COVID lockdown zealots are having their second moment in the sun. In the UK, Boris Johnson wants to introduce “COVID marshals” to track people’s whereabouts and report violations in social distancing. In the United States, rushed reporting on the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally led to large amounts of finger-wagging and moralizing. Even worse, some states are trying contact tracing apps yet again despite working in no other (much smaller) country in the world
Rushed reporting predictably leads to bad reporting that is politically motivated.
Here’s what we were told: An August motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, helped spread COVID-19 to more than a quarter-million Americans, making it the root of about 20 percent of all new coronavirus cases in the U.S. last month. So said a new white paper from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, at least. And national news outlets ran with it. “Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was ‘superspreading event’ that cost public health $12.2 billion,” tweeted The Hill. “The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held in South Dakota last month may have caused 250,000 new coronavirus cases,” said NBC News. “The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally represents a situation where many of the ‘worst-case scenarios’ for superspreading occurred simultaneously,” the researchers write in the new paper, titled “The Contagion Externality of a Superspreading Event: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and COVID-19.” Not so fast. Let’s take a look at what they actually tracked and what’s mere speculation. According to South Dakota health officials, 124 new cases in the state—including one fatal case—were directly linked to the rally. Overall, COVID-19 cases linked to the Sturgis rally were reported in 11 states as of September 2, to a tune of at least 260 new cases, according to The Washington Post. There very well may be more cases that have been linked to the early August event, but so far, that’s only 260 confirmed cases—about 0.1 percent of the number the IZA paper offers. To get to the astronomical number of cases allegedly spread because of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the researchers analyzed “anonymized cellphone data to track the smartphone pings from non-residents and movement of those before and after the event,” notes Newsweek. “The study then linked those who attended and traveled back to their home states, and compared changes in coronavirus trends after the rally’s conclusion.”
Whoops! Don’t worry, I will be moralizing my position of authority tomorrow.
Houston-area health authorities are overstating the number of new Covid-19 cases as data teams struggle to work through a backlog of old test results in the third-largest U.S. county.
On an almost daily basis, Harris County Public Health releases a tally of what it calls “new cases” that a Bloomberg analysis found includes hundreds of diagnoses that are weeks or months old. On Tuesday, for example, more than 70% of the new cases disclosed actually were detected prior to this month and some dated as far back as June. The confusion means authorities may be exaggerating the current severity of the outbreak — and were unknowingly understating the extent of the crisis in June and July, when hospitals were stretched to their limits. The situation also highlights the dilemma facing political leaders imposing mask mandates and other restrictions based on what they presume is accurate, timely data. Texas Governor Greg Abbott signaled he may relax some anti-virus restrictions as soon as this week. The Republican leader was widely blamed for fanning a resurgence in the outbreak when he reopened the economy in May, only to reverse himself before the end of June. Meanwhile, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner extended the ban on parades, festivals and 5K runs through the end of the year, although limited-capacity events such as the symphony and football tailgate parties will be allowed.
“Mistrust of technology has hobbled what looked like a promising innovation”. Probability they performed user research – zero.
As COVID-19 spread across the United States this spring, Jodie Pond, the health director in Teton County, Wyoming, looked forward to deploying a new weapon against the pandemic. Technologists were racing to create apps that would quickly and quietly identify people who had been close to others who were infected. This process of “contact tracing” was traditionally an arduous manual task: Contacting the infected person, retracing their steps over the previous days, and identifying anyone who may have been nearby. That was nothing new for local health officials like Pond. But Covid-19 meant contact tracing on a larger scale larger than ever. So the brightest minds of Silicon Valley proposed to harness the power of the smartphones we carry with us each day to identify potentially exposed people automatically. To Pond, that plan looked especially useful. Teton County has 25,000 residents spread across an area twice the size of Delaware. But it also sits on the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park and attracts about 40,000 people a day from elsewhere during the summer. A smartphone app would help her small team of contact tracers find people exposed to the virus more quickly. Soon, though, Pond realized it would not be that easy. She initially chose an app developed by MIT researchers that relied on GPS signals to track people’s whereabouts. But it wasn’t accurate enough to identify who else they may have exposed. So in July, when Covid-19 cases in the county spiked, Pond’s small department traced contacts manually and individually. “We were completely overrun from a contact-tracing capability,” she says. “We didn’t think we would get the lid on.” She hired more tracers and made some calls herself on weekends. The county imposed a local mask order—the only one in the state—and her office worked to arrange more testing at the local hospital. The surge died down.
After a billion dollar lawsuit, lockdown New York is easing.
