More on the coronavirus

John Oliver has an excellent show, dispelling a lot of the myths surrounding this epidemic and providing advice on what to do about it.

This article also discusses some of the myths that have grown up around the virus.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus task force headed by vice president Mike Pence begins a meeting in the White House.

Really inspires confidence, does it not? Thoughts and prayers are the answer!

But let us never forget who is the real victim here.

(Tom Tomorrow)


  1. says

    Listening to the radio yesterday I heard this:

    The CDC points to studies that have found that hand-washing can prevent 1 in 5 respiratory infections such as colds and flus and the same kind of thing this new coronavirus is.

    Now, a 20 percent success rate is better than 2 percent, but I don’t think that most people realize how ineffective hand-washing is. An 80 percent failure rate is nothing to feel good about.

  2. tbrandt says

    hyphenman: The virus seems to be infecting ~2 new victims for each existing victim. So, the number of new infections increases as 2^n, where n is the number of generations. A 20% effective preventative measure reduces this to 1.6^n. That may not seem like that much, but after 20 generations of viral spread, it’s the difference between 1 million new cases and 12,000 new cases. That’s a very big deal, one that can change the course of an epidemic. If you can combine two or three 20% effective preventative measures, you might be in business.

  3. Mano Singham says


    Could that sentence be read differently, that hand washing is effective, not for one in five cases of infections, but for onein five types of infections, and that the coronavirus happens to be one of those?

  4. says

    RE: the “meeting” picture. The guy near the door looks like he’s going “Oh, not this again.”
    Or maybe he’s just caught mid-sneeze. Maybe this was the meeting where the entire task force got infected. A historic moment, really.

  5. says

    @Mano, No. 3…

    I can see that reading. I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse. Under that interpretation hand washing could be really effective or a total failure and we’re not yet sure which. Perhaps tbrandt can shed more light on the who statement:

    The CDC points to studies that have found that hand-washing can prevent 1 in 5 respiratory infections such as colds and flus and the same kind of thing this new coronavirus is. So just this year, it’s estimated that there have been about 30 million flu cases in the U.S. So if everyone was more diligent about hand-washing, 6 million infections could be prevented.

    @tbrandt No. 2…

    Thank you. I trust your math but I think people are more concerned about stopping, rather than slowing the spread if the end result is still total infection of the susceptible population.

    As Douglas Adams demonstrated in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe exponential growth is a motherfucker. 1.6^48 gives us 6,277,101,735+ infections and 1.6^49—accounts for more than the current population of the planet.

    I do take your point, and as I wrote, “20 percent success rate is better than 2 percent” but in terms of time how many months? weeks? days? does humanity needs to go from 20 to 49 generations of infections, I am not optimistic.

    I have no idea what that number might be, but I do know that every day we spend worrying about the ramifications of action on stock markets or praying for any gawds to intervene puts us one day closer to that answer.

  6. Ridana says

    I saw a gif somewhere of Putz wiping his nose while waiting for Twittler to finish anointing him, then shaking hands with everyone congratulating him. smh Our Virus Tsar at work!

  7. tardigrada says

    We should be concerned about slowing the spread and most experts actually are. Even if the same number of people get infected in the end, it makes a huge difference if this happens over 2 months or 2 years. If we can slow it enough, there won’t be a critical shortage of staff, supplies, and equipment. If we can’t, people might die who could have been saved otherwise -- and not only CoViD19 patients but other patients too because there won’t be any capacity left to help them. Plus, with enough time, there will be vaccines and probably effective treatments available. This virus likely won’t be as easily contained as the SARS outbreak in 2003 because people are infectious before they show symptoms but every little bit to slow it down will help.

  8. says

    @tardigrada No. 7

    We should be concerned about slowing the spread and most experts actually are. Even if the same number of people get infected in the end, it makes a huge difference if this happens over 2 months or 2 years.

    That’s true, you’re absolutely right. The point I’m trying to make is that we have no idea how much time we have. A vaccine in two months seems unlikely and waiting two years is most certainly outside the window. Relying—at least here in the states where our leaders are panicking over a possible panic—on washing hands is just not sufficient.

  9. flex says


    I read the CDC statement a little differently. I’m not an epidemiologist, but I have read quite a few of studies of transmission of infectious diseases. What I’ve generally read is that as part of overall efforts to reduce transmission in controlled environments, about 20% of the reduction in cases can be attributed to regular hand-washing. E.g. if in a hospital 1000 patients catch a disease in a hospital without any mechanism for reducing the spread of infection, that number would only be 800 if everyone in the hospital washed their hands regularly. But hospitals have other processes to try to reduce the transmission of infectious disease, including isolated wards, proper masks, cleaning of surfaces, etc. Ideally the transmission rate would be zero, but the reality is that even with all the procedures in place the transmission rate can be 10-20%, and it can be higher if the procedures are not followed rigorously. Many studies have found that hospital staff, people who are trained to wash hands regularly and after any exposure, don’t.

