Woohoo! Most of Virginia Moving to Phase 1 Lockdown Relief!

Thanks for relaxing your death grip. I’m feeling so much better now.

by James A. Bacon

At long last Governor Ralph Northam is relaxing, ever so slightly, his strangle grip on Virginia’s economy and personal liberties by allowing the state (well, most of it) to enter Phase 1 reopening.

Most restrictions will remain in place. Entertainment and recreational businesses will remain closed. Restaurants still cannot provide indoor service. Gyms will stay shuttered. Beaches will remain verboten to sunbathers.

What actually changes? So-called “non-essential” businesses will be allowed to reopen as long as they limit shopping to no more than 10 patrons per establishment. Now you can dine out — if the restaurant has an outdoor patio or deck. And you can get a haircut — if you make an appointment first, and only if you wear a mask. (Thanks for small favors. I haven’t tried to have my hair cut while wearing an N95 mask with two elastic bands stretching around the back of my head, but I’m betting the experience will not lend itself to optimal styling.)

But even those minimal — and I mean minimal — rollbacks are too much for some people. Most of Northern Virginia, the City of Richmond, and the two counties on the Eastern Shore will remain under full lockdown.

My gut tells me that we will see zero change in COVID-19 trends that can be plausibly attributed to these changes. The restrictions being lifted are so meager that they open up very few avenues for the disease to propagate. In any case, many people, especially those at greatest risk, will continue to self-isolate. But, just for yuks, let’s establish some benchmarks. This is the way it was on May 15, 2020, when Phase 1 was implemented (in most places):

Let’s start with confirmed new COVID-19 cases. Here’s what the official numbers look like:

Click for larger, more legible image.

As we all know now, there are huge problems with this data. These numbers are not a random sampling of the population. The number of identified cases is rising, at least in part, because more tests are being reported. Moreover, the test results are biased by state-mandated testing protocols that prioritize who public health authorities and hospitals administer the tests to, as well as by the demographics of who has access to private testing, which has seen surging numbers. But it’s all we’ve got.

Here is is how the Virginia Department of Health expresses the data:

The seven-day moving average of new COVID-19 cases has been moving down for more than a week. OK, I’ll accept that — provisionally — as a sign that new cases in the real world are trending down. Good.

Northam also tracks the percentage of tests that yield positive for COVID-19 on the theory that if the percentage of positives is declining, that’s an indicator that the epidemic is receding. The percentage of positives is indeed heading down. I refuse to publish this data, however, because it is impossible to disentangle the effect created by an increase in the number of tests with laxer protocols and priorities. Personally, I think this indicator is worse than useless.

If we’re looking for trend lines, a more meaningful measure is the number of patients who are hospitalized. The criteria for admission to the hospital have not changed — if you’re sick enough to require acute care treatment, you’d admitted to the hospital.

Here, we can see, despite occasional spikes and dips, that the number of daily hospitalizations has plateaued for a month. This is the metric I watch most closely to ascertain the rate of spread of the disease. If these numbers start trending markedly up, then we know the virus is spreading more rapidly.

Finally, there is the ultimate metric — deaths. This data series has its own issues. Some funeral directors have suggested that some of the deceased admitted into funeral homes were not properly recorded as COVID-related. Still, it’s the best we’ve got, and the biases are relatively limited.

The metric, which involves smaller numbers, is inherently more volatile. But, like the others, it shows a plateau over the past month.

When it’s time to consider moving to Phase 2 of easing off the strangulation… er, lockdown… of the economy, I’ll revisit these metrics.

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21 responses to “Woohoo! Most of Virginia Moving to Phase 1 Lockdown Relief!

  1. I knew it would happen… the mere mention of ‘opening up’ the economy spreads the virus: “859 new coronavirus cases, 22 more deaths reported as Virginia begins to reopen” according to the Virginian Pilot.

  2. Well, first off, it’s hardly a “strangle/lock-down”. This week, I’ve been to the grocery store, the pharmacy, Lowes, bought some bulk mulch, saw my doctor, had some labs done, bought fuel and wine and have been walking 3 miles a day in a park and traveled to Cedar Mountain Battlefield park. I’m headed to the Dentist next week with some trepidation… and wondering if a haircut is worth the risk.

    We obviously do not understand as much as we need to – as Georgia for which had been predicted contagion on steroids – is apparently not if we believe their numbers. Perhaps the skeptics are right and the boogeyman under the bed is a dust ball after all!

    But, once again, will also point out that apparently, for whatever reason, the “lockdown” is optional at higher ed.

    You’d think that if we’re worried about spring-break type folks on a beach, that we’d also be likewise worried about all that humanity stuffed into dorms, dining halls, libraries and sports stadiums but apparently the Colleges have free rein to decide how to proceed – and it’s pretty much chaos on steroids… at this point.

    • Having participated a bit in the bitching, I’m happy to concede Virginia’s initial restrictions were not as draconian as elsewhere. If people behave rationally, this will be fine. Many people will not, of course, but they were going to increase their defiance anyway. They’ve been congregating and going without masks all along. Some of them will bet sick, but we may all get this before any vaccine appears. Certainly many millions of Americans already have had it that are not in the stats.

      And the death data is biased both ways. Many are dying with COVID, but not of COVID, and some 90 year old nursing home patient with two or three other fatal conditions may not have even noticed the added problem.

    • well not so much either… It’s just not so simple.

      not sure why Atlantic picked on Va much less claim it had a political motivation…

      excerpt:

      ” … A lack of federal guidelines has created huge variation in how states are reporting their COVID-19 data and in what kind of data they provide to the public.

      These gaps can be used for political advantage. In at least one state, Virginia, senior officials are blending the results of two different types of coronavirus test in order to report a more favorable result to the public. This harms the integrity of the data they use to make decisions, reassure residents, and justify reopening their economy.

      Other differences make it hard to track the pandemic. In at least three other states, officials have lumped together probable and confirmed COVID-19 deaths; most don’t specify how they’re counting deaths. While most states report the number of people who have been tested for the coronavirus, six states say they track the number of samples that have been tested—and California and New Jersey switched methods in the past few weeks. Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, and New York do not report the racial or ethnic breakdown of coronavirus cases.”

      it’s the wild wild west because “testing” is not the simple thing everyone thinks it is. It’s reminiscent of how Virginia calculated the number of high school grads – who knew it could be so confusing?

      but go back to the top:
      . A lack of federal guidelines has created huge variation in how states are reporting their COVID-19 data and in what kind of data they provide to the public.

      for all those who say the handling of the pandemic should be decentralized – take note – without uniform guidelines – this is what happens.

      • Regardless of federal guidelines, Virginia’s data should be consistent, timely, clear and concise. The data should be plainly communicated to Virginians by our state government. None of that is true or happening. Our state government spends $65B per year. It’s time that all that spending shows some benefit. Your Democrat controlled state government is juking the data (per the Atlantic article), refusing to disclose data that other states disclose (nursing home cases and deaths vs Maryland) and haughtily blowing off legitimate questions asked by the press at press conferences (King Ralph almost every day).

        It’s time to throw the plantation elite out of Richmond.

        • My understanding is that Virginia is not the only state playing this game – and when you don’t have national guidelines then this is what does happen.

          Even IF they did what you say – there still are a dozen different ways to do it – and STILL there would be a lack of understanding of what it means – because most folks just are not cognizant of how data can work and be interpreted.

          I’m not making excuses, I essentially agree with your sentiment but the devil is in the details.

          If you want another thing to be disturbed about – look at how VDH does NOT reveal the name of workplaces that has COVID19 outbreaks. The reason why is not so much nefarious as it is they’re concerned about panic type responses from the public.

          It’s absolutely hard to imagine that not a single Walmart has had cases of COVID19 … even when Aldi and Giant food have had them. Has Walmart got the magic touch or what?

