As I wrote a couple days ago, I am not a health expert, but as I watched aghast at local k-12 schools, museums, restaurants, etc. in Maine choosing to remain open despite really clear data showing the necessity for social distancing, I felt compelled to add my voice to the discussion surrounding COVID-19. While health issues are not my beat as a journalist, I deal with data daily in my science writing, and so I’ve tried, as I know many of you have, to approach COVID-19 issues almost exclusively through the lens of the best available data.
Today the COVID-19 data continue to be consistent with the assertion that this is a very serious public health emergency that needs an all-in approach to addressing it. While I’m pleased that local k-12 schools did announce closings on Sunday (as did many other local businesses over the weekend and into Monday), I continue to be dumbfounded by those businesses that are actively choosing to ignore the best available data. In Rockland, for example, we have at least two bars that are right now actively promoting Saint Patrick’s Day events for tonight. One of them is also continuing to hold pool tournaments with buffet food provided.
When challenged about the decision to stay open–and many of these establishments are being publicly challenged on social media–the response is often something along the lines of “this is still a free country” or “the media is whipping people into an unnecessary frenzy” or “nobody is making you attend, so mind your own business.”
Those looking at the data know that these responses ignore those data. They know this is a virus with a transmission rate between two and three, meaning that every non-isolated infected person has potentially infected two or three other people who in turn may now have infected four or six more people. The data also show the probability of a transmission event happening before the infected individual becomes symptomatic (much the less tests positive) is ~26 percent. In addition to direct human-to-human transmission, the data show this virus “can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to 9 days.” At least one study has also shown that the virus can live in the air “up to three hours post aerosolization.” Add to this that we here in Maine, as well as in the United States in general, are woefully behind when it comes to testing, a point illustrated by a data visualization in today’s New York Times:
Days ago we needed an all-in approach to social distancing. As the data from other affected countries clearly show, every day counts at this point. Given the situation, and given that some businesses have been slow to do the right thing, it is unfortunately time for a more top-down approach. Today, the Rockland City Council met for a special COVID-19 planning meeting, and these issues came up. Several council members called for the City to look seriously at a top-down approach and declare an emergency at the meeting. Citing the City’s Emergency Operation Plan, the Mayor said that such a decision rests with the mayor and the city manager, and no Emergency was declared at the time of the meeting.
“None of us are going to try to act lightly,” said Mayor Lisa Westkaemper. “We’re not going to operate in a vacuum. We’re going to try to act calmly, reasonably, taking everything into account that we can, doing the best we can with the information we have at the time, not ignoring it, not taking it overly seriously, not taking it underly seriously but finding that balance for all of us in the middle of how to plan for the future and how to deal with today at the same time.”
While most reasonable people would likely applaud the Mayor’s approach in normal times, these are not normal times. The data show us we can’t really take this “overly seriously,” but if we do, I can live with us looking back at the decisions we make now and saying we over-reacted. The alternative is to look back, as we now can look back to just a week ago, and say we were too slow to act.
So what data am I referring to? There are many and many good sources for constantly updated data. Here I’ll share just two figures with you. I’m sure most of you have seen a data visualization such as the one below (this one was posted in r/dataisbeautiful yesterday by u/nathanxgarcia).
It shows that once the virus begins to show up in testing, the number of cases rises exponentially. These data allow us to project ourselves into the future, and we can see that, even with extreme measures (i.e., Italy’s imposed national quarantine on the 9th of March), the picture is not a pleasant one.
The second figure looks just at Maine. We currently have 32 cases of COVID-19 in Maine, but keep in mind we’ve only tested ~0.002 of the State’s population. While our dataset is currently small, we can clearly see exponential growth since the first positive test result was reported by Maine CDC on the 12th of March.
This exponential growth is consistent with a virus with a transmission rate of two to three and one that can be transmitted by people who have no symptoms.
Do we really think there is something different or special about Maine that would make us an outlier? Or is the much more reasonable approach to assume that our data will continue to fall in line with the data from other states and countries? I think the data are clear, and I think they clearly outline what our next steps must be in the best interest of our community. If you have other data, I’d love to see it.