Wednesday COVID-19 Briefing

Top news, reports and insights for today:

  1. Curated headline summaries for Wednesday:
  • U.S. death toll hits 200,000. President Trump tells a rally in Ohio: “It affects virtually nobody” (Vox)
  • Both nationally and in 6 swing states, most voters worry President Trump is trying to rush release of coronavirus vaccine to help his reelection, new polls show (CNBC)
  • The Helsinki Airport in Finland is now using specially trained dogs to sniff out COVID-19 in passengers. A study shows dogs can detect the virus almost instantly without an uncomfortable nasal swab (FastCompany)
  • COVID-19 conspiracy theories are spreading rapidly, like the virus, complicating public health efforts. A new study in Social Science & Medicine finds that conspiracy theories are commonplace and have increased from March to July (Time)
  • New cheaper, faster tests are coming on line, which is good, but nobody knows how to report and count them, leading to growing blind spots in our surveillance. Increasingly, it is impossible to say how many tests are being done (ABC News)
  • Aerosols are back on! CDC reverses course, acknowledges the possibility of airborne transmission via aerosols (Los Angeles Times)
  1. U.S. cases surging again. Only 5 Northeast states below 5 cases per day per 100,000
     New daily COVID-19 cases demonstrate yet another dip as Tuesday numbers soar back above 45,000 (See Figure A). It’s still too early to say whether the numbers will be inconsistent week-to-week or whether return to schools, economic restarting or overlapping respiratory infections are pushing things steadily toward greater transmission intensity.
     As is my habit, my eye turns to the state data to determine whether there are regional patterns. At this point, we would hope to see some states in relatively good control with new daily cases below five per 100,000 per day. Figure B shows the numbers as of today. No states in the Midwest, South or West meet that benchmark (although several are close). The only states under control are in the Northeast and include my state of Maryland, along with Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. The only Northeast state over 10 is Rhode Island. On the other hand, eight of thirteen Midwest states are four times higher including Iowa (27 per 100,000 per day), Kansas (28), Missouri (23), Oklahoma (28), South Dakota (35), Wisconsin (32) and North Dakota, which continues to lead the nation with the highest transmission intensity at 46. In the West, Idaho (20), Montana (19) and Utah are “hot”, while in the South, we are concerned about Arkansas (27), Tennessee (21) and Texas (24).
    The bottom line: It is important to note that the Tuesday numbers were boosted in part by a bolus 13,600 “older cases” added in Texas. Having said that, the trend is discouraging as the 7-day moving average (red dotted line) indicates. With the exception of a handful of Northeast states, transmission intensity remains worrisomely elevated in the other three regions.
Figure A
Figure B
  1. U.S. testing is getting harder to track. Updated data from the COVID Tracking Project now shows testing numbers holding strong
     If you took note of headline 5, you read about the challenges posed by tracking the intensity of U.S. coronavirus testing. In the beginning of the epidemic it was easier because the number of labs processing tests was smaller, the reporting system was working consistently and there was a smaller number of test types (predominantly PCR-based tests to detect viral RNA). Now, as new faster and cheaper tests have come on line, we are dealing with saliva tests, antibody tests, antigen tests and a host of other types that are increasingly difficult to track and monitor. Last Wednesday, I showed you a graph showing daily tests and the test positivity rate based on numbers from OurWorldInData. Based on that graph, I concluded that U.S. testing had fallen dramatically since September 3. As the testing data has gotten more complex, the story they tell becomes increasingly varied depending on the data source. I had been relying on data from COVID Tracking Project before last Wednesday. This week, I compared the data from the two sources and found a big difference. For several reasons, I am going back to the CTP data (Figure C). These data tell a more reassuring story. It looks like testing is holding steady and perhaps even rising over the last week. The drop in testing seen last week in the other dataset is not apparent. That gives me more confidence that the daily cases are more reliable and not an artifact of falling testing intensity. The test positivity rate is still not where we would like it (at or below 5%) but it is creeping down toward six percent.
    What this means: Tracking testing is getting harder. I’ll follow many observers and stick with the CTP data. It looks like U.S. testing is at least keeping pace. It is worth noting that the White House promised a million tests a day in March, a number that has still not been achieved.
Figure C
  1. Quirky Qorner: What’s funny about coronavirus? Nothing. But, that hasn’t stopped the flow of dark jokes
     As the death toll tops 200,000, the need for some dark humor intensifies. My attention was grabbed by a story by Jim Beckman from making the case for Rona humor. A couple of highlights:
    1. “Today’s Weather: Room Temperature.”
    2. “Anyone else’s car getting three weeks to the gallon?”
    3. “Never in my life would I imagine that my hands would consume more alcohol than my mouth.”
    4. Q: Why do they call it the novel coronavirus? A: It’s a long story…
    5. Q: What types of jokes are allowed during quarantine? A: Inside jokes

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