Social media is alive with arguments about the opening up that’s occurring in the US, particularly in the red states. We’re roughly bifurcating into two different strategies, which I’ll here call openers and test/tracers.
One thing I’m seeing is two awful strawmen that are in fact only embraced by their opponents looking for an easy argument. Those are:
- Open up! No masks, no gloves, go back entirely to normal and have huge rallies/sporting events where we all snuggle! After all, Covid is just a hoax!
- Stay Closed! Never open up again, just stay in our houses and wait for a vaccine to be developed and distributed to 70% of the population. No life should be lost for any cost!
Let’s stipulate that both of these are stupid, stupid arguments. (Sane) people who want to open up still want some social distancing, some precautions. They just believe that we must open up now for the good of the economy and that we can do so safely without having a massive explosion of death.
People who want to stay closed don’t want to do so forever, they want to drive the virus down to manageable numbers so THEN we can open up in phases and test/trace to keep it under control as we open up more and more of the economy. They’re advocating for perhaps another 4-6 weeks in Washington State to get there.
Let’s forget about the strawmen. We can even stop arguing, because I’d argue we are now running a great experiment to find out who’s right.
Every good experiment needs a plan and a methods section, which specifies the hypotheses being tested and the measures being taken. This is that section for the United States’ Great Opening.
I think the real positions are these:
Open up now: “The virus isn’t that contagious. We’ve massively overreacted by shutting down all the way. We can open up most of the economy, right now, and as long as individuals exercise some caution, those activities won’t cause deaths to go up much or at all. Even if they do go up, it’s worth some deaths to get the economy rolling along.”
Test/Trace: “Oh yes it is that contagious! We were on a massive exponential growth curve and had to massively shut down for a few months to avoid having millions die. Once it’s been beaten down, we can massively test and trace our way to success and have a safe opening where people can go out to restaurants, work elbow to elbow, and return to some kind of normality.”
The twitterverse is loaded with pundits and amateur epidemiologists who are 100% certain they’re right about the one they like, and they’re all full of crap. Nobody knows which is correct. Open up pundits point to Sweden, who never fully shut down. Test/Trace pundits point to Asian countries who have contained it using test and trace. But we don’t really know from the mixed signals we see which model is best, and of course the US isn’t just like these. My key message here is we lack the data to really know how this will play out. Thankfully, we can stop arguing because soon we’ll know.
There’s a key claim here that will be tested: That the virus does or doesn’t become apocalyptic when unchained. Several states are about to loose it; others are not. We just need to watch, wait, and learn.
Here’s how I think we can measure this: First, let’s pick some representative states. We’re not picking New York or Wyoming because they’re crazy extreme examples. Representing “open up”, Georgia and Texas. Both are opening up in spite of being at (fingers crossed) the very peak of infections and deaths, representing a really pure case study. Representing Test/Trace, let’s pick Washington and California, who’ve both really clamped down and driven deaths/infections to a manageable level.
|States||If Open up are right…||If test/trace are right…|
|Open up||Infections and deaths rise a little, people feel safe, employment stats and GDP take off, and a recovery starts. Infections fall off after a little while as 70% of people become infected and herd immunity kicks in.||Infections and deaths rise exponentially, people are scared and don’t want to walk over piles of corpses to get into the pizza place, the economy doesn’t recover, people hunker down anyway, so employment doesn’t improve.|
|Test/Trace||Infections and deaths never drop off completely, the economy collapses, unemployment is terrible, and the states never get around to opening the economy.||In 3-4 weeks things are under control, the economy opens up in cautious phases, employment improves and restaurants and other businesses get lots of business from safer-feeling patrons.|
The key metrics in these states therefore are:
- Infections – do they rise exponentially? Do test/trace states ever hit a very low level to be able to open up anway?
- Deaths – how bad is the carnage? Can the elderly and obese be protected? What’s the real death rate?
- Unemployment – do people go back to work and businesses open just because they can? Do restaurants open to packed tables?
- Switching strategies – do the “open up” states, after 4-8 weeks, find the carnage unacceptable and close back down? Do the test/trace states, after waiting for weeks on end, say “what the heck” and open up anyway out of desperation?
A side note; if you’re a conspiracy theorists who thinks these numbers are all being manipulated by republican governors, or Trump, or the deep state never Trumpers, then….well…then never mind, no experiment will ever disprove your non-disprovable faith.
Duration of Experiment
A bit about lag. I hear people pointing to successful openings overseas after just 1-3 weeks. This is absurd. You open up, people leave their houses and mix, over the first 7 days, they start infecting each other. Then after 14 days the first symptoms appear in the first generation of infected. Then after 21 days or so they get sick enough to show up at a hospital and beg for a test. And after 30 or so days they start to die. And the first generation of this will be smaller. So really, this experiment needs to run for 6-8 weeks to really know what’s going on.
I’ll track these stats daily, but we’ll really know what’s going on around June 15-June 22. Anyone who declares either strategy a success before then is jumping the gun.
One Confound in the Research
Summer is coming. Nobody knows how warm temps affect this virus, but it’s possible that summer will be a trap; “open up” states will go nuts, open up, and warm weather will protect them. We could call this the “1918 flu” scenario, where we all get lulled into complacency and then October comes back with a vengeance. If so, get out into the sunshine with Grandma while you can…
Georgia (currently 50 deaths per day and rising):
Texas (Currently 40 deaths per day and rising):
Washington (Currently 18 deaths per day and falling):
California (Currently 80 deaths per day and stable):