Plagues in history

Here’s an interesting chart (although, portraying pandemics as spiky spheres is a bad choice — people are not good at visualizing relative volumes, and putting those volumes in a perspective that reduces the size of older one is a terrible idea) showing various afflictions on the human species over time.

The Black Death was the big one, but look at HIV — it’s amazing how our culture diminished the significance of that one, pretending it wasn’t happening even as its victims were dying in hospitals, and as prominent figures fell to it.

Smallpox coulda been a contender for the biggest plague of them all, but humans invented something that stopped it in its tracks: vaccination. If only people recognized the importance of that today…

For the love of dog, GET VACCINATED

In hospitals across the country, doctors are noticing an unsurprising phenomenon: the people who are getting admitted to critical care are all unvaccinated.

The trend appears to be occurring at hospitals nationwide.

“I haven’t had anyone that’s been fully vaccinated become critically ill,” said Dr. Josh Denson, a pulmonary medicine and critical care physician at Tulane University Medical Center in New Orleans.

It’s been the same for Dr. Ken Lyn-Kew, a pulmonologist in the critical care department at Denver’s National Jewish Health: “None of our ICU patients has been vaccinated.”

Unvaccinated children, too, seem to be at increased risk for severe illness.

“In our local hospitals, the kids that are getting sick are the ones that are not vaccinated,” said Dr. Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in Overland Park, Kansas, and a national spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

I saw the strangest thing on a television in Washington state: I watched Biden make his announcement that the US was going to ship 500 million vaccine doses to economically disadvantaged countries, then cut to commercial — the state is giving out all kinds of incentives to get people to come in for the COVID vaccine, like automatically entering your name into a lottery with a $250,000 prize.

I don’t get it. Not dying is not enough of a reward?

I’m keeping my mask

Everywhere I go now, people are running around without a mask, like all our concerns about public health have evaporated. Not me. I’m keeping mine for when I’m out and about.

I double-checked those numbers — they’re about right.

According to Scientific American, influenza cases all over the globe have dropped to “minuscule levels.” We’re not seeing nearly the same numbers as we have in previous years because of the health measures in place to help slow the spread of COVID19 — hand-washing, mask-wearing, staying home when sick, and socially distancing.

The publication reports approximately 600 deaths attributed to influenza during the 2020-2021 flu season in the United States, which typically peaks between December and February. Compared to previous years, where the numbers in the 2019-2020 season saw roughly 22,000 deaths, and the 2018-2019 season had more at 34,000 deaths, 600 is a 97 percent drop. So why is that happening? Are the typical flu deaths being categorized as something else?

Nope. The numbers are so low because the flu isn’t around. “There’s just no flu circulating,” Greg Poland, a researcher who has been studying the flu for the Mayo Clinic for decades, told Scientific American. Because of the measures in place for COVID, including increased handwashing, wearing masks, and staying home when sick, no one is out there spreading the flu either.

Who knew just improving the general level of hygiene would be so effective?

The real question is, why are people so eager to return to living in filth? I didn’t have a single day last year where I was too sick to get out of bed, and I didn’t even have the prolonged snotty sniffles of a cold. I don’t miss that.

Wake up, America

I’ve been disturbed by American selfishness — we seriously have swarms of people who are anti-vaccinations, and conspiracy theorists who believe the pandemic is a “plandemic” — and maybe we should look beyond our shores for the global perspective.

So, India…brace yourself for the horrific news.

On Friday, India reported more than 332,000 coronavirus cases in one day – the highest ever recorded by a single country.

Since the start of the pandemic, the country has recorded more than 16 million cases and 186,000 deaths, according to a tracker by Johns Hopkins University.

This means it has now overtaken Brazil, with the second-highest number of confirmed cases worldwide. The first remains the US.

The hospitals are full. People are dying in stretchers outside the hospital, waiting for care. And then, once they’ve died, they’re overwhelming the crematoria.

The unprecedented death rates are overwhelming the nation’s crematoriums.

“No one in Delhi would have ever witnessed such a scene. Children who were 5 years old, 15 years old, 25 years old are being cremated. Newlyweds are being cremated. It’s difficult to watch,” Jitender Singh Shunty, who runs a makeshift crematorium, told Reuters.

As the crematoriums are overrun, people are turning t mass burials in makeshift facilities like parking lots.

