The Emperor’s New Clothes — or the COVID That Didn’t Happen

by Carol J. Bova

The May 22 UVA COVID-19 Model weekly report says the virus transmission rate dropped below 1.0 in the past week. It had averaged 2.2 prior to March 15. Here’s the explanation of what that means:

Researchers use the transmission rate of a disease, often referred to as R-naught (R0), to measure how fast it spreads. R0 is roughly the number of people one  sick person infects. So a transmission rate of 2.0 means that, on average, one sick person infects two others with the disease. The key number for transmission rates is 1.0. At an R0 above 1.0, the infection will spread. But below 1.0 the infection  will  die  out…

Based on onset date, the R0 of COVID-19 in Virginia dipped below 1.0 beginning on May 10.

The reproductive rate is 0.998 based on an onset date 14 days ending May 10.

Let me repeat that: “Below 1.0 the infection  will  die  out.”

The report adds: “However this rate is still preliminary.” Nonetheless, the Virginia Department of Health proclaims, “543,775 Cases Avoided so far” because of social distancing and other mitigations.

If a light rebound occurs because of the “slight lift of public health restrictions” on May 15, VDH predicts a peak of 38,456 cases during the week ending August 9.

If it’s strong, the prediction rises to a peak of 65,454 per week during the week ending July 26.

The more likely truth is the numbers would not have reached half a million, even without the shutdown. Yes, there would have been more cases, but we know by the number of asymptomatic cases turning up as positive tests, there have been more cases than we have counted, and more that will only be discovered should antibody testing become routine.

And yes, this virus can be deadly, even outside the closed systems of nursing homes and prisons. Those who are vulnerable because they need to take immune suppressants, and those who have any of a range of autoimmune conditions, or heart or lung issues, will have to maintain self-protective actions for some time to come. Actually, I am not sure life will ever return to a carefree and unprotected “normal” for them.

I do not advocate filling auditoriums, convention centers and other indoor places now. Stores should be able to open with reasonable capacity limits if their ventilation systems are kept clean and well filtered. I do hope controls on outdoor activities will be lifted immediately to get people out in the sunshine and hot weather to not only strengthen their immune systems, but lift their spirits.

But we don’t need grandiose statements from VDH of how many hundreds of thousands of cases have been avoided. To me, this falls under the category of the emperor’s new clothes.

Carol J. Bova is a writer in Mathews County and on the staff of Chesapeake Style magazine.

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19 responses to “The Emperor’s New Clothes — or the COVID That Didn’t Happen

  1. Carol – that was useful. Thanks.

    A question – isn’t that R value a correlation of infection to a given population?

    In other words the R value for Virginia as a whole might not be the same as the R value for NoVa?

    and I’m sort of curious about your statement: ” I do not advocate filling auditoriums, convention centers and other indoor places now. ”

    Okay, so WHY is that? If the R value is apparently NOT the criteria to decide to do auditoriums right now – then what is?

  2. Will someone please check my math? Today, VDH reported 12 new Covid 19 deaths, 13 of which seem to be attributed to “outbreaks”. Why are we supposed to trust these reports?

  3. Yes, excellent article, Carol.

    Let us all remember three key points on Covid – 19.

    1/ The number of infected cases claimed among large groups has little relevance to the current risk of Covid -19 to the general population, and/or to any individual or group of individual. There are many complex and variable reasons for this.

    2/ R-naught (R0) factors, to measure how fast the Covid -19 virus has and may spread, also now is a highly suspect factor when it is used to claim the risk that Covid -19 poses now or in the future to the general population, any individual, and/or groups of individuals. There are many complex and variable reasons for this.

    3/ Any claims by anyone, or any institution, about saving lives due to the actions of themselves, or any politicians, health care professionals, political parties, or practices of any theories, or actions of general populations, are by their nature highly unreliable. There are many complex and variable reasons for this.

    These three assertions are supported by growing numbers of highly reputable authorities. For a primer on these truths there are growing sources.

    For only example, please see (again if necessary) this 30 minute interview of Professor Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University throws great light and clarity onto these complex truths, questions and potential approaches to best answering them.


  4. “Why are we supposed to trust these reports?” The rolling seven day average is a more reliable measure, given the bunching of report over weekends; but it’s still GIGO if the underlying VDH data is flawed, whether because of inadequate testing or because of slippery definitions of who gets included in “new cases” or because of what geographic region is represented.

    I’ve been in Mathews County myself this past couple of weeks. What I observed myself was a sensible relaxation, recently, of tensions there. Was it misguided, wishful thinking, or real optimism that the sacrifices of the past months have succeeded enough to dedecompress a little? Was it the weather, which finally broke enough to lift a few spirits? There were no indignant protests to be seen in Mathews, no demands being made or granted. People still wore masks at Food Lion, for the most part anyway, but there were more inside the store than waiting for pickup outside last week. Semi-outdoor Ware Neck Produce was crowded on Saturday — a lot easier in the warmth — but subdued, customers trying to remain separated, if not fully isolated.

    I think there’s a sense in much of the community that we are in the long-haul phase now of sustaining the progress made, not throwing it away with reckless behavior. Carol is right: bragging about lives saved, about what might have been, is beside the point, unnecessary. But it’s only unnecessary if people accept the basic premise of moderation: this is an easing of restrictions, not an ending. People who have experienced hardship and lived through natural disasters are not inclined to dismiss COVID 19 as fake news but as another reality that simply must be dealt with, pragmatically, with as much good humor and common sense as possible under the circumstances.

    There are those who have maintained the drum-beat for total elimination of restrictions. They cite the economy; they cite one day statistics to disproved the larger evidence; they act like American Exceptionalism means the laws of epidemiology don’t apply outside of New York City. They are a threat to the rest of us. It’s none of my business in a libertarian world to care if they get sick, but it is mine to judge if the community around me offers such a high risk of exposure that I simply can’t leave the safety of my home or do business with others (except by UPS and FedEx). People like me are making judgments like that increasingly tilted toward taking the risk of human contact, and with those judgments they are deciding the fate of many small businesses in Mathews County, and larger ones, even the big boxes, across tidewater Virginia. Want to get the economy back up and running? Raise the confidence of ordinary folks, then, and don’t just tell me the risk has dissipated, show me the statistics that prove it. Without the testing and the utmost transparency from VDH and the Governor, who in Virginia will believe wishful thinking?

    I hope you are right, Carol, that the emperor of What Might Have Been is not in fact, because of our stubbornness, predicting What Will Be. But that is not up to the emperor. It is the ordinary citizens of Mathews County and the like who will decide the future. Despite abysmal leadership in Washington and the obvious lack of resources and transparency problems in many States, and the many deaths, and even the occasional snarky putdown, ordinary people are muddling through.

    We are not getting back to normal until there is a widely-available vaccine. We cannot rush to pretend otherwise. We can live a fulfilling, if cautious, life in the meanwhile. We can live well in a community where most everyone shares that approach with good humor and all the cheerfulness they can muster.

    • Reasonable thoughts Acbar.

      I had asked earlier up-thread WHEN we would KNOW that we could do things like auditoriums and larger congregations of people.

      It was an honest question because we keep citing “data” as our criteria for being able to “open back up” but we’re really NOT “opening back up in full”, it’s still not “all the way” and so I’m asking what criteria would we be looking for, what Data ? that would tell us that we could once again go to a movie theater or a sports event.

      The funny thing is that not even the most ardent “open up now” folks have advocated opening theaters and sports events right now – nor have they posited when we would or under what conditions we would.

      so anyone got any thoughts on when we KNOW we can go back to movie theaters and sports events? What data would tell us we could?

    • One of the most commonsensical comments I have seen on these pages.

    • SARS-Cov-2 the deadly hoax? An interesting conflation of conflicting ideas by the MAGA crowd.

  5. They were mentioning some surveys yesterday in MD/Va, about 50-55% of people like (prefer) the current new way of life. As they call on SNL, “Quarantina”.

    WVa was least happy at about 20% satisfaction.

    • Amazing how being faced with ones mortality changes attitudes. It may be that those least happy with the changes were also least happy before the change.

  6. Here’s the other funny thing. Hardly anyone, including most skeptics believes the danger from the virus is a hoax with respect to venues like auditoriums, movie theaters, spectator sports, casinos etc.

    It’s treated almost as if it’s a totally separate issue – a different virus than the one that has “shut down the economy”.

    The very same scientists that warned about restaurants also warned about these congregate venues and yet they are said to be wrong and the govt leaders that heeded their advice – wrong – but when it comes to the congregate venues – no accusations that the scientists are wrong about that – no condemnation of Northam and other governors about restrictions on congregate venues.

    strange. It’s almost like two different infectious diseases.

  7. Larry, to spell out the obvious to you: the virus has different impacts in different populations and in different settings. I have never used the word hoax in connection with the CV-19, nor have the others posting here called the virus a hoax. A theater or convention center with crowds from different population groups confined for hours in a building with a closed ventilation system recirculating air from one area to another is a different exposure than people walking in the sunshine outdoors or in small groups of individuals moving around in a shop for a shorter period of time.

    An emphasis on cleaning air ducts and changing HVAC filters may need to be part of actions in large workplaces or other gathering places as we move forward. That’s a practical point that VDH and UVA could be looking at…but to my knowledge, haven’t done yet.

    Dr.Gupta (a professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford) said in the video, “The R rate is principally dependent on the number of people who are immune, so the reason we talk about an R-naught (R-0) for a pathogen is because that’s its maximum transmission potential and that maximum transmission potential can only be realized in a population that is completely susceptible. So once it starts to spread through a population, its R declines from its maximum potential of R-naught, and the reason it does is because it’s using up its resources; it’s using up its susceptibles and those susceptibles are becoming immune, at least temporarily. I don’t think you can calculate R in the absence of the knowledge of how many people are immune.”

    She said earlier in the interview, “I think first of all, we do actually need to do the serological surveys; they are only just taking off. They need to be done properly and we need to have a representative section of the population and we need to get those numbers. That’s the starting point. [to the interviewer:] As you said, it’s a little bit worrying that that might not still give us the true picture. We also need to rely on other indicators so the structures of deaths, who is actually vulnerable, and we do have more information on that now than we had in March, and it’s clearer and clearer that the burden of death is unfortunately being borne by the elderly and those who have co-morbidities or other predisposing conditions.”

    • NO Carol. I did that first. I pointed out to you that the very same epidemiologists were involved in the different precautions for different venues.

      That was the point.

      Why do some of us believe them for auditoriums but not other venues ?

      I notice that not even the biggest skeptics of some venues apparently do not question other venues like auditoriums and sports venues.

      it’s the same virus that is exhibiting the same method of transmission. Right? So what criteria do we use to believe them for some venues but not others?

      In terms of the R-rate – I also asked what population you are using and does it matter if it is a county or a region or a state?

      Can the State have a difference value than say NoVa?

      How can Virginia be “stable” when the virus is still increasing infections in places like NoVa?

  8. I’m sharing the info in the VDH report, not calculating it myself. “Unraveling R0: Considerations for Public Health Applications” said, “the effectiveness of a specific intervention may vary temporally and geographically owing to changes in environment, population structure, viral evolution, and immunity; hence, estimates made in one region may not be applicable to another.”

    VDH is using the model for the whole state and extends the results to localities which you can select by health district, or by metro or non metro localities. You can check it out here:
    Start there and select Click here to see full report or click here to explore the model results for your community.

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