20 December 2020 – Sunday – #126

Happy Winter! ¡Feliz Invierno!

Pork for sale in Gracia.

As the northern hemisphere transitions from Fall to Winter, transitional stress is upon us. Stress is normal during the holidays, but this year I’m feeling stress that’s different from normal.

The stress of not whether, but when new restrictions will be announced as Covid-19 numbers rise again. The stress of risky gatherings during a normally social holiday season. The stress of living with a deadly virus not knowing how many months until vaccinations. The stress of an unending political transitions.

What did I do in the midst of all my stress? I had the most social week I’ve had since March.

It started when Brad and I had an impromptu latke night to celebrate Hanukkah.

2020 latkes!

We improvised with Greek yogurt for sour cream and apple compote for apple sauce. Delish.

Two other dinners at Casa Solar this week. My friends Ana and Alexa are returning to their homelands, Ana to Mexico after nearly a dozen years here and Alexa to Germany after five years. Happy for their new adventures, but sad to see friends leave. How could I not celebrate and share a dinner with each of them? It reminds me of myself a year ago, staying at Ebet’s place on the Upper West Side and celebrating with friends as I prepared to move to Barcelona.

Wednesday I took a trip up to Canet de Mar to see friends. It’s been months and it was great to catch up, but there’s the stress of the hour train ride as Catalonia’s Covid-19 numbers rise again. Most of the high school boys who boarded near the end of my journey wore masks, but not the class cutups. Stress.

Here is a graph of my stress. The Covid-19 reproduction rate R and Outbreak risk here look as bad as they looked in October when Europe’s second Covid-19 wave started in earnest.

Catalonia Covid-19 reproduction rate R (yellow) and Outbreak risk (blue), 18 December 2020.

At the beginning of this month, Catalonia allowed bars and restaurants to reopen and relaxed retail capacity restrictions. People want normal life, especially during the holidays. The numbers rose again. It looks like new restrictions will be coming soon.

This week’s final social event was yesterday when I met Cristián for coffee at SandwiChez. We sat outside, which felt relatively safe, if a bit brisk. Even though the tables inside were well spaced, it felt like a Covid-torium with a large room of maskless people and no fresh air ventilation. I spent as little time as possible inside ordering.

After my final social event of the week, I walked along Rambla de Catalunya looking for Christmas decorations.

Holiday shoppers on Gran VIa and Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona, 19 December 2020.

Masked shoppers were out in force. I felt a little uneasy waiting in line for the cashier with my hands full of ornaments, but at least there was a breeze as shoppers entered and exited the store.

Everyone seems to be sneaking in as much shopping and social life as they can before the next restrictions come. It’s like everyone knows a vaccine is coming and they’re playing a game to see how much they can get away with while waiting for shots. The stress of restrictions is bumping heads with the relief of a vaccine, so people are questioning more and more what restrictions are fair and necessary.

For instance, here’s a report from Madrid about the Rafael concert last night.

Matthew Bennett on the Raphael concert last night.

During 2020, while most US states let Covid-19 run wild, most European countries put in place restrictions as outbreaks occurred. The difference couldn’t be clearer (this chart is through the first week of December).

Covid-19 cases per million, US versus EU as of 11 December 2020. (Source: @euromaestro)

There’s no question most US states won’t impose any serious Covid-19 restrictions this winter. The question is whether any European countries can impose restrictions again with Covid-19 vaccines around the corner.

Beyond unnecessary deaths, there are significant costs to allowing Covid-19 spread. One is that high infection rates slow down economies. When people are sick and dying, they can’t work. Another is that the virus has more opportunities to mutate.

And guess what? This week UK detected a new strain of Covid-19 that’s 70% more transmissible.

In response, Prime Minister Boris Johnson raised Covid-19 restrictions and, in an attempt to contain the new strain to the UK, will keep anyone from traveling out of areas where the new strain is detected. Likewise, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon raised Covid-19 restrictions in response and asked Scots to remain at home for Christmas.

Officials say there is nothing about the new strain that indicates so far that it has different mortality characteristics or a different response to vaccines. My guess is that it’s too early to know that for sure. I don’t have to guess about more strains appearing as the number of cases skyrockets worldwide.

Will government requests to stay home work? Last week, I posted German Chancellor Merkel’s heartfelt appeal to stay home during the holidays. Spain has issued stay home requests. So has the US CDC.

US air travel numbers indicate that at least US travel isn’t creeping up to last year’s levels.

US Air Travelers per Day, 1 November through 18 December. Source: TSA

It would be better to see 2020 numbers declining rather than tracking at about half of last year’s numbers. If Thanksgiving is any indication, these travel statistics indicate many US families will be sharing their final Christmas together.

Vaccines are coming, but it’s months until their effect reduces the need for Covid-19 restrictions. The UK, Canada, and the US have started administering Covid-19 vaccinations. Spain expects to distribute Covid-19 vaccine as soon as the EMA approves use of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine, probably the last week of December or first week of January 2021.

The US vaccine rollout shows the main reason we shouldn’t let down our guard: the logistics of providing hundreds of millions of injects are hard. I was worried that the lack of communication from Trump about his Covid-19 vaccination plan meant there wasn’t a solid plan. More and more, that seems to be the case.

Rachael Maddow on US Covid-19 vaccine debacle.

