More fun with numbers and the media

I’ve found USA TODAY’s “Coronavirus Watch” newsletter very useful during the pandemic. But today’s lede is a perfect example of the type of cherry picking I mentioned yesterday:

Is there cause for concern? Numbers are going up, right? Well, yes, but how much?

“Alaska and Arkansas more than doubled cases in the last week.” Okay, is that from 50 cases to 100 cases, or is it from 1000 to 2000 cases? Context matters.

“In Missouri, hospitalizations jumped by nearly 30% over the weekend.” Considering the covidestim.org map I included yesterday, this isn’t surprising, and a surge in hospitalizations is what we want to avoid so we don’t overwhelm our facilities and, more importantly, our healthcare workers. But is this from 100 to 130 people hospitalized, or from 1000 to 1300? Again, context matters.

“Mississippi’s fully vaccinated rate of 31% is the lowest in the nation.” Okay, no complaints with the reporting here; that’s a fact. It’s also unbelievably pathetic. Way to go, Mississippi.

Percentage changes, or deltas, are among the most misunderstood and easy to manipulate statistical measurements. Always ask what the underlying data is when you read something like these statements. Context matters.

Keep following the data

It’s been awhile since I took a deep look at the data for COVID infections and vaccinations in St. Clair County and in Michigan, so here we go:

  • According to Bridge Michigan, case numbers have fallen to a point in Michigan where the state will now only update their statistics twice a week. During most of the pandemic, MDHHS had daily updates; they stopped reporting on Saturdays a few weeks ago, and now will only update on Tuesdays and Fridays. The July 2 update showed 101 new cases, up from 40 the week before, but still very low. To compare, at the peaks in December 2020 and in mid-April 2021, the state was reporting over 7,000 new cases per week.
  • Unvaccinated people account for almost all new hospitalizations from COVID-19, as well as nearly all deaths from the virus. In a study released by the Cleveland Clinic, of the 4,300 COVID patients admitted to their facility between January and April of this year, 99.75% were unvaccinated against the virus. Also notable: “The study also looked at 47,000 Cleveland Clinic employees who had received one shot, two shots, or no shots. Among those, 1,991 tested positive for the coronavirus in recent months. About 99.7% of those who contracted COVID-19 weren’t vaccinated, and .3% were fully vaccinated.”
  • In another study at the Cleveland Clinic, over 52,000 employees, those who had already had COVID and those who hadn’t but had been fully vaccinated had almost no chance of getting COVID. Specifically, “The cumulative incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection remained almost zero among previously infected unvaccinated subjects, previously infected subjects who were vaccinated, and previously uninfected subjects who were vaccinated, compared with a steady increase in cumulative incidence among previously uninfected subjects who remained unvaccinated. Not one of the 1359 previously infected subjects who remained unvaccinated had a SARS-CoV-2 infection over the duration of the study.

Here’s the U.S. map from covidestim.org for July 3:

Missouri, Arkansas, and northeast Texas are dealing with a flare-up, but the rest of the country, including Michigan, is fairly quiet.

The Rt values for several states are above 1.0 again. Rt 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. Michigan’s Rt number has remained steady at around 0.85 for several weeks. It will be interesting to see if the number rises after the Fourth of July weekend; if it does, it could be concerning, especially for hospitals and clinics that could see a small surge in COVID cases. If it doesn’t rise significantly, however, it would be an excellent sign moving forward.

Per covidestim.org, St. Clair County’s Rt number is 0.62, lower than the state number despite only about 49 percent of county residents being fully vaccinated (52 percent have had at least one dose of the two-dose vaccines, which still provides good protection). 46 percent of St. Clair County residents have had COVID already, again per covidestim.org. While there’s still much to confirm, if you add the percentage of those who’ve already survived a bout with COVID to those who are fully vaccinated, you start to approach 100 percent of the county having at least some protection against the virus (admittedly, some people have both had COVID and gotten the vaccine, so a simple addition – which would result in a 95 percent number – is too simplistic). But you start to see why numbers remain low, even when vaccination rates are much lower than you would hope and no one seems to be wearing masks in public, vaccinated or otherwise.

The vaccines work. Even Jim Justice, Republican governor of West Virginia, knows what’s up.

Still, lots of people, including many of our elected representatives, are either stupid or intentionally pandering to ignorant people (why not both?):

None of the above guarantees that the Delta variant – or some future variant – won’t be a problem. But working with existing data, I think it’s important to avoid the cherry-picking of bad stories, some of which are anecdotal in nature, that we keep reading in the news every day. Yes, people will continue to get sick from COVID, and some will get seriously ill and die, but at this point that seems to be almost exclusively limited to those who cannot – and more importantly, have chosen not to – get vaccinated.

