COVID Impact Journal

31 thoughts
last posted June 19, 2020, 7:02 p.m.
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I bookmarked the John Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard on January 25 2020, when there were 2k cases in China. I should have started a thoughtstream at that time as well, but I have been out of the habit.

Here I’m trying to capture the kinds of things that can get hard to recall after the fact: impressions of the present, and evolving guesses about the future impact of this virus on any area of life.

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My (at the time) half-serious Twitter thread started Jan 23. I felt comfortable tweeting about it because we weren’t yet inundated with the subject.

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The USA’s neatly fractured view of the pandemic (along political lines) is something to behold, and will be fascinating to watch as the year progresses.

• “Recall how, in the run-up to the Iraq war, the White House signaled preferred policy outcome so heavily that it skewed the analysis and advice it received. Can see similar alignment b/w preferences Trump and his team were signaling, and strategic posture of his crisis managers.” —Jeremy Konyndyk

Second one above seems to have played out among the public at large, not just among administration team members and support staff.

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As with so many aspects of society, the US public’s model has done a “hard fork.”

It seems to me that one xor the other is going to run smack up against the painful difference between its model and reality. Maybe such a disillusioning event would be a silver lining for our society.

I'm not so sure about the exclusive-or though. Might we emerge from this with each side of the fork just as or more convinced than they were before? Or might both experience a smack-up? Maybe the forks themselves will fork?

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Personal Prognostication Snapshot:

• The crisis will increase in severity through at least July, driven by severe healthcare shortages and consequent too-late severe quarantine measures further braking the economy, as we have seen in Italy.
• No measure big enough to offset major economic downturn will be able to pass in Congress.
• So, lots of unemployment and almost no relief.
• If we get the disease, and the public mood, under control before June, Trump is reelected in November. This is soon enough to avoid the worst economic pain, so that we all recalibrate our narratives and return to our baseline levels of (dis)satisfaction. Biden will be an ineffective nominee and, perhaps narrowly, end up as John Kerry 2.0.
• If we get there between June and September, Trump loses in November, since by then it’s too late to prevent the massive economic pain’s effect on his already-bad approval numbers.
• If the crisis drags on much of the way through September, the Trump admin attempts to use emergency powers big pressure in Congress from WH and some states to postpone an imminently disastrous election. Honestly not sure if SCOTUS upholds against the inevitable legal challenge. [edit 3/19/20: apparently the prevailing legal theory is that only Congress can change the date of the election. How exactly that plays out in a pandemic, I’m not sure. But even so, I think election-postponing is for sure going to be on the discourse table.]
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You can see I’m on the side of the fork that says that the virus is real and serious, meaning there will be many thousands of deaths due to an overwhelmed healthcare system, and many thousands with permanent lung damage. I expect that my wife and I will get the virus, and am cautiously optimistic that we will not require medical attention to live through it.

The outcome that would pose an something of an ideological smack-up for me would be if less than 50 thousand people die from COVID-19 (i.e. fewer people than do from influenza in a typical flu season) or have permanent lung damage (and assuming SARS-CoV-2 spread doesn’t become a new seasonal event like H1N1). As dumb as it would make me feel, this would be my preferred outcome.

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Today I found out that a co-worker's son wired a house for someone who has now tested positive for COVID-19, and subsequently fell sick, missing a week of work. My co-worker, who is now working remotely, spent time at his son’s house while he was sick.

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Seems apparent that the lack of testing capacity is going to require blunt, blind quarantining measures, which have a heavy heavy economic toll, rather than targeted quarantining measures which would have a lighter economic touch.

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Developments today:

• Grocery store workers included in definition of “emergency workers” in MN, qualifying them for free healthcare.

• Some more malls closing, following MoA’s closure yesterday.

• Trump has invoked an act that gives him the authority to direct private production in times of war (ventilators? testing?) but is dithering about whether he will use it.

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Gov. Walz dithers about a statewide shelter-in-place order

Gov. Walz is, I think, two steps behind the curve of what we actually need to happen right now. By his own account to WCCO this morning: A) today's numbers are going to jump way up, and B) the rate of growth is going to accelerate! Besides this, he knows that the ratio of tested cases to the actual number out there is abysmal. And yet: a shelter in place order is “not the situation we believe we're at.”

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Yesterday the Governor announced a “stay at home” order will be in place in Minnesota for 2 weeks starting Friday at midnight.

Many people are confusing this with a “shelter in place” order, which would be much more stringent. The stay-at-home order allows us to leave home for a number of reasons, such as to get groceries, exercise outside, work jobs in exempted/critical sectors, etc.