    And that’s where most of the studies take place, in hospitals. Why in hospitals? Because that’s where the data is. Epidemiological studies are very difficult. You can’t ethically deliberately expose people to poorer medical care. So the studies are done in the places where there are enough patients to provide data and you can look at the differences in care standards by the staff. Hopefully sharing the results with the administrators at some point so that care can be improved.

    Can this data be extrapolated to the rest of the world? Yes, with caveats. Hospitals are concentrations of people who are ill. That’s part of the function of a hospital. The reason hand-washing, and stopping touching areas of the body which extrude fluids (nose, mouth, eyes, and other orifices) is recommended is because it’s pretty effective in hospitals and the logic is that it should be more effective in populations with lower incidences of disease (i.e. not hospitals). So the 20% effective number is based on studies which suggest that is the average minimum reduction expected by hand-washing based on hospital studies. It should be higher outside of hospitals but we don’t really have good data in those conditions. Theoretically, the more prevalent the disease is in the general population, the more similar the population is to that of a hospital. So if the disease is endemic, the studies are expected to be close to the actual effectiveness of the procedure.

    There is one more point I think should be made. We have very little data on CoViD19 right now. Less than a years worth of data, and only in the last few months have we learned that people can be infected, and transmit the disease, without showing symptoms. This suggests a couple things; first, the CoViD19 is far more widespread than originally thought; Second, the estimated fatality rate of 2% is likely the upper limit of the overall population risk and it’s probably lower. That number is calculated by dividing the known fatalities by the known total cases. Currently the rate from just the raw numbers known to be infected against the people who have died is about 3.4%, so the 2% number already takes into account an estimate of the number of undetected people who are infected. But that estimate could well be too small. If there are thousands of undetected cases, the denominator of the calculation increases, causing a drop in the calculated fatality rate. With the caveat that sub-populations can have much higher rates than the overall population. I’ve seen numbers suggesting that for people aged over 80 the fatality rate is up to 15% of those who catch the disease. Again, these numbers will change, and very likely drop, as we get more information. None of this is good news, as John Dunne wrote, “Every man’s death diminishes me.” It does mean that the risk of dying from CoViD19 is probably lower than current projections.

    The bottom line is pretty much like John Oliver said. Bleach will kill viruses, but drinking it will also kill you, so don’t go overboard. On the other hand, licking subway handrails is something you probably shouldn’t be doing anyway. Be reasonable about it. Take precautions to reduce the transmission of disease, precautions we know work. One of the easiest of them is to regularly wash your hands. It is probably more effective than 20% because there are few studies performed outside of hospitals on hand-washing. If you get a 20% reduction in transmission in a hospital where a lot of infectious people are collected, you should get a higher rate in a population which is generally healthy. At the end of the day the largest transmission vector of corona virus, any of them, is through exposure to bodily fluids. The most common exposure we have to other people’s bodily fluids is by touching with our hands, either directly or by touching things which are already smeared with someone else’s bodily fluid from their hands. Keeping your hands clean reduces both the chance of picking something up, and leaving germs for someone else.

  10. tbrandt says

    hyphenman: keep in mind that an epidemic starts to end when the basic reproduction number r0 drops below 1, not when it drops to zero. If every infected person, on average, makes 0.9 new people sick, the epidemic will gradually peter out. This is what seems to be happening in China, and it is (or should be) the goal around the world. So, we need to reduce the transmission of the novel coronavirus by a factor of ~2 (maybe 3) to defeat it. Environmental conditions can help--maybe a combination of warmer weather, reduced gatherings of people, hand washing, etc. will be enough. That’s the hope, anyway.

  11. says

    @Flex, No. 9

    I’m in perfect agreement with everything you stated.

    My contention with the ongoing reporting is that the American public are being mislead to believe that if they just wash their hands all day—I’ve lost count of the number of times NPR has broadcast that advice—all will be well.

    The fact that our president said that the great and wonderful pharmaceutical companies would have a vaccine very soon—when scientists and doctor who deal with epi/pandemics are saying a year to 18 months—is also going to be a problem.

  12. file thirteen says

    Fear not, decisive action has already been taken. The insurance companies here (NZ) have mobilised as one to ensure that covid-19 is no longer covered. Whew, a potentially massive financial loss avoided.

  13. flex says

    @hyphenman, #11,

    That kind of makes me glad that I limit my exposure to news to condensing sites and blogs which I can trust. Not that I have a real problem with NPR, but you’re right, hand-washing alone won’t prevent anyone from getting the disease.

    And anyone who listens to the president and not the epidemiologists, virus specialists, and vaccine specialists should really know better by now. My fear is that an untested vaccine will be rushed through CDC for political expediency, and it doesn’t work. Or worse, is harmful, Clinical trials are kind of necessary.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *