9 June 2020 – Tuesday – #86

My terrace garden already produced its first cherry tomatoes yesterday. There’s a bumper crop on the way. Life in the New Abnormal isn’t all bad.

To give you a taste of how things have changed, here are two images from the New Abnormal in Barcelona. The first is the new QR code menu system at one of the local Thai restaurants where I ate last week with Nicole and her daughter.

Menu QR code at Banna Thai Restaurant in Gracia.

Instead of passing around menus, many restaurants provide a QR code that you scan with your mobile. In this case, the QR code is taped to the table, but sometimes it’s at the door or on a planter. You can scan the QR code above if you want to find out today’s prix fixe almuerzo menu. It’s good practice for your next trip to Barcelona.

The second image is the New Abnormal grocery shopping protocol posted outside a local store.

Grocery shopping instructions in Catalan and Spanish at an Ametller Origen store.

All the grocery stores have about the same shopping protocol. As with most signage in a cosmopolitan city, the graphics make the instructions clear even if you don’t know Catalan or Spanish. The number of customers inside the store is limited and customers must wear masks (your own) and gloves (provided). Sometimes hand sanitizer is available. Paying by mobile is recommended, although a credit card seems just as safe if you tap it instead of having staff insert it. My biggest complaint is that I usually can’t unlock my mobile with my fingerprint when I’m wearing gloves so I have to type in my code. Boo-hoo.

I’ve noted before that life in the time of Covid-19 is safer with a smartphone, which puts people who can’t use or can’t afford smartphones at higher risk. People who can’t use or can’t afford smartphones probably are at higher risk already, so it’s a double whammy for them.

Some good Covid-19 news. WHO says asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 is rare. At least that’s how the headlines read.

CNBC Headlines, 8 June 2020.

This seems like great news. It implies we don’t have to worry about transmission unless someone is sick. If you get on an airplane and no one has symptoms, no problem flying. Like the headlines last week that the Covid-19 virus was weakening, this news from WHO seems a little too good to be true.

Is it too good to be true? There’s something about the headlines from yesterday that doesn’t quite square with this headline from three days ago.

Time headlines, 5 June 2020.

According to the Time article, San Diego researchers have not found asymptomatic spread of Covid-19 to be rare at all.

In a study published June 3 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers at the Scripps Research Translational Institute reviewed data from 16 different groups of COVID-19 patients from around the world to get a better idea of how many cases of coronavirus can likely be traced to people who spread the virus without ever knowing they were infected. Their conclusion: at minimum, 30%, and more likely 40% to 45%

Time, “Nearly Half of Coronavirus Spread May Be Traced to People Without Any Symptoms,” 5 June 2020.

That doesn’t seem like asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 is rare. It seems like 1/3 to 1/2 of Covid-19 transmission is from asymptomatic carriers. So what’s going on? Is there asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 or not? Is WHO right or wrong? To untangle this, Dr. Faust (what a name!) analyzes the WHO statement beyond the headlines.

Dr. Jeremy Faust on the WHO’s statement that “Asymptomatic spread of coronavirus is ‘very rare.'”

If you read through Dr. Faust’s Twitter thread, he concludes it’s not that asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers don’t spread the virus, but “that CONTACT TRACING is woefully inadequate at finding asymptomatic spread.” Aha! That means something very different from the headline. The headline is drawing the wrong conclusion.

So, like the headline from last week that Covid-19 is weakening, yesterday’s headline about asymptomatic spread of Covid-19 is misleading and spreading like wildfire on my social feeds. I’ve seen people on social media arguing to shut down WHO based on this headline. A better idea might be to research the headline before sharing it.

That leaves us in the same quandary. Everyone wants yesterday’s headline to be true because it would simplify life. Now we’re back to worrying whether there’s an asymptomatic Covid-19 carrier in our midst. We still don’t know how to protect ourselves from Covid-19. We still don’t have a clear protocol for screening for Covid-19.

Such is life at the beginning of a pandemic. Such is our New Abnormal.

So, what do the experts say they’ll do? Epidemiologists aren’t expecting life to return to normal soon. I was disappointed, but not surprised, about cultural events in particular.

New York Times, “When 511 Epidemiologists Expect to Fly, Hug and Do 18 Other Everyday Activities Again,” 8 June 2020.

The article shows when epidemiologists expect to resume a range of activities, from hair cuts to funerals. Recent polling shows that epidemiologists don’t think too much differently about what the New Abnormal looks like than the general public. It’s good to know everyone is in sync with the experts on this topic. In sync, that is, if they can read past the headlines.

The experts have been right about Covid-19 lockdowns.

new study published in the journal Nature has calculated how many lives were saved in 11 European countries thanks to confinement policies during the Covid-19 pandemic. Researchers estimate that the measures imposed first in Italy, then in Spain and later in the other countries under analysis may have saved over three million lives – including around 450,000 in Spain.

El País, “Coronavirus confinement measures may have saved 450,000 lives in Spain,” 9 June 2020.

My anti-lockdown friends will insist that the human toll from the lockdowns is higher than the lives saved. Looking at Brazil and Ecuador, where there are effectively no lockdowns and the economies are bad anyway, and at Japan, where there was no lockdown and no significant Covid-19 mortality, it’s hard to say there is correlation (let alone causation) between lockdowns and economic performance (let alone excess deaths due to lockdowns). In the absence of evidence that letting the virus run wild and kill 1% of the population leads to a better outcome, it seems to me like lockdowns were the right decision.

But people don’t believe experts for any number of reasons. In Orange County, County Health Officer Nicole Quick resigned after protesters threatened her family. They were upset about her mandatory mask order, although the science is now clear on how masks prevent Covid-19 spread. Probably the hardest part of public health and part the models fail to predict is how people react to the change that goes along with a pandemic.

Shane sent along a link to a TED talk with Sonia Shah, the author of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond.

Sonia Shah TED talk 30 March 2020.

The interview was recorded near the beginning of the lockdowns in Europe and the US. It’s great for understanding how experts think about pandemics, why there will be more pandemics, and how we can live with them. One hint: we need more accessible health everywhere, more biodiversity, and better international public health infrastructure. That is, we need pretty much everything the opposite of what Trump is doing.


WHO clarified its statement about asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19.

“The majority of transmission that we know about is that people who have symptoms transmit the virus to other people through infectious droplets. But there are a subset of people who don’t develop symptoms, and to truly understand how many people don’t have symptoms, we don’t actually have that answer yet.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, Covid-19 Technical Lead, WHO

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