New York City got the governor’s green light to partly resume indoor dining in three weeks, offering a lifeline to thousands of restaurants battered by the coronavirus and marking a milestone in the city’s slow crawl back to normalcy.Restaurant owners in New York, an early epicenter of the U.S. epidemic, have been clamoring for an end to the indoor dining ban that was imposed in March as part of a series of lockdown measures to control the fast-spreading virus. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had previously expressed worries that lifting the ban could lead to a resurgence of the virus, announced at a news briefing that indoor dining could resume at 25% capacity beginning on Sept. 30. New York prides itself as one of the world’s culinary capitals, with a dining scene that runs the gamut from Michelin-star restaurants to homespun delis. It also acts as both a pillar of economic activity and a sounding board for city life. The coronavirus outbreak in March and April delivered a devastating blow, with the city accounting for a large share of the state’s initial infections and deaths from the COVID-19 disease associated with the virus. The resulting lockdowns led to widespread worries that many of the city’s restaurants would either not survive or emerge with a considerably smaller footprint. “I was kind of worried it was not going to happen,” said Giovanni Gelfini, owner of Santa Panza, a restaurant in Brooklyn. “Twenty-five percent is not that much, but it’s something where you can do some math and know, more or less, how many customers you can have every day.” There will be a number of restrictions, including mandatory temperature checks at entrances and collecting of information from one member of each party for contact tracing should there be a COVID-19 outbreak originating in a restaurant. The state also will establish a whistleblowing system whereby patrons can anonymously report restaurants not in compliance by sending a text, Cuomo said.
The original report on the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Large in-person gatherings without social distancing and with individuals who have traveled outside the local area are classified as the “highest risk” for COVID-19 spread by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Between August 7 and August 16, 2020, nearly 500,000 motorcycle enthusiasts converged on Sturgis, South Dakota for its annual motorcycle rally. Large crowds, coupled with minimal mask-wearing and social distancing by attendees, raised concerns that this event could serve as a COVID-19 “super-spreader.” This study is the first to explore the impact of this event on social distancing and the spread of COVID-19.
First, using anonymized cell phone data from SafeGraph, Inc. we document that smartphone pings from non-residents, and foot traffic at restaurants and bars, retail establishments, entertainment venues, hotels and campgrounds each rose substantially in the census block groups hosting Sturgis rally events. Stay-at-home behavior among local residents, as measured by median hours spent at home, fell. Second, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a synthetic control approach, we show that by September 2, a month following the onset of the Rally, COVID-19 cases increased by approximately 6 to 7 cases per
1,000 population in its home county of Meade. Finally, difference-in-differences (dose response) estimates show that following the Sturgis event, counties that contributed the highest inflows of rally attendees experienced a 7.0 to 12.5 percent increase in COVID-19 cases relative to counties that did not contribute inflows. Descriptive evidence suggests these effects may be muted in states with stricter mitigation policies (i.e., restrictions on bar/restaurant openings, mask-wearing mandates). We conclude that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally generated public health costs of approximately $12.2 billion.
Researchers from Cambridge find that lockdowns were a resounding negative ROI.
This paper analyses the costs and benefits of lockdown policies in the face of COVID-19. What matters for people is the quality and length of lives and one should measure costs and benefits in terms of those things. That raises difficulties in measurement, particularly in valuing potential lives saved. We draw upon guidelines used in the UK for public health decisions, as well as other measures, which allow a comparison between health effects and other economic effects. We look at evidence on the effectiveness of past severe restrictions applied in European countries, focusing on the evidence from the UK. The paper considers policy options for the degree to which restrictions are eased. There is a need to normalise how we view COVID because its costs and risks are comparable to other health problems (such as cancer, heart
problems, diabetes) where governments have made resource decisions for decades. The lockdown is a public health policy and we have valued its impact using the tools that guide health care decisions in the UK public health system. The evidence suggests that the costs of continuing severe restrictions in the UK are large relative to likely benefits so that a substantial
easing in general restrictions in favour of more targeted measures is warranted. “This is a big thing, to name the numbers,” said Dizhi Marlow, a spokeswoman for Harris County Public Health. “We don’t want to give people a false sense of the increase.”
Less than half of the stimulus money was spent; a third is stimulating a savings account.
Despite a notable rise in COVID-19 cases,hospital admissions are at their lowest point. Narrative violation!
Israel did everything the experts said but everything still went wrong.
The Australian lockdown nightmare continues.
It was the image that shocked Australia and soon went global. A pregnant woman, handcuffed in her own kitchen, in front of her children, as police officers seized every computer, tablet and cell phone in the house before frog-marching her off to the station. It’s the treatment that Australians are used to seeing meted out to drug traffickers, suspected terrorists and child pornography rings. But in Zoe Lee Buhler’s case, her ‘crime’ was a Facebook post. Zoe had tried to organise a protest against coronavirus restrictions in place in the state of Victoria. For this, she was charged with ‘incitement,’ and now faces a sentence of up to 15 years. She has been released on bail, and will go to court in January. The most remarkable thing, though, is it’s taken until now for some sort of protest movement to emerge. Melbourne—Victoria’s capital city—has been under some form of lockdown since March. When the coronavirus first hit, the premiers governing Australia’s eight states and territories descended into a kind of unspoken competition to see who could take the ‘toughest action’ against the virus—that is, which leader could close the most businesses, destroy the most jobs, and stifle the most liberties in the name of being seen to be ‘doing something’ about the virus. It was a contest that hard-left Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews won by a mile. Almost six months later, Melbourne is still under what is by far the strictest lockdown in Australia, and probably the world. At time of writing, a city-wide curfew applies between 8pm and 5am. Melburnians are permitted to leave the house for exercise for an hour a day and in groups of no more than two. You’re allowed to go out to get food as well, but only by yourself, and only once a day. The increasingly few people with jobs must carry a government-issued permit indicating that they’re allowed to go to work—and even then only if your job is deemed ‘essential’.
