When 6 Feet Apart Is and Isn’t Enough

One of the standard pieces of advice for people trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is that we need to either stay 6 feet apart or wear masks. But does anyone really believe the danger zone is that sharply defined? Especially because study after study has shown that exhaled droplets, especially small, can travel larger distances than once thought.

At the same time, we know that ventilation matters, because it markedly affects the number of virus particles you might inhale if you are unfortunate enough to be exposed.

A new paper in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) has addressed that topic in unusual detail, producing a very thorough (and easily read) graphic detailing the relative risk in a wide range of situations.

The result is good news for outdoor enthusiasts (such as runners, cyclists, and hikers), mixed news for outdoor gatherings, and bad news for bars and restaurants.

Nothing surprising there, but the graphic is cool, and useful.

Here’s the link to the study, in case the image above isn’t readable on your device. The image is a few pages down.

Science Is Not Red Tape: A Full(er) Look at Convalescent Plasma

Yesterday, President Trump, in an effort he described at one point as part of a plan to cut governmental red tape, announced that the FDA has given an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19.

It was a controversial move because only a week earlier, the FDA had refused to grant such authorization. Its sudden about-face—especially since Trump himself was the one to announce it—makes it look as though the agency bowed to political pressure on the eve of the Republican National Convention.

Convalescent plasma treatment, as most people now know, uses blood plasma infusions from people who’ve recovered from a disease to treat people newly infected with it. The idea is that antibodies from the donor will help the recipient’s immune system get a head start on the disease, reducing its severity. It’s not a new concept: it was used as far back as 1918 to fight the Spanish Flu.

After initial promising results in small-scale trials, the FDA approved it for experimental use, setting up a program by which thousands of people were able to give it a try.

In the process, a team led by Michael Joyner of Mayo Clinic realized that they could collect data from 35,322 patients at 2,807 medical centers around the country to see just how well the treatment worked and, more importantly, how best to use it.

This is the study that drew all the attention. You can read it on medrxiv.

Even the most cursory glance reveals one important thing: it was never intended to be a definitive analysis of whether the treatment worked. The gold standard for such studies is the double-blind placebo-controlled trial, in which there is a large control group that gets a placebo instead of the treatment. In this case, everyone got the treatment and the Mayo team simply collected data.

What they found was interesting, though it was misreported by both the President and most of the press. What he said is that the treatment cut the fatality rate by 35 percent. That is not actually what the study found.

Continue reading Science Is Not Red Tape: A Full(er) Look at Convalescent Plasma

Super-spreaders, COVID-19, and the rural/urban divide

Nobody wants to be in a state with a lot of COVID-19 cases. Nobody except perhaps an epidemiologist trying to study how the disease spreads.

In a paper in today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team from Emory University (in Atlanta) and the Georgia Department of Public Health, took advantage of the fact that their state ranks 6th in the U.S. in per capita cases to hone in on just how the disease spreads.

They looked at data from the five counties in the state with the most cases, looking for, among other things, superspreader events.

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Remembering Pat Lovett (1923-2020): Remarks from her Memorial Service

Who was Pat Lovett?

That was the question I thought I’d be answering here today. But how can you define a person who graced the earth for nearly 97 years?

When she was born, commercial radio was a new thing. Movies were jerky, silent affairs.

She lived to collect movies on CDs and record them off an invention called TV, using something that wasn’t even imagined when she was a child: satellite broadcasts beamed straight to her backyard.

Which means there’s a lot about her I don’t know. Not that she was a closed book. It’s just that she was a book with many chapters, interconnecting in the unexpected literary tapestry of a long life, well lived.

If any of you have ever read a John McPhee book, you know what I’m talking about. He wrote in tapestries, with threads appearing and reappearing and merging into unexpected patterns.

He would have loved her.

Continue reading Remembering Pat Lovett (1923-2020): Remarks from her Memorial Service