ratio was 6.111%.  It had been slowly dropping, so we compute the trend and end up with an equation that looks like this:

Forecast = (0.0611-days_since_may_30th*(delPFR – K*days_since_may_30th)*L21P
— where:
delPFR:  the change in Positive Fatality Ratio as of May 30th (2.8e-4)
K: constant to adjust for improving survival rates (calculated over 1 to 30 May, 9.2e-7)
L21P:  the number of positive tests 21 days before the date you are trying to forecast

so with this equation, we can forecast up to 21 days in the future.  It’s a very simple model (we have more sophisticated ones), but is easy to explain and only uses reported information.  How did it work, and what does it show for the next three weeks?  Here’s that plot …

Yesterday the reported deaths were 2849.  On June 11th, three weeks ago, the prediction for yesterday was 2913, only a 2.25% error.  Properly using simple tools, we can do a pretty good forecast out three weeks into the future.  It has worked reliably over the last month, so we can expect it will continue to work well unless something dramatic changes, which is pretty amazing, isn’t it?  I mean, except for the fact it is showing that because a bunch of morons aren’t taking all this seriously, and doing very simple things like wearing a mask in congested places, etc., it is very possible that almost as many people will die over the next three weeks than died over the last three months.  And we can’t do much about it because it depends on what we did in the past, and even if everybody changes their behavior today, it will take weeks for it to show up in the statistics. But aside from that, isn’t math great?  Sigh.