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.

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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.

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What the Georgia summer-camp outbreak tells us about COVID-19 & Schools

Today’s COVID-19 news contained the depressing information that 260 of 597 attendees at a Georgia summer camp had tested positive to COVID-19. As super-spreader events to, that was a whopper. It also bodes poorly for opening schools in the fall. (Image credit: Taliroll / CC BY-SA, creative commons license.)

But with everything else in the news today, details were slim. And even the best news sources can mess things up. So I went to the CDC journal article on which it was based. You can find it here. These reports are a bit dry, but generally readable, and this one was no exception.

Her are the basic facts:

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RIP Pat Lovett (my mother)

I have spent the last few days working on my mother’s obituary, with versions for here and two newspapers. Photo, Pat Lovett and son David. Credit Deb Lovett.

Patricia A. (Pat) Lovett died July 3 in Rockford at age 96, due to complications from a fall. Born Patricia Holland in 1923, she grew up on a farm in Milton, Iowa, riding horses, rounding up dairy cattle, and playing basketball and baseball in high school. She graduated from the University of Iowa in 1945 with a degree in English, following it up with a masters in drama two years later—in the process, writing a screenplay that was performed on live TV at the dawn of the television era.

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Risk and the Psychology of the New COVID-19 Surge

The rising number of COVID-19 cases has many causes, including the question of how many are being found due to increased testing capacity. (Likely answer: some, but not all. Hospitalizations are also rising, which means more people are getting sick at levels that would have been detected in the virus’s first surge.)

But another part of the answer has to do with what, in retrospect, should have been a predictable aspect of public psychology: as the pandemic has dragged on, COVID-19 has gone from new and frightening to “normal.”

One of the more esoteric fields I’ve dabbled in over the years is the psychology and economics of risk.

Psychologists have found that our fear reactions do not correlate well to the actual risks posed by a given hazard. Economics has confirmed this by noticing how people, in spending money to guard against risks, tend to spend disproportionate amounts on various types of risks.

Two examples are air travel and bicycle helmets.

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Tulsa Prelude: the 1919 Race “riot” of my one-time home town

In 2007, I was in my car when NPR started a 15-minute segment on the shameful history of the 1919 race riot of Corbin, Kentucky.

That event wasn’t as bad as what would happen in Tulsa two years later, but that’s not saying much: Corbin is a small town, and somewhere between 6 and 8 percent of its population lost everything in a single night in an event that today we would call ethnic cleansing.

It was also a jaw-dropping revelation.

From age 9 to 11, I lived in Corbin, never hearing a whiff of its sordid past. As I reached my destination and sat in the parking lot listening to the end of the broadcast, all I could think was: how could it have been so thoroughly covered up that I didn’t know?

As the old newspaper clip I’ve used as the image for this post indicates, it was a national story. (If you can’t read it, it’s from the El Paso, Texas.)

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Trump, Lincoln and Rosa Parks

For all his flaws, Donald Trump has been handed the opportunity to go down in history on the same page as Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson.

The two are, of course, very different Presidents, separated not only by political party, but 100 years of history. In 1862, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And 103 years later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To the extent history lurches toward justice in big, widely spaced steps, those were probably the two biggest lurches in racial justice in American experience.

But to all appearances, America is poised to make another big lurch forward. The details are still being worked out, but polls show that 84 percent of Americans support the protests, at least to some degree–a level of agreement rarely seen about anything.

And yet, even today, Trump was defending choke holds as often being “innocent and perfect” and suggesting he was a better racial-justice president than Abraham Lincoln, apparently based on the economic surge that blessed his first few years.

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Take a knee with me for 8:46

Today, on Facebook, I invited friends to join me in taking a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silent meditation and/or prayer, starting at 6 pm PDT (for those who could schedule it) or whenever else they could, for those for whom that time was difficult.

It was an incredibly powerful experience.

I’ve been asked to repeat it on Tuesday, June 9, for those who didn’t hear about it in time on Monday, and then to repeat it every Monday for the rest of June.

The idea is simple. Set a timer and take a knee, like a football player, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time in which George Floyd was pinned to the ground with a knee to his neck.

Or, if arthritis or other health concerns preclude that, just sit quietly on a chair or a couch. The idea is not to stress yourself, but to let yourself contemplate.

If you do take a knee, I recommend a knee pad of some kind, such as a fleece jacket, or some other soft surface. Also, this can be a bit of a balance test (especially if you close your eyes), so kneel next to a coffee table, chair, or other object on which you can steady your balance, so you can focus on prayer or meditation, rather than working not to topple over.

* Image by Zach Dischner / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0).

Me and Race in Minneapolis (part 1)

A couple of days ago, I said I might blog about my experiences with race in Minneapolis. So, with a good deal of trepidation, here goes…

There were two basic experiences. The first was sometime during the dark season, when night falls well before the end of the normal business day. I was a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, and there was a meeting I wanted to attend, downtown, after the workday ended.

The law school is about a mile from downtown, and I either didn’t have a car, or had walked to work. I could have taken a cab or bus, but it was a relatively short walk and I was, after all, a marathoner.

So I walked.

I don’t know what it’s like now, but at the time, it wasn’t the best walk. Much was dark and deserted, as it took me by sports facilities for both the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Vikings, surrounded by acres of empty parking lots.

Still, I felt more-or-less safe until a car pulled up behind me, slowed, and started shadowing me.

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