COVID numbers are improving in Michigan

This post relies on data from covidestim.com. The map key is here:

I am not an epidemiologist, but I have a life-long fascination with numbers and the relationships between them. As I’ve written before, I’m concerned that both because of the media’s goal to reduce complex ideas to a headline that will get people to click and our collective aversion to those same complex ideas, we’ve missed the point more than once during the pandemic. It’s either a catastrophe or it’s over, depending on which day it is. As is usually the case, the reality is somewhere in between.

Remember last summer, when Michigan was one of the best states in terms of COVID spread? Here’s a map from last August 1:

COVID-19 infections per 100K persons as of August 1, 2020

Dark areas represent counties with very low rates of COVID infections per capita (specifically, per 100,000 persons). The white areas are the places that were experiencing very high rates of infections per capita; at that time it was mostly in the southern tier of the country.

Jump ahead to December:

COVID-19 infections per 100K persons as of December 1, 2020

Nearly every part of the country was experiencing high rates of infection around the holidays. Notable exceptions were Florida and the southern Atlantic coast, northern New England, the Pacific Northwest, and Hawaii. Michigan was hot, except for most of the Upper Peninsula.

COVID-19 infections per 100K persons as of March 1, 2021

By the beginning of March, things were looking pretty good all over the U.S. A slight band of elevated infections from Oklahoma east through Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia, but overall quite promising.

Then came April in Michigan:

COVID-19 infections per 100K persons as of April 1, 2021

Suddenly, Michigan was having some of its worst weeks of the pandemic, and if you zoom in, you’ll see that the Thumb region, including my home county of St. Clair, was white hot. We were, unfortunately, the COVID capital of North America for a few weeks.

What caused this flare-up? There are a lot of possibilities: pandemic fatigue has been mentioned numerous times, and does seem likely (though I think it’s safe to say that people in other states are just as tired of the virus as we are in Michigan). I wrote a post recently where I expressed my feeling that we were giving up. Younger Michiganders also got a chance to gather more regularly, particularly as contact sports were allowed to resume in middle- and high-schools. But it’s hard to imagine that these students weren’t gathering prior to the resumption of sports, though perhaps not at the same frequency and without as much intermix between groups from different cities. But it did skew the infection rate among younger people in the state somewhat higher.

The state government didn’t intervene as strongly this time. After the Michigan Supreme Court ruled against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s authority to impose restrictions by executive order, perhaps there was a reluctance on the part of her administration to shut things down again. There are also political negotiations on how to spend the relief money the state received from the federal government in the most recent stimulus package, and it may have been necessary to avoid upsetting the Republicans, who control both chambers of the state legislature, as that process continued.

In any case, Michigan, one of the model states for its response to the pandemic last summer, was now the poster child for an out-of-control virus.

At some point, though, I wondered how long that could last. After all, Michigan has rapidly expanded the availability of vaccines since January along with the rest of the country, so a significant number of citizens have had at least one dose of one of the available vaccines by mid-April. And I guessed that quite a few people have already had COVID at this point as well, especially among those who were less compliant with stay-at-home, masking, and social distancing requests. My guess was that, in St. Clair County specifically, about 20 to 25 percent of residents may have already had COVID.

My estimate was far too low. According to the data from covidestim.org, 44 percent of St. Clair County residents have been infected at one point or another during the pandemic:

Percent Ever Infected values for St. Clair County, Michigan

The graph’s upward trend, starting around the holidays, makes sense. Early on, there were few people who’d been infected, making the spread manageable by basic measures like masks and social distancing. During the holidays, more people started to choose to get together with family and friends (though not at a normal rate), allowing the virus to spread to a much broader population. The expanded contact between younger people in mid-March and beyond allowed additional spread.

At this point, then, we’re approaching half of the population in St. Clair County that’s already had COVID. Add to that the expanding number of people who’ve had at least one vaccine shot (or who are already fully vaccinated at this point), and you’d expect the numbers to decline simply because the virus should start to run out of people to infect.

And sure enough, the most recent map bears this out:

COVID-19 infections per 100K persons as of April 24, 2021

We’re not out of the woods yet, but things are trending much better again.

Last spring and summer, there was some coverage of the “basic reproduction number,” or R0, that is the expected number of cases directly generated by one case in a population where all individuals are susceptible to infection. This was the case last summer, when relatively few people had already had COVID and vaccines were still several months away from being available. The number was important because of the health care system being overwhelmed by the early cases, with a lack of ICU beds, ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other resources. It was critical to reduce that number under 1.0 in order to bring the spread under control and relieve the pressure on our health care infrastructure, not to mention the health care workers themselves.

