To Fight COVID-19 in Virginia, Give Public More Data

by James A. Bacon

The COVID-19 virus has escaped containment, and it has reached Virginia. Authorities have identified two documented cases of the COVID-19 virus: one a U.S. Marine stationed at Ft. Belvoir who apparently was infected during an overseas business trip, and the other a Fairfax County man in his 80s who picked up the illness on a cruise ship in Egypt.

Most likely, the two cases represent the tip of the epidemiological iceberg. People can carry the virus for two weeks without showing symptoms, and the ability of state public health authorities has been hampered by a shortage of testing capabilities. According to the Virginia Department of Health coronavirus website, the state has tested only 44 people to date. The shortage of testing kits, which should be alleviated in the near future, has meant that public health officials have utilized their limited supply sparingly.

In other words, there could be dozens if not hundreds of people infected with COVID-19 today in the Old Dominion, and we just don’t know it. And we likely won’t know until they start showing up in hospital emergency rooms a week or two from now.

In theory, there are other ways to track the spread of the virus, if only indirectly: such as monitoring the number of patients admitted to doctors’ offices and hospital emergency rooms with respiratory ailments consistent with COVID-19 symptoms.  If the number of patients reporting respiratory issues is surging above and beyond what is normal for this time of year, we can surmise that COVID-19 is largely responsible. And we can tell where the virus appears to be spreading the most rapidly. Such information can inform local authorities and citizens on the need to take measures such as closing schools, canceling events, and working from home.

Here is the data that appears on the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) website:

From this dashboard, we see that 139 individuals are under “public health monitoring.” “Low risk” individuals include U.S.-based aircrew members and private travelers who have flown through or had layovers in mainland China in the past 14 days. “Medium risk” individuals are those who have traveled from mainland China in the past 14 days. Given the fact that the virus has leaped borders into the United States and Virginia itself, the second table data tells us nothing of remote importance.

It was inevitable that COVID-19 virus would reach Virginia. We live in a globalized economy with porous borders, and within the U.S. we are a hyper-mobile society. Given the nature of the virus — carriers show no symptoms for up to two weeks — people spread the plague unwittingly. It is no accident that the first two confirmed cases occurred in Northern Virginia, the most cosmopolitan and globally connected region of the state. Now that the virus has reached NoVa, it will remorselessly move downstate.

Until someone invents a vaccine, “social distancing” is the only practicable way to slow the spread of the virus. Obvious examples of social distancing are closing schools and colleges, canceling events, and facilitating telework so people can work at home. Also, once people know that the virus is circulating in their community, individuals can self-isolate by limiting their excursions from home and their interactions with others. There is significant economic cost to these measures, however, and we don’t want to succumb to ill-founded hysteria.

In our decentralized system of government, the actions of local medical officials, educators, business managers, community leaders and individuals are as important as those of governors and presidents. To make rational decisions that optimize the trade-offs between limiting the spread of the disease without shutting down the economy, everyone needs the most current possible local information. That information needs to be more granular than it appears on the VDH website, which breaks the state into only five regions.

At present, that real-time information appears to be lacking. We will get more data as testing kits become more readily available. It would be immensely helpful if VDH would display that data in a way that citizens and decision makers can query and map so they can see what is happening in their community.

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18 responses to “To Fight COVID-19 in Virginia, Give Public More Data”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    Maryland declared a state of emergency. Larry Hogan (Republican governor of Maryland) has gone to TV to describe what Maryland is doing. Notably, Maryland has gotten permission from the CDC to do their own testing which should help given the lack of test kits at the national level.

  2. djrippert Avatar

    Another article claiming that the US has too few ICU beds and ventilators for even a “moderate” outbreak.

    Any thoughts on whether Virginia hospitals are better or worse prepared than the average state?

    1. I’ve contacted the hospital association in the hope of getting more information regarding Virginia hospital surge capacity. No response yet.

  3. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    Let’s be clear … regarding your National Review source …

    Michael R. Strain is an American economist. He is the John G. Searle Scholar and the director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. In 2005, he joined the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as an assistant economist.

    In 2012, leaving his job at the Census Bureau, Strain joined the American Enterprise Institute as a Research Fellow and later became the Deputy Director of Economic Policy Studies at the institute in 2015. He is the editor of The US Labor Market: Questions and Challenges for Public Policy.

    According to WIKI … “Strain has published articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard.[10] Strain’s work on employment, anti-poverty and upward mobility issues, and economic opportunity has been featured or profiled in many publications. ”

    Ain’t nothin’ there about expertise in public health.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      It’s just math. The curve flattened in China 13 days after the 100th case was reported. The rest of the world hasn’t gotten there yet. When we do maybe our curves will flatten too.

      Presumably the WHO has public health experts. They say the death rate for Coronavirus is 3.4%. Trump has a hunch that rate is too high. He says less that 1%. Care to bet me which one is right? My money is on Trump. Any of the other Trump haters on this blog – if you want in on this bet just let me know. Who will end up closer to the real death rate – the WHO at 3.4% or Donald Trump at 1%? I’m no public health expert but I know that you can’t calculate a death rate until you have a pretty good idea of the number of people who have the disease and therefore might die. Given the inadequate testing and lack of early symptoms we don’t know how many people have the disease. The most tested population is in South Korea and the death rate there is 0.6%.

      Any takers on the Trump vs “the experts” bet?