We have a moral obligation to make sure everyone in the world gets the best treatment. If you need a selfish reason, one of the reasons for the recent surge in India is the rise of new COVID variants.

How about some good news, though? We might have a successful malaria vaccine!

A vaccine against malaria has been shown to be highly effective in trials in Africa, holding out the real possibility of slashing the death toll of a disease that kills 400,000 mostly small children every year.

The vaccine, developed by scientists at the Jenner Institute of Oxford University, showed up to 77% efficacy in a trial of 450 children in Burkina Faso over 12 months.

Yes! This has the potential to be the biggest medical breakthrough of the 21st century. Defeating malaria would be huge.

Now we just have to get regulatory agencies to attach as high a priority to controlling tropical diseases as we do those that afflict temperate countries.

Hill said the institute might apply for emergency approval for the malaria vaccine just as it did for the Covid jab. “I’m making the argument as forcefully as I can, that because malaria kills a lot more people than Covid in Africa, you should think about emergency-use authorisation for a malaria vaccine for use in Africa. And that’s never been done before.”

The institute would probably ask the regulatory bodies in Europe or the UK for a scientific opinion on the vaccine and then apply to the World Health Organization for approval for use in Africa. “They did Covid in months – why shouldn’t they do malaria in a similar length of time as the health problem is an even greater scale in Africa?” Hill said.

They’ve arranged to have the vaccine mass produced by the Serum Institute of India…uh-oh. You might have guessed this: those facilities are overwhelmed right now by the need to churn out COVID-19 vaccines to deal with the pandemic surge.

Everything is interconnected! Wake up!

People, it’s not over yet

Do I need to announce this every day? The pandemic is not over. If you drop your guard, it can still get you.

New coronavirus cases in the United States continued to rise in the past week, jumping by as much as 12 percent nationwide, as senior officials implored Americans to stick to public health measures to help reverse the trend.

The seven-day average of new cases topped 63,000 for the first time in nearly a month, according to data compiled by The Washington Post, while states such as Michigan, Vermont and North Dakota reported substantial spikes in new infections. The nation appeared poised for a fourth wave of illness even as vaccine eligibility is expanding in many states.

Michigan led the nation in new cases with a 57 percent rise over the past week. The state, which relaxed covid-related restrictions earlier this month, also reported the largest increase in coronavirus hospitalizations, which grew by more than 47 percent.

The virus is still circulating everywhere. You’re swimming in it. The prevalence is still high, so even if you personally have been vaccinated, the virus still has tentacles of infection everywhere. We aren’t really safe until almost everyone is safe. Right now, I’ve got students going into quarantine and dropping out of our ongoing genetics experiment, and it’s not the kind of thing where you can take a few weeks to recover and pick up where you left off — the flies keep doing their thing whether you show up to analyze them or not. So I’m suddenly faced with a need to make all kinds of accommodations, and hope that enough students stay healthy that we can carry through to the end. This does not feel like the pandemic is over. It feels a lot like March of last year, when so many students were getting sick that we had to shut down the lab for the remainder of the term.

Meanwhile, we got people like the Libertarians of Kentucky, who make odious comparisons between more pandemic safety and the Holocaust.

Right. We’ve got a country full of assholes who consider the ability to spread disease to be an essential part of “human liberty”.

Everyone who is not a selfish, entitled git: get vaccinated, get tested, wear a mask, maintain social distancing, don’t start partying in bars just yet.

Don’t slack off now!

I know, we’ve got vaccines now, and over 90 million people, about 35% of the US population, have been vaccinated. The rates of infection and death have been generally declining, so people are getting cocky and dropping their guard. But it’s not over yet.

A year after becoming a global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, New York and New Jersey are back atop the list of U.S. states with the highest rates of infection.

Even as the vaccination campaign has ramped up, the number of new infections in New Jersey has crept up by 37% in a little more than a month, to about 23,600 every seven days. About 50,000 people per week in New York are testing positive for the virus, a number that hasn’t much changed since mid-February.

The current infection rates are higher than they were in March of last year, when we were so worried that we went into lockdown. Well, some of us, anyway — too many people ignored the warnings and we had a massive spike in December/January. I guess we’re forgetting that, too, and just getting used to the ongoing risk.

Hey, state governors: when the infections decline, that’s a sign that your current policies are working. It doesn’t mean it’s time to open up all the bars and slow dance with strangers. When you go golfing, do you stop the club the instant you hit the ball, or do you follow through? Stay the course, everyone, for at least a few months more.

