Wednesday COVID-19 Briefing

Top news, reports and insights for today:

  1. Curated headline summaries for Mid-week:
  • Top story: U.S. tops 21 million COVID-19 cases with record hospitalizations as states ramp up vaccinations (Reuters).
  • Coronavirus vaccine scams are on the rise in Europe and the U.S.; officials are warning the public against fraudsters who swindle customers out of money and personal data with promises of fake vaccines (Daily Mail).
  • COVID-19 tests are in demand and testing has dropped. You can now get an FDA-approved at-home saliva test at Amazon (CNN Business).
  • UC San Diego installs Covid-19 testing vending machines on campus (CNN).
  • Some 86% of people with mild cases of COVID-19 lose their sense of smell and taste but recover it within six months, according to a new study of over 2,500 patients from 18 European hospitals. Loss of smell was more common in younger patients (CNN).
  1. U.S. testing falls to mid-November levels as cases and deaths continue to surge
      Newly reported cases grew 21 percent this week compared to the holiday week adding 1.4 million cases (See Figure A). That itself is not surprising given what we had anticipated. The more concerning signal comes from the state growth-factor chart (Figure B) showing cases rising in every state and the District of Columbia. The largest increases were in Alaska (+76% increase this week compared to the week previous), Arizona (+51%), Hawaii (+55%), Minnesota (+43%), Florida (+44%), Kentucky (+42%), Louisiana (+64%), North Carolina (+46%), and Vermont (+41%). The daily death data shows a similar pattern (Figure C) as Tuesday’s tally was especially disheartening. The weekend slow-down came to an abrupt end as deaths spiked to over 3,400 on Tuesday, the second highest daily total of the outbreak.
     The thing that makes the current surge of particular importance is that daily U.S. testing has been sagging in recent weeks (Figure D). Over 1.6 million tests were recorded today on COVID Tracking Project, which sounds like a lot, but little noticed has been a marked slowing of the progress that had been made earlier in the Fall. Today’s testing totals put us on par with the 7-day average back in Mid-November, but it’s 300,000 tests fewer than the peak achieved in Mid-December. In other words, the fall off in testing masks the severity of the current surge. Another way to put this is that if we were doing 20% more testing like we were in December, the daily case totals would be breaking records every day. Over the next week or two, the effects of Christmas travel will start showing up in the data.
    Bottom line: January is going to be very rough.
Figure A
Figure B
Figure C
Figure D: COVID Tracking Project screen grab January 5, 2021
  1. How does the U.S. pandemic response stack up to other countries? A novel composite national pandemic response score
      On the weekend briefing, I showed you the ranking of countries in terms of COVID-19 deaths per million (reminder, the U.S. was substantially below average). I’ve been working more on this question this week. That’s partly because we can’t trust the daily numbers yet due to the Christmas reporting slow-down and also because the new year seems like a good time to look big picture. Epidemiologists always struggle with proper ways to compare the performance of people, doctors, hospitals, states or countries when those units differ substantially. One standard approach is to compute something called Z-scores. A Z-score is a statistical tool that expresses how far a unit (here country) is from the average relative to a particular distribution of performances. The units are standard deviations, or the average amount a given unit differs from the mean of that parameter. To compute a composite score that summarizes a country’s performance across different outcomes, I used data from WORLDOMETER as of January 1, 2021 for three different outcomes: 1) COVID-19 cases per million, 2) COVID-19 deaths per million, and 3) tests per million. The direction of each is set so that higher numbers reflect better relative performance. As was true over the weekend, I picked all countries meeting three criteria:
    a) at least 5 million population (to exclude smaller nations that lack an essential health infrastructure);
    b) at least 100,000 total cases (to exclude a small set of countries that are probably pretending not to be impacted by the pandemic);
    c) at least 100,000 tests per million people (to exclude countries whose case and death estimates can’t be trusted because of inadequate testing).
     Among the 222 global nations impacted by COVID-19, that results in a subset of 45 countries that should, in theory, be comparable in terms of their pandemic response. The resulting composite national pandemic response score (NPRS) is created by adding three Z-scores, each of which is based on the entire distribution of those 45 countries (See Figure E). This is one new way to use science and data to better understand how this country stacks up on the world stage. The top 3 scores belong to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Denmark and Malaysia. Because of the way Z-scores work, countries around zero are (by definition) average, or middle-of-the-pack. Countries in this region include Palestine, Jordan, Oman, South Africa, Ukraine, Slovakia and Serbia. Most are middle income nations that have outperformed a number of high-income countries. The bottom three performing nations include the United States, Belgium and the Czech Republic. The U.S. has the third worst performance among these 45 nations, scoring well-below average on all three components. For those who believe the U.S. should not be compared to Kazakhstan (for example), I also show you just the OECD countries that meet the selection criteria (N=23). The U.S. also was third worst among that set of countries, having been outperformed in 2020 by Russia, Canada, Greece, Germany, Turkey, Israel, Portugal, the U.K., Austria, Chile, Poland, France, Columbia, Sweden, Netherlands, Spain, Hungary, Italy, and Switzerland.
     Bottom Line: After summarizing relative performance of comparable nations based on COVID-19 cases, deaths and testing, the U.S. response in 2020 was the third worst.
Figure D
  1. Quirky Qorner: COVID-19 declares video games the entertainment champ in 2020
     My kids will groan to read this but I don’t own a video game console and I don’t play video games (except for solitaire). Thankfully, they don’t read my blog so I am safe. If they did, they might rub it in my face that as movie theaters and music venues have dried up, Americans have turned to video games as their favorite entertainment option. Geez. An article from the Verge today reports on Nielsen 2020 year end review showing that 55 percent of Americans turned to gaming. Interestingly, 1 in 4 used video games as a way to connect to others. I admit I don’t even know what that means.

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