Now, with the virus having been more widespread, which resulted in large numbers of mostly older Americans dying from COVID-19, and the rollout of vaccines, the more significant number is the “effective reproduction number,” or Rt, which (per covidestim.org) is “the average number of people who will become infected by a person infected at time t. If it’s above 1.0, COVID-19 cases will increase in the near future. If it’s below 1.0, COVID-19 cases will decrease in the near future.”

Effective Reproduction Number (Rt) values for St. Clair County, Michigan

St. Clair County reached its highest Rt number (excluding the initial days of the pandemic last spring) on March 5, when it was 1.61. Accordingly, the peak infection rate per capita was on April 2, when it was around 520 cases per 100,000 people in the county. (St. Clair County’s population is around 165,000.) Yesterday, April 24, the Rt number has dropped to 0.50 for the county, its lowest point in the pandemic so far, and it’s trending significantly downward. The number of infections has also dropped, to 101.6 per 100,000 persons as of yesterday.

By comparison, the state of Michigan has similarly seen a decline in the Rt number. After peaking at 1.30 on March 14, the number now stands at 0.68 as of Saturday.

What might this mean? While there are still possibilities for additional infections in the county – and COVID-19 remains serious, especially for older residents who haven’t been vaccinated for whatever reason and for whom the virus is particularly deadly – we appear to be approaching the often-mentioned “herd immunity,” where a large number of people (75% or more is the most common benchmark) have at least some immunity from the virus due to already having survived an infection or through vaccination – or both.

It will be important to continue to encourage those who are hesitant about getting vaccinated (again, for whatever reason) to do so. It’s unlikely that COVID-19 can be completely eradicated, and it seems likely that there will continue to be variants that will require periodic “booster” vaccinations, similar to getting an annual shot against influenza strains. At some point, we will have to determine what level of ongoing infection will be acceptable, and whether we are willing to keep our restrictions in place in order to protect those who have deliberately chosen not to participate in protecting themselves. There are always a small number of people for whom a vaccination may not be possible, due to sincere religious, moral, or medical reasons. But those people are often at risk from infections, including the flu, pneumonia, measles, and now COVID, and they will need to continue to be cautious and we will need to continue to support them by making health care available and affordable.

Cardboard Tigers: Sutherland, Thompson, Timmerman

Fifteenth in an occasional series. Collect ’em all! I’m working through a stack of Tigers baseball cards from the late 1960s and early 1970s, with occasional newer cards.

Gary Sutherland
Gary Sutherland “Traded”- 1974 Topps #428T
Gary Sutherland
Gary Sutherland – 1975 Topps #522
Gary Sutherland
Gary Sutherland – 1976 Topps #113
Gary Sutherland – 1973 Topps #572 (I don’t own this card, image borrowed from the intarwebz)

Gary Sutherland leads off this edition of Cardboard Tigers. Sutherland played mostly second base from 1966 to 1978 for seven teams, including the Tigers from 1974 to 1976. His “TRADED” card shown above is interesting because of the sort of odd airbrushing of a Tigers home cap onto a photo where he’s pretty clearly wearing a road grey jersey. And it turns out that jersey isn’t Houston’s, because although he became an Astro in 1972, by the 1973 season Topps still hadn’t gotten a new picture of Gary, so they airbrushed an Astros cap onto a file photo, meaning the jersey is either an Expos or Phillies road grey.

Also, the photo used for his Houston airbrushing is a slightly different take from the one used for his Detroit TRADED card.

Anyway, eventually Gary did get a couple of cards with him wearing his Tigers uniform, the home whites on the 1975 card and the old polyester pullover road set in 1976.

Sutherland was known as “Sudsy,” and if you don’t know why you don’t fully appreciate the depth of creativity that goes into player nicknames. Signed by the Phillies after his sophomore year at Southern Cal in 1964, he made his debut as a late-season call-up in 1966. He played both the outfield and shortstop for the Phils but, when it didn’t appear he’d hit enough to be a regular outfielder or field well enough to be a regular infielder, the Phillies tried to turn him into a catcher. When that didn’t take, they left him exposed to the expansion draft in 1969 and the newly-minted Expos picked him up.

He played three seasons in Montréal, mostly at second base but with some appearances at short, third, and in the outfield – but no catching. From there, he went to the Houston organization for a couple of years, only appearing in 21 big league games while spending most of his time in Oklahoma City and Denver.

