By Mel

Arms Race

      “Please hear me clearly: at this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained. Now is not the time to relax.” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director, CNN, March 2, 2021

      “Dr. Walensky is right, and the reason she’s right is while things are way better than they were about a month and a half ago the level of infection in the country right now is the same as at the peak of the summer surge, so we’re not in great shape. And we have variants, and variants are starting to take over, and if they become dominant and we relax restrictions I think we can absolutely see a huge spike that will really lead to a lot more suffering… We have a high level of infection, we’ve got states easing restrictions, which they should not be doing at this moment, and we’ve got the variants that are circulating that are a lot more infectious. Put all that together and I can’t help but worry about where we’re going to be for the next couple months.” Dr. Ashish Jha, epidemiologist, Dean of the School of Public Health, Brown University, CNN, March 2, 2021

      “I have to congratulate this administration for what they have done…with the vaccines… But we also have to tell the story of what is still ahead of us. And at 2.9 to 3 million doses of vaccine a day, over the next 6 to 14 weeks, when this surge is likely to happen, is not really likely to take care of the problem at all… We still have a lot of high-risk people out there, and when this surge comes, they’re going to be highly vulnerable… The other thing we see right now is that every governor wants to open schools… and as a grandfather of five children I get it. But the problem is that if you look at Europe, the challenge we’re seeing right now is a lot of transmission in schools with this new variant… So we’re going to have some tough days ahead in the older population and the younger population with this new variant virus.” Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota, on Meet the Press, March 7, 2021

      “The pandemic still remains a very serious situation.” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Monday, March 8, 2021, Politico.

Dear Students,

The US reportedly delivered 2.9 million vaccines into arms yesterday, far ahead of what Joe Biden initially promised and almost at the 3 million per day minimum that experts have recommended. However, the UK variant (B.1.1.1) is rapidly becoming the fastest spreading strain in the US, destined to account for at least 50 percent of new cases in Americans in the next few weeks. In Britain and Europe, this has been the threshold for new and very serious burdens on health care systems.

Right now, we Americans are feeling good. The holiday surge is over, and cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have come down an astounding 70 percent since their winter peaks. However, this is primarily the result of the mess we made by our behavior on the holidays. When we’ve been banging our head against the wall harder and harder, there is only so much credit we can take for feeling better when we stop.

But now cases and hospitalizations are plateauing at levels higher than the summer peak when the virus swept the south and west and the national surges scared the living daylights out of us. We are stabilizing at that way-high level—a convenient platform for the virus to take off in a new surge—and, right on cue, we are starting to bang our heads against the wall again, with premature openings and ending mask mandates in some states and lazy complacency in many others.

These foolhardy blunders can easily take us from the high plateau we are on into a fourth wave that will once again cause scores of thousands of needless deaths.

As the photo suggests, we are in an arms race between evolutionary changes in the spike protein—the virus’s arm for prying open our cells—and the human arms getting jabbed in the vaccination campaign. The virus is flooring its Darwinian gas pedal with new variants of concern (VoCs) in South Africa and Brazil, yes, but also New York and Oregon.

Our university is among those that have seen surges in student cases—in Emory’s case an unprecedented outbreak after a year of safe performance—due to Superbowl parties, fraternity and sorority pledging, and other activities the virus loves. So many opportunities to evolve! Now spring break is coming for many colleges, and—well, here we go again.