The last one is interesting. The guidance on exempt industries is very broad. According to MN’s Dept of Employment commissioner:

About 78 percent of the jobs in Minnesota are in critical industries as defined by the executive order, so it's just 22 percent that are not. (source)

There is also no enforcement, so companies can declare themselves exempt and require their workers to come in as usual. My own employer has taken this route. We sell desks and monitor walls, but since some of our customers are in exempt agencies they have decided we are exempt as well.

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On another note: a lot of celebrities seem to believe they can help us during these trying times by …being famous online from home. It’s getting old.

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Felt impacts in Minneapolis so far:

• No rush hour traffic whatsoever for the last couple of weeks.
• Jess (spouse) has been home with the kids and the loss of any outside activity (gym, social gatherings with other adults, playground visits) combined with so much time with the kids who also have no other outlets, combined with the larger uncertainty about Everything, is taking a mental toll on her, as it would be on me if I were home alone with the kids.
• This has exacerbated the already suboptimal divide between our two lives, hers centered at home and mine at work. Ideally we would both be home at this time. I’m upset with my employer for taking the stance that all of this represents some kind of business/profit opportunity rather than doing its part to limit the spread as much as possible.
• My 4-year old has regressed in independence somewhat; he has no time with his preschool teachers and peers, and the more he is stuck at home the more constantly he demands our attention to keep himself from being bored. This is not unusual considering his age. He’ll obviously grow past this, but it’s affecting us now.
• Jess went for groceries yesterday morning and the place was pretty empty for a Saturday morning. Lots of reminders to keep six feet apart. No one was using the self-checkout.
• Various people at work who have the option (i.e., their work can be done remotely) have been working remotely.
• Political chatter in the hallways and around offices has ticked up very noticeably. The vast majority of it is pro-Trump, which makes sense because most of my co-workers are right-wing.
• A couple of my siblings are filing for unemployment benefits due to reduced or no pay from their jobs.
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It’s been a couple of weeks now since the John Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard was at all useful in the US. It was handy for tracking the global spread during the early stages, but at this point we all know cases are everywhere and skyrocketing. The useful dashboards and tracking sites are those that operate on a more local level.

It will probably become interesting to look at again in a couple of months, when we might start to see a plateau or decline in the global number of cases.

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Today a co-worker tested positive and was hospitalized, the first one in our company and the first such person personally known to me. This person has worked remotely for a long time, so there is no reason to think they carried it to others here in the office.

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My employer announced that amid a falloff in sales they are cutting most employees’ pay by 20% and converting some salaried/exempt employees’ status to hourly/non-exempt. The stated goal is to keep everyone employed amid uncertainty as to how long the downturn will last.

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I started wearing a mask to work today, the first in my company to do so. This may be in part because I have some decent masks leftover from a trip, and they are quite hard to buy at the moment. But it also definitely feels like I am swimming against the social current here, and I am getting a lot of looks.

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This will be the first full week I’ve worked from home.

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IRS stimulus check deposited to my checking account today, 17 days after passage of the CARES act. The amount correctly reflected our income, marriage status and the fact that we have two dependent children. Our immediate needs are already taken care of for now, so our plan for this money is to stick it in our emergency fund and re-evaluate at the end of the year.

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I found out last week that my employer did manage to secure a (presumably) forgiveable loan/advance under the Payroll Protection Program.

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The big impact everyone is discussing today is that oil futures contracts for May 2020 (and only May) are below $1/barrel or even negative. This apparently has to do with today being some kind of due date; if you hold the contract beyond today you’ll be required to take physical delivery of the oil, and (for now) no one wants it. However, this is not much of a felt impact for me and a lot of people, for the same reason that is causing the plummeting oil prices: we don’t drive much anymore. Also, neither I nor anyone I know works in the oil industry. 0 Have I had it already? The question lots of people are asking themselves, especially after recent autopsies and other work point to several weeks of previously undetected cryptic transmission in US cities. Seems to bear out this tweet from two months ago (Feb 29): 0 I’ve looked at the details of Apple and Google’s joint contact-tracing effort and I have to say, I think it is going to fail to make much, if any, difference. They are going to absolutely nail the fundamentals, except for the part about actually verifying when someone has tested positive. There is going to be no standard for that. In fact any piece that relies on the private health system make correct design choices and provide clear data and standards will fall flat on its face. People will spuriously self-report as positive, whether by accident or through idle malice. The system will end up being useless. 0 My brother (lives in the same state) has been sick for a week; now that Minnesota’s testing ramp is underway, he was able to get tested for COVID-19, and his results came back positive today. He has been working from home for more than a month. We suppose he caught it from his wife who is an essential worker dealing with hundreds of people in public every day, though she has no symptoms so far. 0 Last week, after reading a recent piece in the NYT a few of us in my family have ordered or borrowed pulse oximeters (including my brother above, who has since tested positive). It appears that when COVID-19 complications occur, blood oxygen levels often drop to dangerous levels days in advance of any breathing difficulty, and this$50 device can provide you an early warning sign:

There is a way we could identify more patients who have Covid pneumonia sooner and treat them more effectively — and it would not require waiting for a coronavirus test at a hospital or doctor’s office. It requires detecting silent hypoxia early through a common medical device that can be purchased without a prescription at most pharmacies: a pulse oximeter.