On Friday, General Gustave Perna said that a Pentagon computer model used to plan distribution was the source of the distribution problem. One report said that the model was still using simulation data until last week when actual data was loaded. Although it appears doses of Pfizer’s vaccine still are sitting in warehouses awaiting instructions from Trump where to send them, Perna says 20 million doses will be delivered to states by the first week of January.

Paint me skeptical.

For one thing, Trump is still focused on winning the election. On Monday, the Electoral College gave President-elect Biden 306 votes to Trump’s 232, and Republican senators finally acknowledged Biden’s win. However, Friday evening, Trump was planning a coup with his voter fraud legal strike team lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sydney Powell as well as with disgraced General Michael Flynn. Flynn wants Trump to declare martial law in states that voted against Trump and have the military re-run those elections. It’s an understatement that Trump is ignoring Covid-19 vaccine delivery problems. The US will be lucky if Trump’s coup plan goes as well as his Covid-19 vaccination plan.

Besides distribution, another problem with the US vaccination effort is local administration. One example comes from Stanford University. There the hospital prioritized vaccinations for doctors who primarily work from home right now while failing to offer vaccines to residents working with patients daily. After protests, the university apologized and adjusted its vaccine allocations. This seems like the kind of problem that a well run vaccination effort would have anticipated.

The beginning of the vaccination process should be the easiest because the low-hanging fruit (healthcare workers and retirement homes) are easy to target. Trump can’t even seem to get that job done. President-elect Biden takes office in 31 days. The inauguration probably will mark the actual beginning of the US Covid-19 vaccine distribution program. It would be difficult for other countries’ governments do a worse job than the US, but it’s likely most programs at this scale will have hiccups.

Vaccines are many months away. We will be better off complying with ongoing Covid-19 restrictions.

Now for a quick trip in the time machine! Nine months ago, here’s what Goldman Sachs wrote to its clients about the emergence of Covid-19.

Goldman Sachs memo to clients, March 2020My commentary
50% of Americans will contract the virus (150m people) as it’s very communicable. This is on par with the common cold (Rhinovirus) of which there are about 200 strains and which the majority of Americans will get 2-4 per year.Overestimates spread. Covid-19 very different from Rhinovirus.
70% of Germany with contract it (58m people). This is the next most relevant economy to be effected.Spain is now around 10%, so Germany probably less.
Peak-virus is expected over the next eight weeks, declining thereafter.Implies reach of 50% of US and 70% of Germany in 10-12 weeks.
The virus appears to be concentrated in a band between 30-50 degrees north latitude, meaning that like the common cold and flu, it prefers cold weather. The coming summer in the northern hemisphere should help. That is to say the virus is likely seasonal.Ecuador is a counterexample to both latitude and cold weather.
Of those impacted, 80% will be early-stage, 15% mid-stage, and 5% critical-stage. Early-stage symptoms are like the common cold and mid-stage symptoms are like the flu; these are stay at home two weeks and rest. 5% will be critical and highly weighted towards the elderly.Early characterization of Covid-19 as old person’s disease.
Mortality rate on average up to 2% heavily weighted towards the elderly and immunocompromised; meaning up to 3m people (150m * .02). In the US about 3m/yr die mostly due to old age and disease, those two being highly correlated (as a percent very few from accidents). There will be significant overlap, so this does not mean 3m new deaths from the virus, it means elderly people dying sooner due to respiratory issues. This may however stress the healthcare system.The US probably will reach about a million Covid-19 deaths over a much longer period.
Goldman Sachs memo to clients, March 2020.

What’s striking in this early Goldman Sachs language is how it writes off old people. This appears to lay the foundation for the idea that it’s okay to achieve herd immunity by letting Covid-19 run wild. It suggests old people will just lose a few years and the whole thing will be over in a matter of two or three months.

Contemporaneously, Richard Epstein from the Hoover Institute published a paper called “Coronavirus Perspective.” Among other things, Epstein argued that adaptations would thwart the virus and the virus’ effect would be small as a result. Epstein is a lawyer, not an epidemiologist. Still, his paper found favor with Trump, probably because it discounted Covid-19’s virulence.

Based on his non-scientific analysis, Epstein explained in a New Yorker interview from late March 2020 how Covid-19 would evolve.

“So, in the United States, if you start looking at yesterday’s figures, it was about two per cent higher than the day before, which is already indicating that the speed-up is slowing down. We’re going to have to see what the next days do. But we’re talking ten thousand cases a day at the current maximum, and the flu was vastly larger in terms of its number and its extent. And my sense is, given the reactions that you’re going to have, this thing will peak earlier and start to decline earlier than the common models start to say, because they don’t seem to build in anything by way of adaptative responses.”

None of Epstein’s Covid-19 predictions were correct, but they also laid the foundation for doing nothing but let the virus run wild.

A month later, the Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis argued that lockdowns were the wrong approach, that it would be better to protect the elderly and let everyone else carry on. Ioannidis also authored the controversial Stanford study that claimed Covid-19 spread was much higher than thought and, by inference, Covid-19 IFR was much lower than thought. Ioannidis’ study was flawed, but it lent credibility to Trump’s claims that Covid-19 was going to go away.

A better US response would have been to increase testing so that policy could be designed based on better reporting. In retrospect, these three influential reports provided fodder for policies that resulted in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Covid-19 bits.

Last, I’d like to leave you with the Tracies who are tracing you.

Merry Christmas! I write this for my sanity, not for money. If you like it, send a link to your friends and family as a holiday gift! Follow me on Twitter for more frequent updates.

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