Experts worry the public is getting the message that increased vaccination means the state is in the clear, even though only a fraction of the public has completed a full course. Vaccines lessen the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, but scientists are still studying how well they prevent the spread of the virus.

“To allow larger groups to gather, to give the message to the public that we’re over the worst and that we can go back to normal is a mistake,” Farber said.

Stony Brook University professor and neuroepidemiologist Sean Clouston said growth in new cases is concentrated in younger people, who can’t get vaccinated in New York unless they have specific health conditions or certain jobs. He said their infection rates could drop once they’re eligible, too.

My grandkids are not vaccinated yet, so I’m going to take it personally if you won’t act responsibly. Also, you just know there are a significant number of demented dingleberries who are going to refuse the vaccination no matter what, and they’re going to lurk among our citizenry as a reservoir of disease.

You implement preventive measures before the problem worsens, Governor Walz

The numbers of the infected are surging in Minnesota, so now our governor says “Whoops!” and decides maybe we should refrain from wild partying.

Gov. Tim Walz strongly indicated during the Monday opening of a new saliva testing center in Minneapolis that he will soon announce restrictions on bars and restaurants as a way of stemming an explosion of COVID-19 infections in Minnesota.

Walz stood with Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm to announce another expansion in testing, this time at the Minneapolis Convention Center, but both officials further lamented an increase in both infection numbers and positivity rates. The state saw 10,000 new infections over the weekend and passed a 10 percent positivity rate.

Walz said health department information is seeing three infection sources: social events such as weddings and funerals, large family gatherings and bars and restaurants. The latter dovetails into another concern of health officials — the large number of 18-to-35 years olds who may be infected but asymptomatic. Those people can be efficient spreaders.

Barn doors, closed, after cow escapes, etc. OK. I think the citizenry have already learned to be slack about these things, unfortunately, and there is also going to be a subset of the population — you know the ones, the conspiracy theorists — who are going to see this as a validation of their belief that the Democrats want to steal muh freedoms.

In more positive news, I’ve been reading the news about the new potential vaccine. It’s an RNA-based vaccine? Cool. That’s an intriguing approach, except for the fact that RNA is remarkably fragile. My concerns were confirmed by this little bit of information:

Pfizer’s vaccine must be stored at ultra-low temperatures, which complicates the massive endeavor to distribute a vaccine throughout the population. Pfizer’s logistical plan includes using dry ice to transport frozen vials. Health facilities can keep the vaccine for up to six months at minus-70 degrees Celsius, or minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit. But many hospitals lack the special freezers that can get that cold.

So that’s like dry ice temperatures, but at least it’s not liquid N2 temperatures. I guess that’s doable, but it’s going to add to the expense and mostly force communities to upgrade their medical infrastructure a bit. Otherwise, though, the idea of using RNA to put the patient’s immune system to work making viral antigens is just kind of brilliant. I hope it’s working soon, and that maybe Governor Walz gets ahead of the game this time and starts making grants to regional medical institutions so they’re ready as soon as the vaccine is available.

Yeah, and closing the bars would have been a brilliant idea, too…last month.

Adam Savage on hearing loss

He gives a good answer to a common question.

My hearing is fine, thank you very much, except for an obnoxious tinnitus that isn’t yet affecting my life much. My wife, however, is losing her hearing in an unusual way, with the lower registers progressively dropping out (usually it’s the other way around, losing the higher frequencies first). Savage mentions the high cost of hearing aids, and we have some experience with that — there’s a reason for it. Modern hearing aids aren’t just amplifiers that make all sounds louder, they have to be more sophisticated than that. For instance, my wife has an app on her phone that lets her tweak the amplification, it’s like a built-in equalizer so she can boost the volume at specifically the frequencies that are affected. The technology is cool, but Savage is right — it’s also awkward and clumsy and expensive.

At least her condition means my voice is becoming gradually more inaudible, while she can hear the grandkids just fine, which is probably for the best. It still ought to be a right for everyone to have this kind of necessary support. You never know, maybe someday I’ll say something worth listening to!

I wonder which of the fervent Republicans at the rally infected him?

You know, Herman Cain attended a Trump rally maskless, and proudly posted a photo of himself hanging out with a small crowd of people, also maskless, and then was diagnosed with COVID-19 afterwards.