The Tigers picked him up in December 1973 along with pitcher Jim Ray for relief pitcher Fred Scherman. He was Detroit’s starting second baseman for the next two seasons, hitting around .250 with little power but playing his position credibly. The Tigers and Brewers (then in the AL East division) swapped second basemen in the middle of the 1976 season, with Sutherland going to Milwaukee and Pedro Garcia heading to Detroit, in a trade that didn’t exactly shake up the fortunes of either team.

He played a handful of games with the Brewers in ’76, the Padres in ’77, and then the Cardinals before being released by St. Louis in May 1978. He stayed in baseball as a scout and administrator, including being a special assistant to the general manager of the Angels from 1999 to 2011, where his duties focused on the team’s scouting operations.

Gary hit .243 for his career with 24 home runs and 239 RBI.

Jason Thompson
Jason Thompson – 1977 Topps #291

Jason Thompson was a power-hitting rookie first baseman for the Tigers in “The Year of the Bird” in 1976. He led the team in home runs that season with 17 and proved to be a solid fielder as well. He’d have probably gotten more notice for both AL and Tigers Rookie of the Year but a young pitcher named Mark Fidrych got most of the attention that summer, for good reasons.

Thompson followed up his promising start with two All-Star seasons in 1977 and 1978, hitting .270 with 31 homers and 105 RBI in ’77, and .287 with 26 home runs and 96 RBI in ’78. He finished 21st in the voting for American League MVP in 1977.

Despite solid production, the Tigers traded Thompson to the Angels in May 1980 for outfielder Al Cowens. During spring training in 1981, California traded him to the Pirates, who then tried to trade him to the Yankees. But the second deal was voided by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn because it exceeded the $400,000 cash considerations limit Kuhn had put in place for any single transaction.

So Thompson found himself on the Pirates, who hadn’t really intended for him to be part of their roster. He got off to a slow start but eventually had another All-Star season in 1982, when he hit .284 with 31 home runs and 101 RBI, and finished 17th in the NL MVP voting. He stayed in Pittsburgh through 1985, then briefly played with the Expos in 1986 before losing his starting job to rookie first baseman Andrés Galarraga and then being released on June 30. A balky knee kept Thompson from attempting to catch on with another team and he retired from baseball.

For his career, Thompson hit .261 with 208 home runs and 782 RBI. He twice hit home runs over the right field roof at Tiger Stadium, which gave him the nickname “Roof Top.”

After his career, Thompson ran Jason Thompson Baseball in Auburn Hills, Michigan, which offered baseball training and camps.

Tom Timmermann
Tom Timmermann – 1972 Topps #239

Tom Timmermann took a long time to make it to the majors, but once he did he proved to be an effective pitcher for the Tigers, as both a starter and reliever, from 1969 to 1973, including posting an 8-10 record and a 2.89 ERA in 25 starts for the 1972 American League East division winners.

Signed in 1960 out of Southern Illnois University in Carbondale, Timmermann moved slowly through the Detroit farm system over the next nine seasons with stops in Montgomery, Durham, Duluth-Superior, Knoxville, Syracuse, Honolulu, and Toledo. Making it to the majors in 1969, he appeared mostly as a reliever, finishing 14 of the 31 games he appeared in. In 1970, he led the team in saves with 27 (third best in the American League) while throwing 85 1/3 innings over 61 appearances. In mid-summer, he recorded either a win (2 total) or a save (9 in all) in eleven straight games. He was chosen “Tiger of the Year” by the Detroit media after the season.

He continued in his relief role in 1971, then Billy Martin moved him into the starting rotation in 1972 as the team went on to win the division before losing in the ALCS to the Oakland A’s.

Detroit traded Timmermann to Cleveland in June 1973 for reliever Ed Farmer. He started 15 games and relieved in 14 for Cleveland, then made only four appearances for them in 1974, spending most of the season in Toledo and Oklahoma City.

A change is gonna come

I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like the river I’ve been running ever since

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

From “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke (1964)

Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd this afternoon.

A white police officer was convicted of killing a Black man. That happens so rarely in the United States that, even in 2021 and even after watching the incontrovertible video footage and emotional eyewitness testimony, there was no guarantee that the jury would return a guilty verdict. But they did, and justice wins – this time.