Good news

  1. The Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine was given its expected Emergency Use Authorization, putting it on a par legally with the mRNA vaccines. The J&J is an adenovirus carrying viral DNA and is stable for weeks at refrigerator temperatures, a tremendous boon for rollout—as is the fact that you only need one jab. It is substantially less effective than the mRNAs at preventing cases (72 vs. ~95 percent), but, like them, close to 100 percent effective at preventing severe cases and death. Initial rollout has been slow but will ramp up fast.
  2. Not vaccines, but other preventive measures (masks, social distancing, handwashing), along with the pass-through of the holiday surge, have brought cases and hospitalizations down more than 70 percent. Nursing homes, where the most vulnerable have lived and died of COVID all along, have declined even more—in their case largely due to priority vaccinations.
  3. Total vaccinations, mainly with mRNA vaccines, have been deployed more and more effectively, with 450 vaccination centers and thousands of volunteers across the country. We are almost at 3 million a day, and if we can keep that up or, preferably, increase it, we have a chance of flattening the curve of the fourth wave. If we keep up masking and other preventive measures, we have a chance to avoid it altogether and by the end of the year bend the current high plateau way down—if the vaccines provide long-term immunity and the new variants can’t evade them.
  4. Herd immunity through widespread vaccination—up to 85 percent is needed—can be achieved and life can return to something close to normal, with tremendous positive implications for the treatment of non-COVID illnesses, education, jobs, and mental health. Healing from this dreadful national trauma will be under way.
  5. Dr. Peter Hotez has lauded the vaccine rollout in India as having the potential to save the world from the virus—even while reminding us that the US will never be safe from it until it is controlled (not necessarily eliminated) worldwide.
  6. The CDC finally came out with guidelines for people who have been fully vaccinated. They can be indoors with small numbers of fully vaccinated people without masks, or with well-known low-risk people from one other household. They should not go to gatherings, eat indoors at restaurants, and the like.

Bad News

  1. Variants of Concern now include the UK/B.1.1.7 (mutation N501Y), which spreads 50 percent faster and is sweeping the US but is susceptible to existing vaccines; the South Africa/B.1.351(N501Y+K417N+E484K), which spreads faster and is less susceptible to vaccines; the Brazil/P.1 (N501Y+K417T+E484K), same; the new New York variant/B.1.526 (S477N+E484K), same; and the Oregon variant/B.1.1.7 (N501Y+E484K), same.
  2. Lets put this bad news in English. For each of these codes, the number in the middle represents the consecutuve position of the relevant mutation on the viral spike protein. The before and after capital letters represent the one-letter code for amino acids. Thus N501Y means the amino acid in position 501 has changed from arginine to tyrosine due to an underlying mutation (replication error) in the RNA triplet that specifies 501. Since 501 is in the binding domain of the spike protein, the mutation can and does make it easier for the virus to bind with and enter cells—thus increased transmissibility.
  3. The two mutations at position 417 (K→N →or K→T) as well as the change at 477 (S→N) also affect the spike binding domain. All can enhance transmissibility and all are popping up independently in different places. Also, these Variants of Concern involve amino acid substitutions that change the shape of the folded spike protein at least a little, and are therefore able to enter our cells or resist our antibodies more easily.
  4. Most concerning to scientists appears to be the E484K mutant, (glutamic acid → lysine at position 484). This mutant, present in 5 of the 6 new strains named above, makes it easier for the virus to evade our antibodies, thus undermining both natural and vaccinated immunity. Its nickname is the “Eek” mutation, and yes, it is that scary.
  5. Mutations occur constantly, and some of them are adaptive, so the virus evolves. To paraphrase an old song, it’s a mighty restless bug in a mighty restless land. Scientists have a huge deal of trouble figuring out which of the many mutations are silent, and which, like the ones above, matter for humans. On top of that, the mutations operate synergistically, for better or worse, when they appear in the same strain.
  6. Since we still do a woefully low amount of viral sequencing, and overall testing and tracing are low and/or declining, we are fighting the new variants in the dark without a flashlight. Our friends in vaccine manufacture and development start scrambling to invent booster shots for new variants as soon as they appear, but it’s a race against time, vaccine development vs. viral evolution.
  7. There have been disappointments on the clinical side this past week. Convalescent plasma in a metaanalysis was shown to have no benefit on any standard outcome measures. Fortunately, it is being replaced with monoclonal antibodies that work better if introduced early in the illness. Dexamethasone (a steroid) increases mortality if given early in the illness but remains confirmed as effective in advanced stages. The IL-6 inhibitor tocilicumab helps if given after dexamesthasone but is harmful if given without dexamethasone. Something similar is true of other IL-6 inhibitors.
  8. Standard views about children being less likely to be infected than adults may be due to testing bias, so they may be equally vulnerable. It still seems true that they don’t get as sick, but a new study finds that as high as 13 percent of children who are infected will suffer from long COVID. Dr. Daniel Griffin, who gives the clinical updates on the This Week in Virology podcast, calls this “a disaster.” Long COVID goes up by age to peak in the age period 35-49; overall it affects at least one in five people who get infected with COVID-19.