Now Herman Cain is dead of COVID-19.

Please, please, please take the pandemic seriously. Even you Republicans. It’s real. It kills people. Even people you might like.

Deborah Birx’s reputation will never recover

Which is only fair, since her enabling of Trump is a catastrophe from which the nation will never recover. The NY Times has a piece on how Trump failed the pandemic test, and Birx plays a prominent role in it.

For scientific affirmation, they turned to Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the sole public health professional in the Meadows group. A highly regarded infectious diseases expert, she was a constant source of upbeat news for the president and his aides, walking the halls with charts emphasizing that outbreaks were gradually easing. The country, she insisted, was likely to resemble Italy, where virus cases declined steadily from frightening heights.

On April 11, she told the coronavirus task force in the Situation Room that the nation was in good shape. Boston and Chicago are two weeks away from the peak, she cautioned, but the numbers in Detroit and other hard-hit cities are heading down.

A sharp pivot soon followed, with consequences that continue to plague the country today as the virus surges anew.

In April. I remember April. Did anyone think we were on the right path in April? We’d shut down my university, but already I was seeing people refuse to accept it, clamoring to get back to bars and beaches.

Dr. Birx was more central than publicly known to the judgment inside the West Wing that the virus was on a downward path. Colleagues described her as dedicated to public health and working herself to exhaustion to get the data right, but her model-based assessment nonetheless failed to account for a vital variable: how Mr. Trump’s rush to urge a return to normal would help undercut the social distancing and other measures that were holding down the numbers.

Yeah, models built on assumptions, like that Americans wouldn’t be stupid, and that Trump wouldn’t encourage that stupidity. Just the fact that Donald Trump is president should tell you how wrong that is.

Inside the White House, Dr. Birx was the chief evangelist for the idea that the threat from the virus was fading.

Unlike Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx is a strong believer in models that forecast the course of an outbreak. Dr. Fauci has cautioned that “models are only models” and that real-world outcomes depend on how people respond to calls for changes in behavior — to stay home, for example, or wear masks in public — sacrifices that required a sense of shared national responsibility.

Again, a responsible nation would not have elected Donald Trump.

Dr. Birx’s belief that the United States would mirror Italy turned out to be disastrously wrong. The Italians had been almost entirely compliant with stay-at-home orders and social distancing, squelching new infections to negligible levels before the country slowly reopened. Americans, by contrast, began backing away by late April from what social distancing efforts they had been making, egged on by Mr. Trump.

The difference was critical. As communities across the United States raced to reopen, the daily number of daily cases barely dropped below 20,000 in early May. The virus was still circulating across the country.

Italy’s recovery curve, it turned out, looked nothing like the American one.

Nope. Because Italians were smarter than Americans…or rather, I should say, Italians didn’t have failed leaders who were modeling the worst possible behavior for containing the infection, and didn’t have scientists feeding their delusions.

Other nations had moved aggressively to employ an array of techniques that Mr. Trump never mobilized on a federal level, including national testing strategies and contact tracing to track down and isolate people who had interacted with newly diagnosed patients.

“These things were done in Germany, in Italy, in Greece, Vietnam, in Singapore, in New Zealand and in China,” said Andy Slavitt, a former federal health care official who had been advising the White House.

“They were not secret,” he said. “Not mysterious. And these were not all wealthy countries. They just took accountability for getting it done. But we did not do that here. There was zero chance here that we would ever have been in a situation where we would be dealing with ‘embers.’ ”

We could still take those actions that other nations did — in fact, we really ought to, despite the fact that it’s late and those measures will cost more and we’re still going to suffer the tragic consequences of our failures — but we won’t. Classes start in a month, and my university still plans on opening, and I’m going to have to teach in-person labs, and students will still be moving into the dorms, and will still be gathering in the cafeterias for meals as a group, and will probably still be heading out to the bar for quarter taps on Thursday nights. It’s madness. If the University of Minnesota had asked me, I would have told them to slam on the brakes right now, refuse to enable the massing of students in one place, and teach online classes only for a year. The summer of 2021 would be the time to discuss cautiously reopening fully, but only if the pandemic was under control.

Nobody asked me. I was only told to prepare a plan for a limited reopening, not asked whether we should open at all.

At least I’m not a Birx making happy-clappy PowerPoints to show how everything is going to be just fine. When I’m feeling optimistic, I put the chances of me being dead within a year at about 10%.