The BBC reports on the “case-demic” in the UK.
Officials are clearly alarmed by the latest rise in coronavirus cases. Newly diagnosed cases have topped 2,000 for the past three days. The average rate of new infections is now four times higher than it was in mid-July. But is the rise in cases quite as sharp as it looks? Here are five things to consider before hitting the panic button. The confirmed cases chart is one we have all got used to. It shows the number of positive Covid-19 tests a day. In April, there were days when 6,000 new cases a day were recorded, so the level of infections in the past few days appears to be some way towards that peak. But at the start of the pandemic, the UK was only largely able to test hospital patients. There was limited testing capacity. This targeted testing meant infections in the community were completely missed, whereas now we have mass testing in the community. It means if we compare numbers now to numbers during the peak, we are essentially comparing apples with pears. Estimates from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggest there may have been as many as 100,000 cases a day at the end of March. Mass testing in the community only started in the second half of May. Clearly not all cases are now being picked up, although the surveillance programme run by the Office for National Statistics suggests a large proportion are, whereas earlier in the pandemic maybe only 5% of cases were being detected. So while cases may be rising, the level of infection being seen is still very low compared with the peak. Even after mass testing was launched, the number of tests carried out on a daily and weekly basis has still been increasing. This is because more testing centres have opened and lab capacity to process the tests has increased. It means we are able to look more closely for virus circulating in the community than we were when mass testing first started.
Once power and permission is given, it is hard to take it away.
In March, amid an uncontrolled outbreak of global panic related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Israeli government sprung into action, tasking the Shin Bet, the nation’s premier internal intelligence agency, with the role of implementing a world-class contact tracing regime. The Shin Bet, best known for having one of the most sophisticated counterterrorism platforms in the world, is now leveraging its terrorist-hunting, technological prowess to hunt down a different enemy: a submicroscopic super infectious particle.Israel’s contact tracing program had at first met some questions about its role in authorizing what amounts to a total surveillance state. After all, there is a bit of a difference between your average citizen and a jihadi terrorist, but Israelis maintain a high level of confidence in their government institutions, and thus, the program has been continually reauthorized without much scrutiny under the belief that it is working to “stop the spread.” The Israel Democracy Institute has placed the program’s measures almost on par with China’s permanent surveillance state. However, China has largely downgraded the coronavirus as a serious threat, and appears to be out of the business of attempting to contain the virus. The Israeli contact tracing program uses both GPS monitoring and a cell phone’s Bluetooth technology (in addition to whatever classified military-grade technology that is being utilized) to track citizens who test positive for the virus or those who were potentially in contact with infected COVID-19 positive individuals. People who are determined to be in “contact” with a carrier of the virus are mandated by law to home-quarantine for at least 14 days. Their movements are tracked, and rule breakers are subject to fines and other penalties. The contact tracing regime was paused temporarily halted due to privacy concerns, but renewed shortly thereafter after the Israeli parliament reauthorized it under a new law.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is assembling an army of COVID Karens to annoy us all to end COVID-19.
An army of “COVID marshals” will police new social-distancing rules across England as Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled a raft of new measures to combat a rapid rise in coronavirus cases. From Monday the public will face arrest if they gather outside or inside in groups of more than six, Johnson said in his first public coronavirus briefing in six weeks. Rules were relaxed in July to allow friends and family to congregate in groups of up to 30. “We will boost the enforcement capacity of local authorities by introducing COVID-secure marshals to help ensure social distancing in town and city centers,” Johnson said making it law that bars and restaurants record the contact details of customers.“In future, premises where people meet socially will be legally required to request the contact details of a member of every party, and record and retain these details for 21 days.” The government has been forced to act because of a sudden increase in new coronavirus cases in recent days. In April 6,000 new cases were recorded per day, but this dropped to well below 1,000 in June. Newly diagnosed cases have risen beyond 2,000 for the past three days , according to data from the Department of Health and Social Care. “The reason that we’re doing this,” the prime minister said, speaking of the new measures, “is to prevent another wholesale national lockdown of the kind that we had in March.” Spain, France and Germany have been battling to avoid a second wave, and the U.K. is hoping these swift and strict new rules will stop the spread of the virus. Experts in the U.S. have been following developments in Europe closely.
At Rational Ground, we recently published an Op-Ed by Dr. John Littell on the pandemic of mistrust afflicting the country.