First we were warned about an exponential increase. Cases were doubling and tripling in as many days. Soon millions would be sick and dying. Then we were warned of rising deaths, even though many of these deaths had other causes.
We were told to flatten the curve. We needed to stay home. We should not wear masks. Then we should wear masks.
The whole experience has been dizzying.
The Testing Solution
The media and experts then began selling tests as the key. Why exactly was unclear, with the vast majority of people having mild symptoms, no cure or vaccine in sight, and no realistic way for our decrepit public health system to do contact tracing. But tests it would be.
We now conduct a lot of tests. “Drive-by” testing has happened in some locales. Private companies, local walk-in clinics, and county health departments are all offering tests. So far, 36 million coronavirus tests have been administered.
Tests are showing a lot more positive cases. In May, Florida was confirming 1,000 or so cases per day. By July 2, the state reported nearly 10,000 new cases in one day. Arizona and Texas showed a similar rise in positive tests.
It appears the Cassandras may have been right. The disease was “exploding.” Red states were warned about reopening too early. Selfish people wanted to go to the beach and bars, and now they are paying the price.
Or Maybe Not?
Rising tests only matter if they indicate the actual, continuing growth of the disease. Is it possible this is not happening?
Yes . . . it’s probable, in fact.
From day one, many people had the coronavirus and didn’t know it. They won’t know for sure until they have an antibody test. Back in April, the Santa Clara antibody population study estimated 54,000 cases, about 2 percent of the California community under study, even when only 1,000 coronavirus cases had been officially confirmed by authorities. At that time, public health authorities were using the more difficult-to-administer “PCR” test to come up with that lower number. PCR tests show active infection.
A similar study in hard-hit New York estimated 20 percent of the city’s population had viral antibodies. The authors reached this estimate for a city of 8 million when the nationally reported cases were less than 1 million.
Most people have not been tested. People with mild symptoms do not run to the doctor for tests, nor do the asymptomatic. Thus, millions of people only minimally impacted by the coronavirus are not ending up on the radar of the health authorities.
The disease has been spreading because of this group. They spread the disease unknowingly, as do those to whom they spread it. For the same reasons, the spread of the disease is probably slowing, as people already infected are no longer able to transmit the disease further. They are a cul de sac for further disease spread. Fatalities are going down as well, as the most vulnerable have already been “harvested,” in the grim terminology of the epidemiologists.
All of these factors combine to produce greater and greater “herd immunity.” Herd immunity is probably the only way to resolve this situation in the absence of a vaccine or a realistic mitigation strategy. Ironically, herd immunity is impeded by the masking and social distancing measures so in vogue.
The Florida Situation
Now testing is up significantly, including in Florida. Tests are cheaper and more widely available. After exposure to those with confirmed cases, people are getting tested in an abundance of caution. Sometimes, employers are requiring them as well.
When Florida began to reopen in early May, the state was reporting 8,000 to 20,000 tests per day. Positive percentages ranged from 8-10 percent. In June and July, the daily testing numbers increased to a range of 34,000 to 78,000 tests per day. During the week of June 24, 10-17 percent were positive among the greater than 400,000 people tested.
Thus, more tests are showing more cases and a higher percentage of positive cases. The media’s reactions were predictable. The Palm Beach Post said cases were exploding. The New York Times called it America’s “Pandemic Playground.” Breathless articles reported that, for now, the number testing positive was younger, but that soon many of them would be in the hospital, and the elderly would be clobbered by a second wave.
This seems unlikely. We already have extensive data that young people are barely affected by this virus. In spite of the “surge of cases,” over half of COVID-19 deaths are among people over 75. A few anecdotal stories of people having a hard time get the media spotlight, but the death and hospitalization data show it is significantly concentrated among older folks, including many over their average life expectancy and with major comorbidities.
Even now, in spite of recent news about rising cases and fears of a second wave, daily death numbers are down and remain down from their April 28 high in Florida. Nationwide, coronavirus deaths dropped from a weekly high of over 19,000 in April to around 4,300 for the week of July 1.
Nonetheless, local authorities have lost their nerve on reopening. Local governments in Tampa, Sarasota, and Orlando ordered mandatory indoor masking. The governor shut down bars and nightclubs again. Talk of a “second shutdown” is becoming frighteningly common. It seems unlikely Disney will reopen as planned in mid-July.
Bad Data Combines PCR and Antibody Tests
The news of rising case numbers is highly misleading. The data will continue to show rising numbers because Florida’s rise in reported “tests” includes the results of antibody tests. The CDC also combines antibody and PCR tests, confounding the national data.
Antibody tests show those who had the coronavirus a long time ago, may have never known they had it, and are long past the time they can spread it. Because antibody test results are retrospective, the percentage of positive antibody tests will always be rising.
It’s not clear how many of all the tests reported in Florida are merely antibody tests, but it appears at least 500,000 of the 2 million tests reported on Florida’s “dashboard” were. (While total tests are confusingly combined in the state’s case reporting data, two large groups of antibody tests are broken out in reports of private and government-administered antibody testing.) In other words, Florida is doing 3-5 times more testing than a few months ago, and much of the rise in testing is antibody testing. This guaranteed to show a rise in cases.
Consistent with the earlier Santa Clara study, Florida’s first report of statewide antibody testing showed 4.4 percent of Floridians tested had antibodies. If this is representative—and it was certainly a large sample of more than 120,000 people—this would amount to 900,000 people statewide, a much higher number than today’s 175,000 official case count.
The War to Close Down the Economy
States have been reopening for about two months now. The economic results certainly have been impressive, and deaths are not accelerating. The new metric of “rising cases” seems custom-designed to keep the bad news coming, even though it includes long-since-resolved or asymptomatic cases.
Obviously, there are many people with an agenda. During the Black Lives Matter protests in June, we saw the ruling class’ bold willingness to ignore what they said five minutes ago. Protests against lockdowns were the end of the world, as was a day at the beach, or going to church. But the BLM protests were not a problem because they were supposedly for a good cause.
This should cause a permanent rise in skepticism and wariness of the media, the public health authorities, and the ruling class. The recent good news on hydroxychloroquine further reminds us that the whole point of hyping the coronavirus, the riots, and much else was to spread fear and despair, hurt the country, and impair President Trump’s reelection chances.
Important and expensive decisions are being made based on bad data, including misleading “new case” data that merely reveals the huge, preexisting gap of testing and the actual number of cases. Nonetheless, these bad data are talked about as if they’re gospel by an incurious media.
While I would not expect ardent leftists and those suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome to care about the reliability of data, I do think local and state authorities are more practical, less ideological, and less able to weather additional shutdowns. Here they are simply too cautious or uninformed to push back against the imperius experts.
But they should.
Science is not black magic. It involves data and logic. The enormous holes in the coronavirus testing data—as well as the very recent failure of the experts’ dire predictions to come true—should encourage more critical thinking by everyone.
In litigation, we often talk about the “garbage in, garbage out” aspect of expert opinions. If the expert is relying on the false statements of a witness or the “cooked books” of his client, a perfectly sound, scientific method will still produce useless and misleading results. Even reliable models are only as reliable as the data one feeds into them.
The public health community has behaved irresponsibly throughout the coronavirus episode. It has not considered costs and benefits, the usual rise and fall of epidemics even absent intervention, the nature of the testing data on which it relied, and the public health risks of mass unemployment and mandatory social isolation.
The coronavirus panic was starting to ebb after the successful state reopenings of May and enthusiastic public protests of June. Rather than acknowledging this good news story, the same lunatics are clamoring to tighten the screw again, this time by looking at flawed data showing “new cases.”
This time, don’t play along.