Norman Lloyd, 1914-2021

At my not-terribly-advanced-but-hardly-a-spring-chicken age, I’m starting to see more and more of my contemporaries dying. Where “58” seemed like a fairly ripe old age when I was in my twenties, it now seems more like “died way too young.” I realize that, using standards of American male life expectancy as my yardstick, I’m definitely in the last foot or so.

But then there’s Norman Lloyd.

Mr. Lloyd died yesterday at the age of 106. He was an actor, director, and producer, on stage, on radio, on film, and on television for eight decades. He worked closely with Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. He may be best known to television viewers of my generation as the wise Dr. Auschlander in NBC’s St. Elsewhere from 1982 to 1988 (where his co-stars included Denzel Washington, Howie Mandel, Ed Begley, Jr., and John Adams himself, William Daniels).

According to his friend Dean Hargrove, who confirmed Lloyd’s death to Variety, Lloyd claimed his longevity was due to “avoiding disagreeable people.”

Now there’s some good advice. Thanks, Norman Lloyd, for an amazing life.

COVID-19 and the flu, revisited

COVID-19 isn’t the same as influenza. But the way we end up dealing with it long term may be.

As I’ve noted previously, the Rt number, representing the the average number of people who will become infected by a person infected at time “t”, is falling nearly everywhere in the U.S., due to our nation’s superior access to vaccines. (This is not happening in other parts of the world, though, which will allow the coronavirus to potentially continue to evolve into new variants over time.) Not all Americans are willing to get vaccinated, unfortunately, and it now appears that it’s unlikely we will reach the “herd immunity” numbers (whatever level that might be, since it’s inconsistent from one expert to another) if only vaccinated people are counted. (Since those who’ve already had COVID at least once also have some immunity – though it’s not clear yet how effective that is or how long it lasts compared to a vaccine – some calculations of “herd immunity” include those people, which brings us a lot closer to the typical 70 to 75 percent number.)

But as long as Rt continues to fall and remain low, many of our restrictions should be able to be relaxed or lifted. The risk will remain, especially for those who refuse to get vaccinated, but our social lives could return to something close to normal this summer.

The risk of not reaching “herd immunity,” though, is that there will still be a large number of people who potentially could contract COVID, and particularly an existing or yet-to-emerge variant that is more contagious and possibly more resistant to the existing vaccines. Our therapies for COVID patients have improved, so if there isn’t a huge spike down the road that overwhelms our healthcare system again, COVID could become endemic in a similar way to many viruses that haven’t been eradicated but are largely controlled thanks, in large part, to vaccines. This includes measles, chickenpox, and (in most years) influenza. An annual COVID shot seems likely.

The other similarity between COVID and flu, even now, is the reluctance of people to get a vaccine that promises to protect us from illnesses that, while often mild and annoying, can become serious or even deadly. Historically, only about half of Americans who could get a flu shot each year do so. Nobody likes getting the flu, which can last from hours to days or even weeks. Yet we don’t take the time to get even the partial protection offered by the seasonal flu vaccine. I’m guilty of this myself; for years, I never bothered to get the shot, not because I didn’t believe in the science, but because I didn’t think I really needed it. I was (relatively) young, healthy, and figured I’d just ride out a case of the flu if I got it. There’s a word for that: arrogant. And an even better one: stupid.

Are we absolutely sure that the various vaccines are safe in the long run? That there are no side-effects? Well, no. But I think it’s adorable how many people are suggesting that the vaccines aren’t safe who are still smoking, or overeating, or over-drinking… while also taking other over-the-counter drugs or eating packaged foods without knowing exactly what the ingredients are or how they were manufactured. We have a lot of faith in the production of our food and pharmaceuticals otherwise, and justifiably so. What’s so different about the COVID vaccines? They’re tied up, unfortunately yet inextricably, with our current political civil war.

Update on COVID statistics

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that included a lot of maps showing the infections per 100,000 persons throughout the United States. A month ago, on April 1, Michigan was glowing white as the worst state in America for COVID infections:

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

Here’s where we are a month later, on May 4 (maps from covidestim.org):

COVID-19 infections per 100K persons as of May 4, 2021

The Rt number in Michigan is up slightly from April 26, from 0.68 to 0.71, while the Rt number in St. Clair County has fallen to 0.46 from an adjusted 0.54 on April 26. The estimate of those who’ve already had COVID in the county is up to 45 percent, compared to our neighboring counties of Macomb (50%), Sanilac (49%), and Lapeer (38%).

