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Don Rogers: COVID models fail as gospel

Don Rogers

Reality did not match the modeling of the pandemic’s potential almost from the start. Still, public health officials and political leaders made panicky pronouncements as if the worst-case scenarios were what was absolutely going to happen, and a lot of people were spooked.

But outbreak hotspots from Wuhan to Lombardy to New York all peaked and bent along the same arc and far shallower than those scary models.

The now infamous Imperial model forecast 2.2 million deaths in the United States alone. The Centers for Disease Control’s worst case was 1.7 million. Too many experts who should have known better took these as gospel instead of guides.

I got some hate mail myself for pointing out that the facts on the ground were not tracking this way. But observation of empirical evidence is at least as scientific as hypothetical models, which after all are no more than educated guesses, even with all the impressive math.

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Daily cases as measured by countries around the world have tended to peak between a cumulative 1 and 3 confirmed cases per 1,000 before leveling and beginning to drop.

This has been especially so in Europe and the United States, where methods of counting vary less widely than other places. We can rely on more transparency from the Western democracies than, say, China or Iran, or on nations less able to count accurately, like India and throughout the Middle East and Africa.

South Korea, which never locked down, flattened the curve at around half the cases per million at peak. Their methods of surveillance and focusing on infection clusters proved effective. They tested more than most countries early on, as well, though that still came to only half of a percent of their total population.

In Europe, I’ve watched the Nordic countries closer than most because Sweden never locked down as its neighbors did. Yet Sweden’s peak of daily cases came roughly at the same rate — around 1 to 1.5 confirmed cases per 1,000 people — as Denmark and Norway. All appear to be on the back side of the contagion curve, and dropping.

The United States might be the most interesting of all. Our country of 330 million souls is vast, and the states took different approaches and timing with their lockdowns. As they will with opening things up again.

Overall, though, at around 1.3 confirmed cases per 1,000 people nationwide, we reached peak and have shown a slow, slow decline since. This takes in New York City and New Jersey, which have accounted for nearly half the U.S. cases and deaths, as well as California, which sheltered in place as a state around the same time and has only recorded a seventh of New York’s cases and a 14th of the deaths. So far.

As I write, by the way, it’s not clear that our state, at 0.9 cumulative cases per 1,000 people, has reached peak. This week, the daily numbers began growing anew, mainly in Southern California. San Francisco, which locked down before confirming a single case, is running at that range of 1.3-1.4 per 1,000 people, highest in the state until this week when Los Angeles took the lead at a cumulative 1.5.

As restive conservatives keep pointing out, deaths in the United States indeed do appear on track for a toll much like a bad flu year, though probably less — maybe much less — than the 100,000 killed in the Asian flu in 1958 or the 100,000 toll in the Hong Kong flu a decade later.

WHAT LESSONS?

If this is not the pandemic we were promised, thank God. But what lessons do we draw? Sowing terror based on a mathematical model is unlikely to work next time, even as second wave fears and forecasts begin to surface, based on yes, more models.

Reckless protests of lockdowns are at least partly a consequence of Chicken Little policies imbued with the notion that it’s better to scare the populous into sheltering and social distancing than to treat us as grownups.

And maybe in larger part, partisan politics have become a contagion of their own, even a form of mental illness, that infects our ability to properly understand this disease.

I tend to believe that public health officials and some governors were spooked rather than lying. After all, erring on the side of safety while cases spike is only prudent. As is wearing your mask, sheltering at home, keeping your distance, worrying about the economy later.

Pandemics pass, work returns. That’s empirical, too.

But after believing models as the inevitable reality proves false, will that break our trust next time? That’s my concern.

The intent of modeling is not to be taken as Scripture, ordained. Scientism — ironically making a faith out of a falsifiable method of study — is not so far from rejecting the insights of science altogether. Panic helps us no more than dismissing this pandemic as no more than the flu.

BODIES PILE UP

Empirical evidence also shows the outbreak indeed overwhelmed medical facilities where it struck hardest, whether nursing homes in Seattle, slaughterhouses in the Midwest, or New York City. COVID-19’s death rate since the pandemic struck has been running at more than six times the toll of influenza in the same period. Sorry, that’s no model, just fact.

Gotham has taken to freezing bodies after the morgues and hospital storage lockers filled to overflowing. In other words, it’s not the total number of deaths, which at around 15,000 as I write will wind up a tiny fraction of the 20 million or so who live in the New York metropolitan area. It’s how fast those bodies piled up.

This bug does more than make you cough a little bit, clearly, especially if you are older and have other health issues.

I think hindsight likely will show that locking down, and thereby seizing up the economic engine, was unnecessary and largely too late to be effective anyway.

I think we’ll conclude that South Korea and Sweden handled this pandemic better than most, certainly better than the United States.

I think we’ll undertand that we’d better build and maintain a good stock of life-saving medical equipment and ICU capability for the next pandemic, which assuredly will not be so gentle as this one. This has been an air kiss compared to the Spanish flu in its time and what a true super bug may yet bring.

Actually, I suspect the super bug is inevitable, already here. Flip over from the pandemic’s toll to the world population’s growth, on a curve carving almost straight up, up, up. Even now the digits flash faster than the eye can track. Want to know the ultimate pandemic? There it is. Us.

• • •

RETRACTION: A reader called me out in email for dismissing the coronavirus as just another flu in a column published Feb. 13. I was hot, remembering the essay as a treatise on our outsized fears — about airliner crashes that almost never happen vs. fatal car accidents that kill 40,000 Americans a year. Let’s say I was not my best self in response, and now I regret that, finally going back and reading the column. Oops, there it is, right in the lede: “The coronavirus could take down China’s government, but it’s nothing like the ordinary flu.”

Now, above, empirically, this is true but the opposite of what I meant. So yes, absolutely, I have to disavow, supplicate myself, retract a statement that proved untrue.

Rather like the Imperial and some other worst-case models. ….

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at drogers@sierrasun.com or 530-477-4299.


 

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