Uncategorized (A Not Totally Random Blog)

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.

Returning to Running After Smoke

Like all of us, I’ve been obsessively watching the air quality index, more or less willing it to improve…as if that’s possible. And like many of us, I’ve learned a lot about air quality levels we never before dreamed of. I used to think 175 was bad. Now I am a connoisseur of the difference between 530, and 430. I can feel it in my eyes, throat, lungs, and heart.

For 8 days, going on 9, I have done zero exercise, even though I have an N-95 mask that I bought back in January to combat smoke. I take out the trash (wearing the mask) when absolutely necessary. I occasionally collect my mail. And that is pretty much all I do. In 8 days climbing my stairs as few times as possible is my main form of exercise.

Hopefully, many of you were equally cautious.

Which raises the question: when this abates, as it eventually will (and may be doing as you read this) how fast can you return to normal training?

The answer should be reassuring. Soon. But take a few days to ramp up.

The basic rule of injury or illness layoffs is this. Three to five days off is nothing. You might feel sluggish the first day back, but take it easy and you’ll be back to normal the next day…or at worst the day after that. For longer layoffs, say a week to 10 days (which is what we’re talking about here), allow one day for full recovery for every day of layoff. If you’re flat on your back with flu, it might be longer (two days for every day off), and if you are cross-training extensively (hard to do in this kind of smoke unless you have a really good home gym…and great air filters) it might be less.

So my main advice is this. Figure you’re going to be sluggish at first. Don’t immediately jump into speed workouts. Start with a few cautious easy runs (once the air quality allows) to get your running legs back. Then segue into strides. Follow that with a little cautious tempo.

Physiologically, this layoff has been too short for you to lose much, especially because you weren’t actually hurt or ill. But it will probably take a few days to feel normal.

If you are doing the Stumptown virtual series (which starts next week) postpone the first race until the end of the week. You won’t be 100 percent at that point, but you probably won’t be a total slug, either. And remember, everyone is in the same boat.

Mentally, view this as a rest break. Unplanned, yes, but rest can be good. Bernard Lagat always took five full weeks off in the fall, after the Fifth Avenue Mile, at the end of September. That’s a lot more than 8-9 days. And by the Wannamaker Mile, indoors in February, he was so well recovered from his break (a total layoff) that for years, he was the King of the Boards.

In other words, don’t sweat it. In the big picture, this is a mere hiccup.

But don’t push it too hard, either. Let the recovery come to you, rather than you trying to force it.

It will come, and after nearly a week and a half of sitting indoors trying not to breathe orange air, simply getting outside and (eventually) seeing a patch of blue sky will be a reminder that what’s really important isn’t so much how fast we recover, but just that we can still (again) get out and do it.

Quick high-veggie hot dish

With all the political news raging this week, I figured it was time to do something different. Here’s a quick recipe of my mother’s, adapted to my tastes. It makes a very good potluck dish (it always gets raves), a side dish for dinner, or a great lunch. (I used it on my diet.)

Basic ingredients:

  • 1 can corn (or fresh corn, but that takes longer)
  • mushrooms (1 small can or fresh; fresh is better)
  • half a large onion
  • 1 ounce mozzarella cheese
  • Small sweet peppers (red, yellow, orange)
  • Jalapeño
  • Roasted cashews
  • Salt (if desired)
  • Pepper
  • Garlic powder (minimal)
  • Parsley flakes
  • Paprika
  • Cumin

Drain canned veggies and put them plus chopped fresh veggies in a microwave-safe casserole dish. Add spices to taste. Place sliced cheese and cashews on top. Heat on high until cheese melts and everything else is sufficiently hot. (If preferred, you can give the chopped onion a head start, but I generally find that unnecessary.)

Serves 4 as side dish; or one as lunch. (Total calories about 450, depending on how many cashews you use.) For heartier version, use more cheese.

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

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

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

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.

Continue reading RIP Pat Lovett (my mother)

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.

Continue reading Risk and the Psychology of the New COVID-19 Surge