Power of suggestion and wishful thinking (shutdowns and masks preventing the common cold)

Friends and neighbors in Massachusetts who were Shutdown and Mask Karens (i.e., nearly all of my friends and neighbors who weren’t pilots, doctors, or medical school professors!) reported that, in their personal experience, the shutdowns and masks had beaten the common cold. A full year of school closure (Boston Public) and more than a year of mask orders from the energetic governor had shown the rhinovirus who was boss. Yes, adults were still meeting at bars, on Tinder, and in marijuana and liquor stores (“essential”), but a cold is no match for a full glass of vodka combined with healing marijuana smoke.

Let’s check in with #Science… “Kids’ Colds Didn’t Take a Break During the Pandemic” (MedPage Today, October 1, 2021):

As cases of influenza and other respiratory viruses plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic for kids and adults alike, rhinovirus and enterovirus continued to infect children at typical rates, a multicenter study suggested.

In a surveillance analysis involving more than 35,000 children who presented to emergency departments or were hospitalized for acute respiratory illness, 29.6% tested positive for enterovirus or rhinovirus in the March 2020 to January 2021 season, similar to rates for two prior seasons (30.4% for 2019-2020 and 29.0% for 2017-2018), reported Danielle Rankin, MPH, CIC, of Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

And the combined positivity rate of influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and other respiratory viruses (39.5%) was significantly lower in 2020-2021 compared to each of the prior three seasons (P<0.001):

  • 2019-2020: 75.4%
  • 2018-2019: 71.3%
  • 2017-2018: 69.4%

“It has been previously shown that mitigation measures, like mask wearing or social distancing, which were introduced to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2, also limited the spread of influenza, RSV, and some other respiratory viruses,” Rankin said in a press release. “This study showed rhinovirus/enterovirus slightly decreased in March 2020, but shortly after resumed and persisted.”


Could the confidence of my friends in Maskachusetts that the common cold had been vanquished be an example of wishful thinking/confirmation bias? Or do we think this research result is another example of “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”? I personally have a tough time believing that shutting schools and chaining children to their TVs and computers indoors for a year didn’t reduce transmission of the common cold. One can argue whether it makes sense to deny children an education in order to protect them from a virus that kills 82-year-olds, but I would have been confident in predicting that denying children an education would reduce their likelihood of catching a cold. (On the third hand, we could argue that my shutdown- and mask-advocating friends and neighbors in MA were a non-representative sample. Nearly all were able to work from home, for example, and nearly all lived in spacious suburban houses (see The social justice of coronashutdowns for the shutdown/mask views of a guy who lives in 8,000 square feet).)

Photos from the tiny strip mall at the heart of our former suburb, August 2021, reminding folks that COVID-19 is deadly, but so are leaf blowers (“toxic tornados” [sic]):

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Coronapanic orders from governors meet the American people

From California, one of the world centers of optimism regarding the power of government, via shutdown and mask orders, to reduce, not merely delay, coronavirus infections: “The number of babies infected with syphilis was already surging. Then came the pandemic” (Los Angeles Times). If Californians did what Gavin Newsom told them to do, you’d expect a pandemic to reduce sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis. It is tough to catch syphilis while staying home and watching Netflix/playing Xbox for 18+ months. But, with the same logic we use for COVID-19 is sure to kill you, but life insurance rates haven’t changed and Wave of death among the elderly bankrupts Social Security, we can actually blame coronashutdowns for an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. From the LA Times:

More and more babies in L.A. County have been infected with syphilis in the womb, which can lead to stillbirth, neurological problems, blindness, bone abnormalities and other complications. Nine years ago, only six cases were reported across L.A. County, according to a Department of Public Health report. Last year, that number reached 113.

The numbers were already surging before the arrival of COVID-19, but public health officials fear the pandemic exacerbated the problem, closing clinics that screen people for syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections and putting new efforts to battle the disease on ice.

At the time, she said, she feared that going to a clinic could lead to her being jailed for using meth. “You think, ‘I’m going to get in trouble because I’m high,’” she said.

The surge in congenital syphilis has been especially frustrating to experts because the illness can be thwarted if pregnant people are tested and treated in time.

Men who have sex with men have been especially vulnerable, but the accelerating numbers among women and babies have spurred particular alarm for health officials because of the potentially devastating consequences.

Note the use of CDC-approved vocabulary, e.g., “pregnant people” and “men who have sex with men”. But then things break down a bit as the article wears on…

In L.A. County jails, eight cases of syphilis had been confirmed among 170 pregnant patients seen as of late August, said Dr. Noah Nattell, who oversees women’s health for the county‘s Correctional Health Services agency.

The sentence starts with “pregnant patients”, but falls back to the old term “women” towards the end. The inconsistency continues lower down:

Researchers have found that nationally, not all pregnant people are screened for syphilis despite the urgings by health officials. Even when they are diagnosed, nearly a third of pregnant women with syphilis did not get the care they needed, according to an analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The sentence that immediately follows one in which “pregnant people” is used falls back to the discredited term “pregnant women.” There is only one author for this article. Why can’t Emily Alpert Reyes pick one term and stick with it?

One of the key problems is that, unlike marijuana, methamphetamine hasn’t yet been recognized for its medicinal value and therefore remains illegal.

The woman who lost her baby said she started using meth at an overwhelming point in her life, facing the demands of a stressful job, school and a relationship that had grown strained after her earlier struggle to get pregnant.

At the time, the drug felt like “a ticket to freedom.” She quit her unrewarding job. Her boyfriend moved out. Meth made her feel brave, “like I could take a deep breath finally.”

She started seeing a man who told her he didn’t need to use a condom with her, a decision she now sees as naive. After they broke up, she got into a relationship with a friend who would become the father of her baby.

When the waves of pain began to roll over her in a hotel room where she was spending time with her boyfriend, another man and his girlfriend, the girlfriend quickly realized she was in labor and urged them to call 911, she said. But the men bristled at the idea, she recalled, because there were drugs there and they didn’t want attention from the police.

Soo… the population that was supposed to be refraining from gathering and using the governor-ordered face masks consistently and correctly is, in fact, spreading sexually transmitted diseases at a higher-than-previous rate, partying in hotel rooms with a miscellaneous collection of potentially infectious humans, etc. Is it fair to say that America’s leading public health experts have never met the American public?

(Separately, how effective have California’s measures been? In the COVID Olympics, California has a higher COVID-19-tagged death rate than do-almost-nothing Sweden. California initially appears to have had some success, if we’re measuring a society’s success by this one number, compared to Florida. Adjusted for population over 65, however, California has actually had a higher death rate than Florida, where adults have enjoyed near-total freedom. Could a failure to consider what Americans are actually like be part of the reason that California’s aggressive lockdowns and mask orders have had no apparent effect?

(And let’s see how the masks and lockdowns worked in California compared to the #Science-denials of the Florida Free State… from a Stanford Med School prof:

Compared to Florida, California may have a lower cumulative death rate tagged to COVID-19, but that is only because the population is younger (free and/or subsidized housing available only to those with children apparently encourages “pregnant people” to have babies and become “lactating people”!). For a given person of a given age, the risk of dying from COVID-19 was actually lower in Florida.)

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Pre-move discoveries of things that we owned…

A floppy disk in a filing cabinet…

And then a 5.25″ floppy! (“Mini” because it isn’t 8″ in diameter)

Two baby carriages (our youngest is almost 6)

Inch-thick folder of vet documents for Alex the Samoyed, who died in 2009, including instructions on how to inject a dog or cat with an intramuscular vaccine (but we’re told to worship the health care professionals who stick us with COVID-19 vaccines?):

Cleaning the dog’s teeth was $700 back in 2005. Lately the same place has been charging closer to $3,000.

Windows XP “Start Here” booklet. (Plus a bunch of accessories to go with a PC that was running XP. Which reminds me… who can think of a truly important Windows 10 feature that wasn’t also there on XP?)

Chinese pumpkin seeds that expired in 2018 (hiding behind some batteries in a kitchen drawer):

Multiple flip-phones, still a better design in my opinion!

A cleaning system for those valuable CDs:

An amazing Nakamichi clock radio with a long wire so that a second speaker can be placed on the opposing night table. Wake up to NPR and hear some more about January 6!

Deeply buried in a box of clutter that hadn’t been opened since at least 2014:

Printed tables of function values that were too tedious to compute:

A businessperson-turned-politician that we laughed at (but at age 66, wouldn’t she likely do a better job than Uncle Joe?):

It was not a “tough choice” to discard Tough Choices.

Kodak Carousel projector, improved with a Schneider lens, and accessories.

Decommissioned (I hope!) EPIRBs/PLBs.

“The unexamined life is not worth living” certainly applies to boxes in the garage!

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Did American love of process doom Champlain Towers South?

Owners at Champlain Towers South were told in 2018 that their building needed structural repairs, but the repairs weren’t scheduled to begin until later this year, i.e., a three-year interval. That’s enough time for the Chinese to build an entire city. I’m wondering if our love of process, which sometimes results in more durable structures, is a double-edged sword. If a structure is discovered not to be durable, a multi-year process before repairs can begin results in multiple years of vulnerability.

How much do we love process? Here’s a recent letter regarding what would have been an in-person meeting tonight. There will be deliberate consideration regarding the installation of a hand rail outside a bathroom:

(On Zoom, of course, because Coronapanic continues.)

Related:

  • “Miami-Area Condo Owners Pushed Town for Construction Approvals Days Before Collapse” (WSJ): ‘This is holding us up,’ the Champlain Towers South property manager emailed Surfside officials; town manager said no indication of need for emergency action
  • “Ten Thousand Commandments 2021” (CEI): “An Annual Snapshot of the Federal Regulatory State … Regulatory costs of $1.9 trillion amount to 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product… If it were a country, U.S. regulation would be the world’s eighth-largest economy.. If one assumed that all costs of federal regulation flowed all the way down to households, U.S. households would “pay” $14,368 annually on average in a regulatory hidden tax.”
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Steeped in the religion of homo economicus, American central planners underestimated the number of satisficers?

Recent text message from a friend:

[wife] is pissed at government for extending unemployment. Our nanny won’t work until September because she is being paid to not work.

Many of the Americans collecting unemployment checks (often more spending power than what is obtainable from a median job; see nytimes) are happy to work in exchange for untraceable cash that won’t jeopardize their continued revenue stream from Uncle Joe. They’re examples of Homo economicus from Econ 101, in other words. They put some value on leisure time, but it wasn’t such a high value that it kept them from entering the workforce some years ago. If their value of leisure time hasn’t changed, they should be happy to exchange time for cash money that government computer systems won’t see.

The above-cited nanny, however, did not make the working parents the expected offer to continue her efforts in exchange for cash rather than the previous stream of checks followed by a 1099. Instead, she said that she had “enough” to meet her needs and was not interested in work at all (presumably there was some cash price per hour that would have changed her mind, but she didn’t come up with a quote).

The central planners in Washington, D.C. presumably had some idea of how the enhanced/extended unemployment benefits would change the American workforce, but I wonder if there are way more people sitting on the beach than planned due to an overreliance on the Homo economicus assumption and an underestimate of the number of satisficers like our friends’ nanny. If there are a lot of working-age people who aren’t especially materialistic, it might be easier to shrink the American workforce than economists imagine.

Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (we seem to have reached a “new normal” a year ago):

Related:

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Americans were Shutdown Champions (at watching TV)

A European eyeglass retailer published a screen time index based on data gathered in mid-October 2020 (i.e., during coronapanic).

Americans were champions at watching TV, dominating all other nations (175 minutes/day compared to 119 minutes in Ireland and 113 in Switzerland). Colombia and Mexico were the only other nations that came close to matching our couch potato achievement.

And, before we wisely decided, in response to a virus that attacks the obese, to lock ourselves into our apartments and park next to the fridge, how were we doing with obesity? Our government loves to sort us by race:

Keep in mind that this is based on 2018 data and Americans are likely much fatter now.

What about “fat” rather than “obese”?

If you’re a white guy whom United Airlines doesn’t want to hire, there is a 75 percent chance you’re “overweight” (i.e., fat). If you’re a Black woman whom United Airlines does want to hire, there is an 80 percent chance you’re “overweight”. Maybe after a few of these quota-arranged training classes graduate it will be time to un-mothball the Airbus A380s (1,265,000 lbs. max gross weight)!

[My recollection is that taking an average within the NHANES data reveals that American “women” (whatever that term might mean) actually have a higher BMI than American “men”. That’s not necessarily inconsistent with the above tables, which look only at those who’ve exceeded a threshold, but maybe it is worth exploring.]

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Medicare focuses on end-of-life because we do too?

The death of my father was sad, but it was also illuminating. Relatives who hadn’t paid much attention to my parents for years suddenly sprang into action, on hearing that my father had gone sharply downhill (perhaps coincidentally, but it was one week after the second Pfizer Covid vaccine shot).

People were desperate to show up in person, get on Zoom or FaceTime, or talk on the phone. The neglect of the elderly in America reached a state of perfection starting in March 2020. People who hadn’t visited relatives in retirement homes suddenly had a perfect excuse: #AbundanceOfCaution #BecauseCorona. Even when the inmates were released to meet friends and family on outdoor terraces in masks, the Coronarighteous refrained from visiting (often while posting on Facebook photos of themselves enjoying various activities with other potentially infected humans, going out to get food at/from restaurants #BecauseTooLazyToCook, etc.). All of that changed once my dad slipped toward unresponsiveness.

Apparently I am always out of step with my fellow(?) humans. I was happy to have talked on the phone with my parents every day or two for the preceding 10 years. I was happy that we’d been able to visit them (from Boston to DC) every few months, including amidst “the global pandemic”, over the same period. As it happened, I was also able to be there during my father’s final week, but I didn’t consider that essential or important compared to what had transpired over the preceding 10 years.

Folks often decry the huge expenses that Medicare is willing to incur even when it is obvious that death of the beneficiary is imminent (see “Medicare Cost at End of Life” for some data; as much as 25 percent of spending is during the last year of life). But now I’m thinking that this is a feature and not a bug. If Medicare is a reflection of ourselves and what is important to us, it actually make sense for Medicare to pull out all of the stops when the end is near and certain.

Readers: What have you seen in your own families when the end is plainly near for an older relative? Do folks who’ve not been interested in the soon-to-be-deceased suddenly come out of the woodwork?

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Should one stay off Facebook, Instagram, et al. following the death of a parent?

Judaism requires that one refrain from attending social gatherings for a year following the death of a parent. From “Shiva and Other Mourning Observances” (Chabad):

Even as the mourner resumes his or her everyday routine after the Shivah, certain mourning practices, such as not purchasing or wearing new clothes, cutting one’s hair, enjoying music or other form of entertainment, and participating in joyous events (weddings, etc.), are continued for a period of thirty days (beginning from the day of the burial).

In the case of a person mourning the passing of a parent, these mourning practices extend for a full year.

Other sites clarify that “purely social gatherings”, “parties”, or any event in which music is played are off limits.

How do we translate this into our modern world that was increasingly anti-social even before coronapanic? What are the best examples of frivolous social activities that are incompatible with the status of mourning a relative (for a month) or parent (for a year)? My vote: Facebook and similar social networks.

Prior to my father’s precipitous decline (perhaps coincidence, but it was a week after receiving Pfizer Covid vaccine shot #2), my own Facebook presence was certainly frivolous. Some examples:

If Facebook had been around in 1599, surely Hamlet would have reproached Gertrude for posting on Facebook so soon after the death of his father:

Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.

might have been

Likes, Likes, Horatio! the funeral baked meats
Did go positively viral on Instagram.

Facebook makes people unhappy (New Yorker, 2013; and also a 2019 study), so we could perhaps argue that using it doesn’t violate the letter of the Jewish law against participating in joyous gatherings. I’m not an Orthodox Jew, but I think that the law makes sense and that social media is against the spirit of the law if not the letter.

Readers: What do you think? Should the mourner of a parent be on Facebook? If so, after how many months?

Related:

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Texas power outages demonstrate enduring human faith in hindsight?

Texans are suffering with cold weather, power failure, and water supply failure. (In other words, they’re learning what it is like to live in the Northeast; see, for example, the 2011 storm that took out power for 3.2 million people, many of whom went a week without power. In the Boston suburbs it is typical to lose power 4-6 times per year, e.g., due to a fallen tree or a storm, and for durations of up to 48 hours. Also 2013 and 1978 events, in the latter of which more than 100 people died.)

(That we’re calling this the “Texas power outage” might be an artifact of how our media presents things. “Widespread Power Outages Continue in Texas” is the caption the New York Times editors have placed over a map showing that the worst outages are in Louisiana and Mississippi:

)

The media can find an unlimited number of folks who describe this as a trivially foreseeable event, e.g., “Why Texas’ energy grid is unable to handle the winter storms” (NBC):

The crisis has made the state’s energy grid the focus of fresh scrutiny, primarily due to its independence from the rest of the U.S. Critics say that allowed its infrastructure to shirk federal regulations that require cold-weather capabilities.

Heroic regulators could have prevented this from happening? The governor agrees! “‘Massive failure’: Why are millions of people in Texas still without power?” (USA Today):

At the most basic level, the outages have been caused because demand amid the bitter cold has outpaced the supply of energy used to heat and power homes, said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.

Gov. Greg Abbott called the situation “unacceptable” and said he would add an emergency item to the state’s legislative session on reforming ERCOT. The nonprofit corporation is subject to oversight from the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Legislature.

There were similar events in 1989 and 2011… “Five things to know about Texas’s strained electric grid” (The Hill):

The 1989 blackouts came amid a cold snap in December, while the 2011 blackouts took place during the first week of February when wind and unseasonably cold temperatures hit Texas and neighboring New Mexico.

In total, approximately 1.3 million electric customers were out of service at the peak of the 2011 event on Feb. 2, and a total of 4.4 million were affected from Feb. 2 to Feb. 4.

In a report following the 2011 blackouts, FERC and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation recommended steps including increasing winterization measures.

The report said electricity generating companies operating within the ERCOT system “failed to adequately prepare for winter,” citing inadequate insulation and a failure to train operators and maintenance personnel on winter preparations.

If this was easy to foresee (and maybe it should have been, given what happened in 1989 and 2011), why weren’t these newspapers and interview subjects out there at least since 2011 beating the drum for more power plants and more winterization of infrastructure?

Could there be a general principle in operation here? After a hurricane hits, it is obvious that we should have put vastly more resources into being prepared for the hurricane. After a bad respiratory virus pandemic, it is obvious that we should have put vastly more resources into stockpiling PPE and ventilators (see Paper titled “Stockpiling Ventilators for Influenza Pandemics” (2017)).

Here in the Northeast we know that we could eliminate nearly all of our outages via putting power lines underground, but nobody wants to pay for it. This utility explains:

The main reason why undergrounding hasn’t been fully adopted in the U.S. is the overwhelmingly high cost of installing underground power lines. Estimates place the cost of undergrounding power lines at roughly $750 per foot, compared with $70 per foot to install power lines the way we do today. At over ten times the cost, this would become expensive very quickly.

Take North Carolina, for example. In 2002, the state looked into undergrounding for their three major power companies after a particularly bad power outage that left 2 million people losing power. After it was priced out, North Carolina found that their project would cost $41 billion (six times the net value of those three companies’ distribution assets) and would require 25 years to complete!

People are regularly killed during power outages. Should we pay any price, bear any burden to save lives via underground power lines? Apparently not. (Even though $41 billion rounds to zero in coronanomics!)

Why can’t people see that (1) we don’t have infinite money and time and therefore can’t be prepared for everything bad that might happen, and (2) they’re using hindsight when they talk about how we should have put more resources into preparing against something bad that actually did happen?

As of yesterday, 4 percent of total customers (poweroutage.us), but I am pretty sure that this figure will never appear in a headline (since Texas has such a huge population the outage will appear as the total number of customers who are out).

I asked a California Democrat (and tenured physics professor), who was expressing outrage that the Texas grid wasn’t subject to federal regulation, what he thought the number would be, if not 4 percent, if Texas had been federally regulated. He answered “0 percent”. Let’s have a look at Mississippi, which has federal regulation and has suffered from a similar cold snap. 13.5 percent of customers in MS are out as of the same time as the above map:

How about Louisiana?

Across the three states, it looks as though the outages line up with the USDA Zone 8b (Austin, Texas being included in this zone).

In other words, a cold snap in Zone 8b results in power failures whether the grid is regulated by the feds or the state. (The failures were slightly different in character, with Texas knocked out by high demand while MS and LA suffered from both excess demand and power lines downed by the ice and snow. Both could have been avoided, however, with additional $$ invested in preparation.)

Update, Feb 20, 11:00 am: 6 percent of folks in Mississippi are still without power, mostly in Zone 8b and some in Zone 8a.

(Texas, where the outages started earlier, is 99.4% powered (0.6% without power).)

Related:

  • Austin and Lockhart, Texas: 10 barbecue restaurants in 72 hours (fortunately, the smokers will continue to operate without power)
  • “The Texas Freeze: Why the Power Grid Failed” (WSJ) sounds like a great analysis. Companies that generate power aren’t paid to sit on standby, so there is an undersupply of standby power, especially during cold snaps when it would be expensive to prep a plant to keep operating. A big nuclear plant tripped off due to a water supply freeze. The authors attribute the problems to the way Texas set up its market for electric power, e.g., paying only for power delivered and not for being ready. But they never look at why the grid failures were nearly as bad in Louisiana and Mississippi. Maybe this is like coronascience and it is only necessary to tell a good story after data are received?
  • February 2013 North American blizzard (Wikipedia), in which 18 people died, the power failed, and it was both illegal and impractical to travel by road here in Maskachusetts.
  • Northeastern United States blizzard of 1978 (Wikipedia) in which 100 people died.

Very loosely related…

From a 2018 business trip to Dallas, extended due to 50-knot winds in the Northeast and the cancellation of airline flights back home, the George W. Bush Presidential Library (closed for a year now due to coronapanic):

And from the art museum, an unfortunately timely painting, Frederic Edwin Church’s The Icebergs:

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