Wednesday, June 3, 2020

COVID-19 Status in the U.S - beginning of June, 2020

A few weeks ago, I published a series of blogs regarding COVID-19 infections and deaths in the U.S. correctly suggesting that the projections the federal government used to inform the public were optimistic about the number of expected deaths. [i]

A chart I have found helpful compares the growth of U.S. cases to Spain, Italy, and Germany, adjusting for population size and recognizing that Italy started about two weeks before us and Germany and Spain a week after that.

[Note: the horizontal axis is time, with Italy showing ninety-eight days of data; the U.S. has eighty-three]

Whereas the other three countries experienced a significant flattening of their rates of reported infection, the U.S. has seen only a modest reduction in case rates.

Stay-at-home orders

The primary objective of the stay-at-home orders was to prevent hospital systems from becoming overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases at a time when PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) was not readily available and in some areas the infection spread was accelerating. Hospitals weathered the rising tide of cases and by now supplies of PPE have significantly increased. If those were the only metrics to consider, it makes sense to open the country for business.

Other considerations

Overwhelming hospitals is not the only consideration. This disease is a killer. As I write this blog, The U.S. has recorded over 108,000 deaths from COVID-19. Most experts believe that number is understated because during the early weeks of the U.S. pandemic, many non-hospital deaths weren’t tested for the disease.

The deaths toll continues with nearly 7,500 deaths in the last seven days.

More widely available testing means we are now recording COVID-19 cases that we would not have caught earlier. That’s useful because it allows asymptomatic people who test positive to quarantine, reducing the likelihood of infecting others. During the last seven days, over 155,000 new cases have been reported. That averages over 22,000 a day.

As this next chart shows, the U.S. death rate of those infected with COVID-19 continues to decline.

(It is also much lower than Italy’s rate. Understanding whether this is because Italy under-counted the number infected or their care was inferior to that received in the U.S. is beyond this blog’s scope.) We can expect a continued decline in death rates as we find more of our “lightly” infected individuals through increased testing. I estimate the percentage of recently discovered cases who will die is about 4.5%

That means I expect the past week’s 155,000 cases will produce another 7,000 deaths. That’s less than half of our highest weekly toll, but if that rate becomes “normalized,” it yields 365,000 deaths a year!

What’s next and what do we do?

Maybe we’ll be lucky and the disease will fade away of its own accord, as often happens to flu during the summer months. Unfortunately, we have seen the virus spread in a variety of hot climates, so we may not luck out.

We’ve learned COVID-19 spreads easily in closed environments where social distancing is not possible or not implemented. Many nursing homes, meat-packing plants, and prisons have developed into hot spots and unless these institutions take active protective precautions, we’ll see more of these hotspots develop.

Close social gatherings have acted as incubators and distribution agents for the disease. Weddings and funerals can be heartbreaking because of the family connections. Yet despite this knowledge, we have seen as states reopen that a significant portion of the U.S. population doesn’t give a rip about taking precautions to protect anyone else. Wisconsin bars were packed moments after the state supreme court struck down the governor’s stay-at-home order[ii]; pool parties were crowded in the Ozarks[iii]; many protesting the murder of George Floyd participate unmasked in large crowds (although other events demonstrate social distancing practices).

Face it, many people in the U.S. have a problem taking orders or following rules that benefit society if they interfere with their “right” to do whatever the hell they want to.

Which means the opening will be slower than it could be

Although I am healthy, I have one pre-existing condition about which I am happy: I’ve been alive for a lot of years. That means if the virus infects me, I have a higher risk of making an unscheduled visit to the crematorium, something I am not yet eager to do. I will take precautions to protect myself and others. To the extent others are not taking similar measures, I will cut back on my outings.

I recently visited LensCrafters and Menards in the Madison area. Customers are only served if they wear masks. Menards was structured with only one entrance and one exit, they had many reminders about keeping away from others, and they limited the number of people in the store (which was not a problem when I went mid day). I’m good with that. Limiting my trips to minimize potential exposure makes good sense, but I am willing to use stores employing these enforced precautions.

We’d enjoy going out to dinner again. I’d even be willing to pay more to reflect the restaurant’s increased cost of business. Unfortunately, I’ve passed by bars and restaurants where social distancing is not practiced and no one is masked. I will not be spending money at those facilities. Nor will I be hopping an airplane or train soon. Until the hotel industry demonstrates they practice deep cleaning of rooms between guests, (and can they afford to do that?), I won’t be staying at hotels. Road trips are out.

Nor can I see how it will be safe to attend mass events: sports, theater, music, bridge tournaments, and the like until the risk of infection is low.

I don’t think I am alone in this self-protection. It’s true the Baby Boomers are dying out. (It’s been happening ever since the last Boomer was born on December 31, 1964.) But plenty of Boomers still live, and as a group they have considerable income and wealth with the time and inclination to spend it. But only if they can do it safely. While the virus is still around and many others fail to practice behaviors that minimize the virus’s spread, the Boomers will not add all their spending power to reopening the economy.

At least that’s my take. What about yours?

[i] On April 2, I published a blog (here) analyzing available information to put into context the 100,000–240,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths then being projected. On April 15, in this blog, I cast doubt on the reduction of government projections to “only” 60,000 deaths through August 4[i], suggesting that 100,000 deaths were more likely. And most recently, on April 30 in this blog, I suggested that “only” 100,000 deaths was optimistic.

* * * * *
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. Furthermore, a novella is the most recent addition to the series. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at