States are opening prematurely. Governor Abbott of Texas, still reeling from accusations that his negligence caused scores of death in the recent snowstorm, has decided to cause thousands more excess deaths from COVID by boldly opening Texas “100 percent.” The governors of Mississippi, Arizona, and other states are doing the same.

This failure of leadership is a step by step repeat of the mistakes that led to last summer’s and then this winter’s surge, needlessly killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, and it will have similar consequences.

Such stupidity in leadership acts synergistically, like the evolving viral mutations, with the stupidity of ordinary Americans. If you have missed it, take a look at the photo on the left. It shows the good citizens of Boise, Idaho, ceremoniously burning masks outside the state Capitol. As with all ceremonies, this one expresses deeply held beliefs, and the adults are passing their beliefs on to their children with the ceremony.

As playwright Arthur Miller said, “The paranoia of stupidity is always the worst, since its fear of destruction by intelligence is reasonable.” These neighbors of ours have bad ideas, which they probably sense cannot hold up in the face of better ones, and since they are attached to their bad ideas, the possible loss of them makes them afraid.

Yet what can we do in the face of such stupidity except continue to meet it with the best intelligence we have? Meanwhile, as always, the stupidity of our fellow citizens, including leaders, puts us all at risk. Eek.

Stay safe. It won’t be too much longer, provided we aren’t stupid enough stretch it out again.

Dr. K

PS: Please don’t rely just on me. The best resource on what is happening specifically in the state of Georgia is Dr. Amber Schmidtke’s Daily Digest. More generally, I recommend the following: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation COVID-19 Update, aka The Optimist; for the science of viruses, especially the new coronavirus, This Week in Virology (TWiV) podcast; Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction; COVID-19 UpToDate for medical professionals; and for the current numbers: Johns Hopkins University (JHU); Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME); Our World in Data (OWiD); The New York Times Coronavirus Resource Center (NYT). For uncannily accurate warnings, follow @Laurie_Garrett on Twitter. I also recommend this COVID-19 Forecast Hub, which aggregates the data from dozens of mathematical models, and this integrative model based on machine learning. For an antidote to my gloom, check out the updates of Dr. Lucy McBride, who doesn’t see different facts but accentuates the positive.

 

 

 

“Baby, There’s COVID Outside”

            “Dr Chris Murray from the IHME told Anderson this earlier tonight, they’re expecting over 100,000 additional deaths between now and June … they don’t think that the US will reach herd immunity before next winter. I mean that’s a pretty scary proposition—what do you think?” 

            “I think that Dr. Murray and his colleagues are probably right… It’s going to take us quite some time to get…enough supply. Hopefully we’ll reach that by by mid-summer but…we really need the vast majority of adult Americans to take the vaccine, and I’m afraid that because of the pandemic of disinformation, it’s going to be really difficult to do that, and so I’m hopeful that we can do this by winter and have a normal Christmas and New Year’s, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work for us to get there, and the variants can really throw a wrench into the works… I really do worry about the variants, because if you have something that’s a lot more transmissible then it’s not just a matter of linear spread; so something that’s 50% more transmissible, you’re not going to get 50% more infections, you’ll get many many many times more infections… I also worry about variants that potentially could be less effective with the vaccines that we have and we may always be happy to play catch-up so we vaccinate everyone, but then there are variants, and then we have to get boosters to target those variants. So we could always be trying to play catch-up here, and that is a big problem.” Dr Leana Wen, with Don Lemon, CNN, 2-19-21

