COVID-19 Becoming More Infectious, Study Says

Buried in today’s political news was a new COVID-19 study from Texas that found that the virus is becoming more contagious, and possibly increasingly able to circumvent control measures such as masks, hand-washing, and social distancing.

It’s really depressing news, though not really unexpected. What the researchers found was that 99.9 percent of recent cases in Houston appear to come from a previously uncommon strain of the virus—one that produces greater numbers of virus particles in their noses, mouths, and lungs.  That means that when they breath, talk, shout, cough or sneeze, they expel more virus particles, increasing the chance that someone nearby will receive an infectious dose.

The paper is posted on MedRxiv, an online site where scientists can post preliminary results while awaiting official publication. And while that means it isn’t peer reviewed, this doesn’t appear to be the type of research that can be easily messed up—especially if we don’t really care whether it’s 99.9 percent of new cases or 99 percent, or even 90 percent.

News reports are saying that the virus has “found” a way to circumvent our controls. That’s anthropomorphic nonsense. What’s happened is microbial evolution 101.

We’ve long known that one of the easiest way to create antibiotic resistant bacteria is to hit the bacteria with halfhearted control measures (partial doses of antibiotics). It’s not that the bacteria somehow get smarter. Rather, we kill of those that are susceptible to the partial measures, leaving the field to those that are more resistant. Pretty soon they are the only ones left, and presto, the bacteria have evolved resistance.

It’s probably the same here.

Our control measures have never been consistently applied. They are at best halfhearted and erratic. In most states, half the population doesn’t wear masks when they are supposed to, a problem exacerbated by the lack of consistent top-down governmental leadership.  

That inconsistency, however, means that this finding may not be quite as bad “bad news” as it initially sounds. It does not say that masks and social distancing are no longer effective. It says that halfhearted mask-wearing and inconsistent social distancing may be increasingly ineffective. I.e., super-spreader events may become more common, meaning that the best protection remains what it currently is: keep away from such events, and don’t associate closely with people who consistently risk them.

Not that this will completely work. Viruses evolve. Rapidly. This will be a continuing war. The good news is that viruses tend to evolve not only to become more contagious, but also less virulent. I posted more about that in a post called “How to Make COVID 19 Evolve to Become Less Virulent,” if you want to reread it.

In the interim, feel free to share this post. And mask-up, try to do as many meetings as you can outdoors, keep your distance, and keep yourself and your loved ones as safe as you can.

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.

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

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:

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

Why a Mask IS a Political Statement…Just Not a Partisan One

Unless you’ve had the news turned off for the past week, you know that the Mask Wars are on, with a lot of people suggesting that wearing a mask marks you as a Democrat while not wearing one marks you as Republican.

And superficially, there’s something to that. We have a President who declines to wear a mask in public and who not only taunts Joe Biden for wearing one, but at a recent press conference shamed a reporter for being “politically correct” when the reporter refused to take off his mask at the President’s request.

Continue reading Why a Mask IS a Political Statement…Just Not a Partisan One

Covid-19 & the Emperor’s New Clothes

We all know the story of the emperor’s new clothes. In it, the emperor is hoodwinked by rogues who take his money and make him…nothing. “Nothing” that his advisors, fearful of offending him, declare to be the finest finery in the land.

Then, the emperor dons the non-existent robes…and a little child calls him out, exclaiming, “But the Emperor has nothing on at all!”

Except…The original fable, by Hans Christian Andersen, is a little more complex.

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How to Make COVID-19 Evolve to Become Less Dangerous

Donald Trump says that even without a vaccine, COVID-19 will eventually fade away. And amazingly, the science says he might be right…though not if we follow his plan for reopening the country.

The science in question is evolutionary virology.

It says is that under certain circumstances viruses will evolve into less virulent forms. In fact, this might even be what happened to the 1918 Spanish Flu…though not until after it killed tens of millions of people.

Let me explain.

In order to be an evolutionarily successful, virus can’t just infect one person, they have to jump from one person to another. They can do that by making us cough, giving us diarrhea that contaminates other people’s food or water, or giving us sores that shed virus particles onto anyone or anyone we touch.

I.e., they make us sick.

But if they make us too ill, too quickly, they don’t get much chance to spread because we either collapse into bed, away from other people, or make others leery enough of catching the disease that they take suitable precautions.

Continue reading How to Make COVID-19 Evolve to Become Less Dangerous

The Corruption of Critical Thinking

This post is not directly about politics or COVID-19. But it should be, which is why I’ve tagged it for both.

When I was teaching at California State University, Sacramento in the late 1980s, the Cal State system was trying to increase the focus on classes that emphasized critical thinking.

If there was an official definition, I never saw it, but my department made it clear that the environmental studies law-and-public-policy classes I taught were exactly what they wanted.

I ran these classes not as lectures, but as discussions based on assigned readings, and my biggest goal was to challenge the students to think about the readings’ implications, rather than just taking them at face value.

One of my favorite moments was a discussion in which one of the students flipped whatever I was saying at the time back on itself and pointed out something I’d overlooked. “That’s what you taught us to do,” he said, when he realized how well he’d hoisted me by my own petard.

I don’t remember what grade he got for the course, but for that day, he definitely got an A+.

Since then, however, I’ve found that critical thinking is all too often replaced by shorthand substitutes.

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Scylla, Charybdis & COVID-19

In Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were monsters guarding opposite sides of the narrow strait between Italy and Sicily. Chart a course too close to one side, and Scylla grabs you. Try to steer clear of Scylla and you fall prey to Charybdis.

It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the modern moment.

Except…in the Greek lore, the two monsters acted independently. Now, it’s more like each isn’t so much trying to snare you for itself as to drive you into the other’s clutches. And it’s something we seem to be doing our level best to assist.

Let me elaborate.

Continue reading Scylla, Charybdis & COVID-19