Pulse oximeters helped save the lives of two emergency physicians I know, alerting them early on to the need for treatment. When they noticed their oxygen levels declining, both went to the hospital and recovered (though one waited longer and required more treatment). Detection of hypoxia, early treatment and close monitoring apparently also worked for Boris Johnson, the British prime minister.

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Last week during days when I’ve had to drive to the office, I counted three people besides myself who wore masks. This is at a location that on a pre-COVID normal day would have had around 30 people.

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Saw first news today of a more contagious strain of the virus.

Edit: A rebuttal

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My employer is reversing the 20% pay cut they announced at the beginning of April (noted above). It is due to the terms of the PPP loan they received at the beginning of the month (also noted above).

Apparently the forgivable portion of that loan is reduced by the amount of any payroll reductions made due to COVID-19. So they either pay the amount to employees or they repay it back to the government.

In this case at least, the “Payroll Protection” part of “PPP” seems to be working as designed.

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We’re through another month.

Masks: I am again, lately, the only person at work who wears a mask. Mask wearing at stores has become common, even though not everywhere required.

The Mode: In a hundred little ways, our mode or approach to pandemic reality has morphed into: do whatever, maybe wear a mask. People have given up on quarantine and even social distancing except in locations where rules are posted and enforced.

Partisan divide: With the death of George Floyd here in Minneapolis two weeks ago, and the subsequent protests all over the world, the most intense partisan fault lines are totally realigned now now around police brutality and systemic racism issues.

We’ve now seen that no one is procedurally against mass protests in the midst of a pandemic. Language like “sacrificing the elderly” aimed at those who want to reopen the economy ASAP is now conspicuously absent from any discourse about large gatherings.

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Prognostication Recap

From my March 17 guesses:

• “The crisis will increase in severity through at least July, driven by severe healthcare shortages” — I think I missed this one. I also did not account for the locality of outbreaks; I was at that point still thinking of the US as a whole. So the reality was more mixed. Capacity-driven crises did hit in some places (New York) but were avoided in others. Both here in Minnesota and as a whole, the US has seen its case load level off and decline, but it remains much, much worse than the EU, which peaked at the same time and same level as we did in April.
• “No measure big enough to offset major economic downturn will be able to pass in Congress…lots of unemployment and no relief” — In fact some sizeable relief did pass that may have so far spared us the worst of the pain. But since the unemployment supports are set to expire at the end of next month, (and it seems very doutbful that there will exist the political will to extend them), we might have just pushed the worst pain out to Aug–Sep. Unemployment claims are declining but still extremely hugely high. So I think this may yet prove true.
• “If we get the disease, and the public mood, under control before June, Trump is reelected in November…If we get there between June and September, Trump loses in November” — Obviously the election hasn't happened yet. But I think these predictions were framed around some incorrect assumptions: 1) that public mood would improve in concert with our actual control of the disease spread; 2) a strictly linear picture of improvement, and 3) no other factors (civil rights protests, anyone?). What actually happened was that the atmosphere of fear and dread evaporated, but there was actually no change in our actual control over it. The two are not in any way linked.
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June Prognostications

• I went back and forth on this, but think Congress will pass some additional relief. GOP senators have already shown they have no real problem with big deficit spending to help out a republican president, and Democrats have shown that spiking the economy to spite Trump is not, thankfully, in their playbook.

• However, the negotiations around the price tag will be different this time around. The relief will probably not be enough to mitigate most of the economic pain that is coming, and this pain will really be on the rise in the Aug–Sep time frame.

• Since the pandemic is now the setting and not the story, it will not even be close to the largest factor on the public mood between now and November. Right now the BLM protests are big on everyone’s mind, against the backdrop of the pandemic and the economy.

• I would guess that between now and November, in addition to these things we will see at least one more kind of crisis get added to the mix before the election itself expands into every last corner of our consciousness. If I were writing the show, I would think we were due for something in the nature of foreign policy.

• I’m no longer predicting who will win the US presidential election. Polls look good for Biden, but he’s a very old idiot who can still land himself in a lot of trouble by saying stupid things. He could perform very poorly in debates. He might also die.

• I do predict a slow setting-in of big economic pain in the months leading up to the election.