  3. Thank you Don- This from your linked in Atlantic Article:

    “… These gaps can be used for political advantage. In at least one state, Virginia, senior officials are blending the results of two different types of coronavirus test in order to report a more favorable result to the public. This harms the integrity of the data they use to make decisions, reassure residents, and justify reopening their economy.

    Other differences make it hard to track the pandemic. In at least three other states, officials have lumped together probable and confirmed COVID-19 deaths; most don’t specify how they’re counting deaths …

    Many pandemic response efforts assumed clean, standard, accessible data would exist, but they do not. That said, Virginia’s decision to mix the results of two different kinds of tests marks a new low in data standards.

    The state is reporting viral tests and antibody tests in the same figure, even though the two types of test answer different questions about the pandemic and reveal different types of information. By combining these two types of test, the state is able to portray itself as having a more robust infrastructure for tracking and containing the coronavirus than it actually does. It can represent gains in testing that do not exist in reality, says Ashish Jha, the K. T. Li Professor of Global Health at Harvard.

    Read: There’s one big reason the U.S. economy can’t reopen

    “It is terrible. It messes up everything,” Jha told us. He said that combining the test results, as Virginia has done, produces information that is impossible to interpret.

    The state’s decision to combine the tests was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch …”

    • Cue the Richmond apologists. Virginia’s state government is a disaster. Hopeless, helpless and incompetent. At the least we should insist that they tax less and spend less in their eternal quest to be useless.

  4. “Mr. Powell said a Fed survey set for release on Thursday would show that almost 40 percent of people who were working in February and were members of households making less than $40,000 a year had lost their jobs in March.”

  5. yep. Apparently most who earn more than that (and probably have health insurance) have kept their jobs – so far but losses are going to go up the ladder as aggregate demand travels up the ladder and if aggregate demand drops by some percent – it gets reflected in jobs associated with demand.

    e.g. less autos means less auto insurance which means less insurance agents and claims adjusters, etc..

  6. “Apparently most who earn more than that ($40,000 a year) (and probably have health insurance) have kept their jobs”

    Whether technically true or not, it is a growing slaughter house all the way up the ladder. It is collapsing the life’s work of many people of all kinds and sorts, for example, high tech startups including many on the cusp of success, with cancelled contracts otherwise guaranteeing it in hand. Fear begets disaster.

    • Since the onset, I’ve surmised that this is one economic downturn that will trickle up.

      • interesting – Supply side is characterized as “trickle down”… so demand side is “trickle-up” ?

        😉

        • I should have typed more words. I meant that the pain of this downturn is going to be felt first at the bottom, and then the damage will move up some components of the socioeconomic ladder. I’d rather be invested in, say, means of production rather than owning a lot of property. Take my commercial real estate REIT, please!

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            Yes, this is going to be tough, very tough, on traditional real estate. Some experts see silver lining the reversing the constant contraction of office space per employee. I don’t any advantage there value wise as that solution too devalued the space greatly. Though it might be best of all other evils.

            Crisis will also reconfigure residential space, turning what was residential space into uses that otherwise considered commercial, flex office say.

          • @Reed Fawell 3rd Landlords or all scale (from owner of duplex to mall) hit right out of the gate.

            Also interesting to see affluent plastic surgeons, cosmetic dental practices struck immediately with prolonged demand problems. Small niche, just an example.

            Stockholders, in general, hit early and going forward.

  7. “better” economists know how the thigh bone is connect to the leg bone, etcetera … so they know where opportunity is even in this mess but most of us are along for the ride… unless we want to try to do hands on and “time the market” and other risky behaviors.

    Come Fall – Higher Ed is going to be skewed and K-12 – if the localities that fund them don’t get stimulus are going to lay off a bunch and that’s going to damage the economy further…

    It’s going to get worse before it gets better…

  8. These folks track all State data. I’m sure it is grading on a curve, but Virginia is doing way better than most. No slight to Tiger.

    https://covidtracking.com/data/state/virginia

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