Repost: 7 Tips for New (or Returning) Cyclists

I rolled over 1,000 miles for 2021 this week (combined indoor mileage on the trainer and outdoors), and there are starting to be more people out on the local shared trails. You can tell the folks who use the trails regularly, because they tend to be more aware of other people approaching. But there are still plenty of people walking (or riding) side-by-side or entire families out for a stroll or a ride who tend to forget that they’re not the only people using the trail.

I’m not complaining. I love seeing our trails get used. But there are some etiquette tips for using the trails that can make it safer for everyone. I posted this originally last September, but here are my seven tips for new or returning cyclists:

bike helmet
Bontrager Starvos road bike helmet. This is the one I bought after my old one gave up its life for me.
  1. Wear a helmet. I know, why do I need a helmet? I’m not racing/I only ride in my neighborhood/I look stupid in a helmet (this is mostly guys and I’m pretty sure the same reason guys don’t want to wear masks). This is why: you only get one head and one brain and if you fall off your bike for any reason there’s a good chance you’ll land on your noggin, which may cause damage you won’t be happy about. Take it from me. I absent-mindedly tried to stop using only my front brakes a few years ago and went ass-over-handlebars onto the asphalt, landing on my forehead. Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet which did exactly what it was supposed to: absorbed the shock, crushing the plastic and the foam padding. I ended up with a few scrapes on my hands and one leg (and bent handlebars) but was able to ride home without even a concussion. There are lots of potential hazards that might dump you to the ground – cars backing out of driveways, children on bikes coming the other direction who aren’t great at steering, and the ever-present squirrels and rabbits, who love to change directions and try to run under your wheels. If you prefer your head to be undamaged, wear a helmet.
  2. Learn to use your brakes correctly and make sure they’re set up right. You’ll need them. As the previous story illustrates, don’t use your front brakes until after you’ve applied the rear ones. Rear, then front. Rear, then front. If your front brakes lock up by themselves you’re going to try to fly and I’m pretty sure you won’t be any better at it than I was. Also, wear a helmet.
  3. Don’t wear headphones or earbuds. You’re going to want to hear the road or trail noise, both the tranquil sounds of nature and the guy coming up on you from behind yelling, “Passing on your left! Passing on your left!” Frankly, nothing is more irritating on a trail than someone walking their dog with AirPods in who can’t hear me coming. More than once I’ve had to come to a complete stop because their dog is all over the trail and they couldn’t hear my plea to pass them. Even worse is when they hear me at the last second (I have slowed down to a crawl already), get startled, and then are angry at me for “surprising” them. Good thing I have a helmet on.
  4. Always, but always, announce that you’re going to pass someone on a trail. Walkers, runners, and fellow cyclists. Always. There are several ways to do that, including bells or horns, but I prefer a shouted “I’m on YOUR LEFT!” If they know which hand is which (not guaranteed, I admit) they have a chance to move to the opposite side. Most people are appreciative of this – some even tell me “thank you for telling me!” which makes me think not everyone does this. You can even do this with the strap of your helmet under your chin!
  5. Consider using an app to help you track your mileage. It’s a great motivator and you can often connect with other riders in your area (and worldwide) who will help support and motivate you. I have a couple of dozen cyclists in Michigan’s Thumb area who I follow on Strava and they’ve followed me back, and we give each other thumbs up on our rides. I’ve only ever met a couple of them face-to-face (though I’m pretty sure I’ve had seen a few heading the other direction on our area’s more popular trails), but it’s a great community and can be inspirational. Some of the cyclists log thousands of miles each year and it’s fun to watch their miles add up. Also, all of them wear helmets.
  6. Hydrate! One of the mistakes I made when I started cycling about ten years ago was to not drink much – if any – water when I was on a longer ride. I figured I’d lose weight by sweating off water, right? Wrong. At some point your body will start trying to protect itself if you get dehydrated and the whole fat/calorie burning process slows down. So be sure to add water to your engine when you ride. You can fill your water bottle at the same time as you’re grabbing your helmet!
  7. In case I’ve forgotten to mention it, wear a helmet.

Now’s the time to get out and ride. Start with a couple of miles and, if you’re so inclined, add a half mile each time out to push yourself. A 10- to 12-mile ride at about 10-12 mph takes, by the miracle of math, about an hour, which is a great workout. But anything shorter (or longer!) is great, too! The point is to stay active.

And wear a helmet, of course. Have fun!