In the past couple of weeks there has been a spike in coronavirus deaths in some of the more populous states in the southern USA. California, Florida, Texas and Arizona in particular have seen a marked rise in deaths (you can see the latest data here) and there are reports that hospitals and ICUs in the states are quickly filling up, suggesting more to come.
Many have suggested this is a direct result of easing lockdown. However, the real picture is more complicated. Other states and countries are also easing lockdown and not seeing this kind of surge. So what’s going on?
The four states in particular have had a strange epidemic so far. Rather than the familiar epidemic curve with sharp increase, plateau and steady decline back to normal mortality like we have seen in New York, Britain, Italy and many other places, instead there has been a consistently low number of deaths (fewer than 50 per day in Texas, Florida and Arizona, around 75 in California) but sustained with little change throughout the lockdown period. As a result, none has had a large death toll from the virus so far, but neither have they seen deaths tail off. This pattern appears not to have been a result of any particular government policy or intervention, as the states had very different responses to the virus in the spring, with California locking down early on March 19 but Florida resisting issuing its stay-at-home order until April 1. Furthermore, there was no obvious drop in death rate during the lockdown period, meaning here, as elsewhere, it’s not clear what impact lockdown measures had on the spread of the virus. There is therefore a real question about why deaths are increasing in these states specifically.
One possibility mooted is the heat. The four states have been experiencing warm summer weather recently, and the additional time spent indoors with air being circulated by air conditioning may have given the virus a boost. This seems plausible and would help explain the concentration in the south of the country. The role of air conditioning in spreading the virus, including during lockdowns, would certainly benefit from some additional attention.
In some ways it’s not so surprising that these states are seeing a spike. They have not been badly affected so far so are presumably still some way off collective immunity, even allowing for the lower herd immunity threshold that takes into account pre-existing immunity from other coronaviruses. Still, that wouldn’t explain why other places with similarly low death tolls which are also lifting their lockdowns are not experiencing similar spikes. The air conditioning hypothesis seems attractive here, but we have to admit there is still a lot that we don’t yet fully understand about this virus and why it affects different populations so differently.
To lockdown proponents, these US surges prove that lockdowns should be kept in place lest a deadly new wave should hit, as UK government scientists were warning yet again this week (crazily, still relying on Neil Ferguson’s discredited Imperial College model and its falsified assumption that everyone is equally susceptible to the virus unless they have antibodies). As usual, though, there is a complete lack of perspective. The spikes in the US are currently up to only around 100 deaths a day, which is small compared with the size of the populations involved and the normal daily number of deaths from all causes (around 667 in California, for instance). Maybe they will surge further, or maybe they will plateau and drop, but either way there is nothing in the way this virus has behaved around the world to think it is deadly enough to warrant such costly, deadly and unprecedented measures as lockdowns, social distancing and the like. In the worst affected places, such as the UK, Italy and New York, the coronavirus has been akin to a bad flu epidemic, killing a similar number of people. In the UK, for example, a smaller proportion of the population has died so far this year than died in the 1999-00 flu season, which passed with barely a mention.
It seems unlikely that there will be another large wave in a country such as Britain, where the virus has spread far and wide – epidemiological models that take into account varying degrees of susceptibility in the population have found that collective immunity can be reached at as low as 7 per cent antibody levels. Maybe this is wrong. Or maybe there will be a new wave, but only in countries or states that have got away lightly so far, such as in the southern US. But, and this is surely the crucial question here, so what? What has been sorely lacking since March is a proper sense of perspective on the threat faced and the risk to individuals, and a rational grasp of what constitutes a measured response that doesn’t do more harm than good. The world appears now to be ruled by fear rather than reason, and unless we can snap out of it it does not bode well for the future.
As the huge economic and human consequences continue to mount, when, we must ask, are we going to wake up from this dystopian nightmare and accept that Covid or no Covid, second wave or no second wave, we all just need to get on with our lives and face the future, with its hopes and fears, risks and opportunities, with boldness and fortitude?