COVID-19 DIARIES, 25 SEPTEMBER 2020

The New Normal

For centuries, most people lived in villages a few miles apart, spoke different dialects, and had limited awareness of the larger world around them.

Welcome to the New Normal, coronavirus edition.

As we passed 7 million coronavirus cases and 200,000 dead this week¹ (likely 266,000 if we count all excess deaths), the US entered into a situation where local conditions here in Ventura County seem pretty good, driving a push to get back to normal ASAP. Meanwhile, the national situation worsened this week.

Let’s switch things up and start with local news first. Computational biologist Mike Bass’ analysis of state data shows new cases have run below the 14-day average for three of the past four days. That’s excellent news, and suggests safety measures have helped keep the virus in check.

In Ventura County, new coronavirus cases have fallen below the 14-day trend line the past few days, according to an analysis by computational biologist Mike Bass.

The number of Ventura County hospital and ICU patients continues to fall, and deaths are also down — more good news. Mike’s data shows the county now averages around 1.4 deaths per day, down from 1.5 deaths/day last week.

Statewide, Mike Bass’ analysis show cases kept rising slightly above the 14-day trend line. In fact, new cases rose 2% this week compared with the previous week.
Also statewide, tests are way up (21% compared with last week) while new cases grew by 2%. Hospitalizations and ICU patients fell by 7% each — a decline, but less of a drop than the previous week. Deaths fell sharply (-19%), a sign that the summer surge is nearly over.

Hospitalizations and deaths also fell statewide this past week, a sign the summer surge is nearing its end. However, statewide new cases rose by 2%, reversing a 1% drop the previous week. This may be the beginning of a post-Labor Day surge in cases, as seen elsewhere around the nation, or maybe it’s just a small and temporary bump. It’s too soon to say.

Overall, though, the picture in Ventura County (and to a lesser extent statewide) looks brighter than it did a month ago.

With cases coming down, there’s been a local trend of saying “see — the virus’ worst offenders are in only a few ZIP codes, not here.” I’ve personally heard variations on this theme from the mayor of Thousand Oaks² and the editor of our local paper, among others.

I agree with Betsy Connolly, veterinarian and CVUSD school board member, that this is a really unfortunate interpretation.

Quoting Dr. Connolly: “Why don’t we talk about who is out on the front lines, contracting COVID-19 and bringing it back to their families? Employers can avoid reporting workplace spread, [but] frontline workers aren’t being paid when they don’t work.

“The ability to avoid the virus by safely working from home is not a privilege available to all workers. Low-income workers, who often work in service occupations, have continued to go to workplaces. We call them ‘essential’ and ‘frontline.’ They have kept our economy running.”

It’s certainly true that ZIP codes with lower income and denser housing have higher rates of infection. But we don’t live in isolated villages anymore. A twenty-something service worker who contracts the virus from a relative at home may infect a 50-something customer here. This isn’t the Middle Ages; we are far more interconnected now.

Nationally, there’s pretty strong evidence of a bump in new cases after Labor Day.

As this chart from Brown University dean of public health Ashish K. Jha shows, there has been a nationwide spike in cases since Labor Day. The spike is similar to those following the Memorial Day and Independence Day weekends.

Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the school of public health at Brown University, notes that after a few weeks of declining numbers, infections have now turned upward again. In the past two weeks, Dr. Jha says, we’ve gone from around 34,000 new cases per day to 44,000/day now, a 30% increase.

Further, 39 states have more new cases today they did two weeks ago; 31 states have higher positivity rates; and 16 states have positivity above 10%, according to Dr. Jha.

Coronavirus news this week was significantly worse in the rest of the nation than in California. Driven by spikes in the Midwest and South, cases rose for the second straight week. Hospitalizations also rose slightly, while deaths fell.

This is backed up by data from covidtracking.com showing the high per capita rates of infection in more states spread across the Midwest and South. For the second straight week, North Dakota claimed the “honor” of most infectious state, but infection rates are growing higher in states from Alaska to Alabama. Wisconsin is a particular concern, with cases and hospitalizations rising fast.

Although Midwestern states have the fastest-growing rates of infection, the virus is widely distributed around the country. North Dakota claimed the “honor” of most infectious state for the second week running, but South Dakota, Alabama, and Wisconsin all have fast-rising rates of new cases.

In fact, Dr. Jha notes that about 25% of all Americans live in the 15 states with the highest per-capita infection rates. This is hardly just a problem of localized infections in a few low-population states. And all this is happening before colder weather and the flu season begins.

Still, Dr. Jha sees some reasons why a Labor Day surge might not be as serious as the previous bump this summer. Testing has risen nationwide the past two weeks. Therapies continue to improve. And despite the continued public-health risk that anti-maskers pose, most people are doing the right thing. If cases really start to spike, Dr. Jha thinks there will be more willingness to voluntarily limit indoor gatherings and pull back as needed.

I hope he’s right. It’s too easy to look at local progress and conclude things are OK. They aren’t, not yet. With widespread use of vaccines likely months away,[8] we still have a long way to go.

This is our new normal. We’re not in a good spot yet, but with simple and effective safety measures — masks, physical distancing, and getting outdoors whenever possible — we can control this.

Here are this week’s numbers, all sourced from covidtracking.com.

US stats for the week ending Friday, September 25 (with % change from previous week):

Total tests (positive, negative, pending): 6,337,825 (+18%)
New cases: 304,047 (+10%)
Cumulative US cases: 6,992,874
Confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations: 29,769 (+1%)
Confirmed COVID-19 ICU: 6,133 (-1%)
Deaths: 5,130 (-8%)
Cumulative US deaths: 195,696

CA stats for the week ending Friday, September 25 (with % change from previous week):

Total tests (positive, negative, pending): 875,061 (+21%)
New cases: 24,209 (+2%)
Cumulative CA cases: 794,040
Confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations: 3,307 (-7%)
Confirmed COVID-19 ICU: 899 (-7%)
Deaths: 586 (-19%)
Cumulative CA deaths: 15,398

¹Prominent coronavirus data sources including the CDC, Johns Hopkins, and the New York Times all reported these milestones this week.

The data source I use, covidtracking.com, reported slightly lower numbers. As the covidtracking project explains in its FAQ, it reports more slowly because (a) it doesn’t automate data collection and (b) the site, a collaboration between journalists and data scientists, spends additional time evaluating data quality.

The Covidtracking project will retroactively add numbers where merited. Over time, all the major sites tend to agree with one another, with only slight differences explained by time-of-day collection practices.

²Phone conversation.

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David Robert Newman

David Robert Newman

Photographer, editor, recovering engineer.