As a white man approaching the end of six decades living in America, it may be that my satisfaction over the outcome isn’t important. I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, in the 1970s, just as the schools were desegregated by court order. Since third grade, I’ve watched as my Black friends, despite Congress passing and the legal system attempting to enforce laws designed to promote their civil rights (and by extension my own), continued to face discrimination and racism. I’ve seen us slide backwards over the past decade or so, from the election and re-election of Barack Obama (which was so hopeful and was, frankly, something I didn’t expect to see in my lifetime) to the nakedly nationalist and xenophobic Trump presidency.

I’ve tried throughout my life to remain an ally for civil rights of all people. Unfortunately, white people are often self-satisfied by their symbolic gestures of support while not really doing very much of substance to change things in America, which leaves a justifiable skepticism on the part of those who have been repeatedly let down by the system. As Stevie Wonder sang in “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”:

But we are sick and tired of hearing your song
Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong
‘Cause if you really want to hear our views
You haven’t done nothin’.

Stevie recorded that song in 1974, 47 years ago. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” was ten years before that. And here we are in 2021, still wondering whether a jury will find a white police officer guilty of murder, even though we could all see it as it actually happened. Even now, Chauvin’s attorney thought criticizing George Floyd for not being perfect, for having character flaws and personal demons, for being, you know, different and not worthy of respect, might just get Chauvin off in the eyes of the jury. At least this time it didn’t work.

A change is gonna come. Perhaps a small step in that direction happened today. But not if we – and particularly white Americans – think the job is finished because of a single verdict. President Kennedy, almost sixty years ago, said “[T]his nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”

This is not an ending, but instead another chance to begin.

Question authority

It’s good to question authority. Accepting someone’s right to tell you what to do without question is an abdication of your rights and your responsibility as a good citizen. There are often unspoken reasons behind someone in authority wanting you to behave in a certain way, and trying to figure those reasons out illuminates the policy in question, giving it either legitimacy or exposing it as nonsense.

This doesn’t mean that “question authority” automatically means “don’t follow any rules,” though. Many laws are needed to maintain an orderly society, to keep us from robbing and cheating and assaulting each other. Personal freedom has limits, often defined by the line where my actions begin to have an effect on you. But we do willingly give up – or at least grudgingly accept that we must give up – some of our individual freedom in exchange for living relatively safe lives in communities full of other human beings.

Those in authority sometimes have the maintenance or even expansion of their authority as a motivating factor when proposing new rules. The current attempt by Republican politicians around the U.S. to pass restrictive voting laws is primarily motivated by the fear that, left to their own devices, voters would elect people who would make decisions that would cause the existing authority to lose power. So asking “why?” is not just worthwhile, it’s critical.

But we also need to ask “why?” even when laws or rules or policies that we initially agree with are proposed. Why is this person suggesting that? What do they hope to gain by putting this in place? Is it as simple as they say, or are there unspoken costs? The answers to those questions may reinforce your support for their idea, or it may expose underlying issues that may make you less interested in seeing the policy implemented. But the questions need to be raised.

Historically, much of the work of asking those questions has been done by journalists. Unfortunately, journalism – especially at the local level – has been diminished over the past few decades as digital technology has replaced print and that model has proven difficult to support financially. It’s also possible that some media companies benefit politically from less intensive coverage; if they are allied with a particular political point-of-view, less rigorous investigation into the activities of that group are likely to produce a more favorable result.

While “question authority” is a good starting point when making informed decisions about what your government/employer/church/social group is asking you to accept, there’s someone else you should be questioning.

Yourself. Especially if you’re in a position of authority. Especially if you’re someone who by their gender, age, skin color, economic status, or other factors have some automatic authority. Are you making decisions based on the facts of a specific situation or simply reacting with the same old answers, using traditional or “that’s just the way it is” as your reasoning? Instead of immediately going into defensive mode, questioning ourselves is crucial to understanding why those we lead are upset and moving from a selfish use of authority to one that provides a broader benefit.

It’s tempting to just follow along, because it’s so much easier. But “questioning authority” is an essential part of a healthy democratic system. Ask some questions today.

A clarification

Re-reading yesterday’s post this morning, and in light of a certain Fox News host ranting last night that “maybe [the vaccines don’t] work and they’re simply not telling you that” (and no, I will not link to him saying that), I realized that my frustration might be read as being sympathetic to that line of nonsense. Because of that, allow me to clarify:

Tucker Carlson is a terrible human being. He is wrong. Every once in awhile he says something true and honest and when that happens it’s a sign of the apocalypse. This was not one of those times.

My frustration is with the people he’s selling his snake oil to, not the scientists and government officials who are trying desperately to keep us from killing each other.

Have a nice day.