      C’mon Larry … you love government and government experts more than just about anything in the world. $100?

  4. Jim Loving Avatar
    Jim Loving

    Agree more local data, based on testing and projections, would be useful. However, perhaps stronger pro-active social distancing measures, at the city, county level, are in order, in the absence of testing data. That could happen if Northam declared a state of emergency and enabled flexibility in restriction of movement and contact.

    “People trust data. Numbers seem real. Charts have charismatic power. People believe what can be quantified. But data do not always accurately reflect the state of the world.” (Or the State, County or region).

    “The reality gap between American numbers and American cases is wide. Regular citizens and decision makers cannot rely on only the numbers to make decisions. Sometimes quantification actually obscures as much as it reveals.”

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I would prefer to think they are too busy working on preparations to waste time satisfying the curiosity of bloggers. News releases have no real value. But that’s probably wishful thinking on my part.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      I don’t know. I think Larry Hogan did a lot of good with his news show interview today. It wasn’t just “trust me”. He spoke about some specifics that have happened and will potentially happen in the future. While I can’t quite see Maryland from my backyard I could ride a bike there if I got ambitious. I was happy to hear a cool, calm, level headed, logical Republican governor speak to his constituents about his state’s preparations.

  6. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    To date, the major lesson that might emerge from this latest virus is how today’s society has become extremely fragile, so easily breakable, if only because out society and its systems are now so prone to hysteria driven by instant communication and inter-connectivity of a vast array of markets, systems and things, from politics, to oil, to stocks, to health care, education, etc.

    This suggests that same destabilizing forces that have so recently injected new levels of hyper-anxiety, cascading memes, fears, anger and aggression into our political system over the past decade now drive rising hysteria over much else that we otherwise would likely have weathered far easier before.

    One big question now how much of this is self induced disruption, creating the heightened potential for Black Swan events.

    1. Agreed. There is a lot of politically-driven hysteria in the media. That makes it really difficult to evaluate the quality of information we’re getting, much of which conflicts. All the more reason to have the state publish quality data!

      1. djrippert Avatar

        I don’t see “politically driven”. Trump has a perspective. He thinks we’ll be fine. Maybe he’s right. What do Sanders and Biden think? Nobody knows. As far as I can tell those two heroic figures won’t hazard a prediction or call for any real steps to be taken (or call for nothing to be done).

  7. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    I would suggest that accurate data from people actually in charge of public health that is backed up by the pols would reduce what you call ‘hysteria’.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        I’ve been to Northern Italy many, many times. It’s a thoroughly modern place with great universities and a thriving pharmaceutical industry. Of course they have their public health experts too. Today they locked down the entire country after having recorded 9,000 cases. Are the Italians hysterical? Are they primitive? Are they stupid?

        I’ve used this example before. A piece of paper is 0.1mm thick. Fold it in half and the paper is now 0.2mm thick. Fold it again and you get 0.4mm. Now, off the top of your head … how thick will the paper be by the 100th fold? Knee high? Up to your chin? Up to the roof?

        Actually the paper would be wider than the known universe. Exponential math is a funny thing. It sneaks up on you. Another example, the smartphone in your pocket is 32,600 times faster than the best Apollo era computers and could perform instructions 120,000,000 times faster. You wouldn’t be wrong in saying an iPhone could be used to guide 120,000,000 Apollo era spacecraft to the moon, all at the same time.

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          … paper would be wider than the known universe. Exponential math is a funny thing. It sneaks up on you. … the smartphone in your pocket is 32,600 times faster than the best Apollo era computers and could perform instructions 120,000,000 times faster. You wouldn’t be wrong in saying an iPhone could be used to guide 120,000,000 Apollo era spacecraft to the moon, all at the same time.”

          A profound statement.

          Yet, 60 years later, we hardly use paper at all, except for the most primal of human tasks.

          And we’ve never been back to the moon. We can’t afford it. Nor can we afford trains, light rail, or trolleys, or subways. We’re too poor, too corrupt, too incompetent, and too distracted with vast arrays of fool’s errands to build or do anything grand.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Accurate data might be possible in the US if we had enough test kits but we don’t. Apparently, the public health experts we employ couldn’t do what the South Koreans did – make lots of test kits.

  8. J. Abbate Avatar
    J. Abbate

    Revealing that some of you would support Trump, who stood in front of the medical professionals and lied about the status of the coronavirus spread. And the professionals from the CDC had to take over after he left and explain the truth. Even Mr. Rippert makes Trump a liar, when he states above that we don’t have enough test kits, after Trump finished lying today that any and all Americans needing or wanting tests could get tested today. BTW, the WHO just stated that coronavirus is on the brink of the pandemic classification, so I will be happy to step up and take that bet that Trump’s figure is incorrect. Either you believe him or you don’t. Would you really bet your life and your family’s life on Trump’s political conspiracy rants and bogus numbers vs. any one of the medical experts? Can you explain Trump’s visionary planning in his lowered funding the CDC and dismantling of Obama’s permanent epidemic monitoring and command group inside the White House National Security Council (NSC) and another in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—both of which followed the scientific and public health leads of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the diplomatic advice of the State Department? Or maybe you prefer following Trump’s hunches than actual data, which could be called Fake News by this president. It could be truly pitiful and potentially harmful for those folks that prefer believing Trump and continue to take this lightly, go to work and go to large rallies, rather than follow the science and medical advice. Wishing you and your families all peace and health during these trying times.

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