            “The virus and the pandemic as we know it is not the virus and the pandemic that we face right now… This virus is changing and it is changing rapidly. There about 4000 different variants… To find a variant you have to genetically sequence, it requires skill, immense computing power, and frankly not many countries are doing that… Those three main strains [UK, South Africa, Brazil/Japan] are out there and they are improvements from the original virus, because that’s the way evolution works. When there is even a tiny advantage that advantage is pushed along through natural selection at an enormously rapid rate because evolution in viruses happens very very quickly… I’ve been following the story of one particular intensive care nurse who was quite optimistic because she had gotten her vaccine and then her COVID ward suddenly changed when these mutant strains arrived:”

            “We’ve seen patients now with absolutely no past medical history, not overweight, runners, people who go to the gym, people in their 40s, and these patients are dying.”

            “What would you say to Americans who might not have woken up yet to the fact that this is coming?” 

            “If you love your family, if you love the people you know, wear a mask, stay indoors, wash your hands, be careful, just realize that this will kill.” Richard Engel with a UK intensive care nurse, MSNBC, 2-21-21

Dear Students:

This is much my favorite of several parodies of the old song, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” making the cloud rounds since Christmas. I know, it’s cold outside too. Colder than it has ever been in, for instance, Texas, where due to the incompetence of state leadership, at least 32 people have died from the winter storm—of at least 69 nationally—as of yesterday.

My heart goes out to the victims, their families, and the millions of others who suffered from no heat in freezing cold—some made fires from their furniture—and no water due to ice-burst pipes. But consider.

The 7-day moving average of daily deaths in Texas from COVID-19 was 119 on Saturday. So, despite the lowest death rates since November, during the week of the storm the virus killed over 800 people, or around 25 times as many as the cold did. But the storm news thoroughly dominated the air waves all week, with virus stories and analyses relegated to short segments late in the hour.

Nationwide we are under 2,000 deaths a day, down from 4,000 in mid-January (see the chart). This is terrifically good news. But we are still far above the summer peak and only around the immensely disturbing first peak of last spring. That’s with all the advances in treatment and two months of vaccine roll-outs.

Hospitalizations have dropped similarly, a tremendous boon to our frontline healthcare heroes, and cases have dropped even more. But all are still at or above previous peaks. We just crossed the nauseating milestone of half a million deaths.

Baby, it’s COVID outside.

Good News

  1. New cases in the US have dropped 70 percent from the winter peak, hospitalizations and deaths have been halved. This is most likely due overwhelmingly to the pass-through of the holiday-period recklessness and the resulting unprecedented surge. Improved behavior, partial immunity due to prior infection and (to a very small extent) vaccination have probably helped.
  2. The vaccine roll-out continues with great fanfare but at a slow pace. We have reached over 60 million vaccinations, mostly first dose, and that is increasing at 1.6 million a day. So far this is overwhelmingly the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines, but the Johnson & Johnson single-dose one is on the verge of Emergency Use Approval, with more to come.
  3. A study in Israel, where vaccination rates beat the world, shows that a first dose of Pfizer vaccine affords 85 percent protection between 15 and 28 days out. This is far better than anyone expected. Another Israeli study showed that a double dose prevents transmission as well as disease, at a rate of 89 percent; this was a big question mark until now.
  4. Treatment advances continue, including monoclonal antibodies for early-stage patients to keep them out of the hospital, and late stage tocilizumab, an interleukin-6 (IL-6) inhibitor, given after or with the steroid dexamethasone. Immune system interventions like these, science fiction a few decades ago, are working. Early anticoagulant (blood thinner) treatments and vitamin D supplements also make a difference.
  5. The new administration in Washington has set a new tone. Masks are cool and people from the top down are modeling their use. Social distancing, handwashing, and other preventive measures are mentioned frequently. The stupid culture wars over prevention are not done, but the federal government is on the side of science.

Bad News

  1. SARS-CoV-2 is evolving fast. The 4,000 variants mentioned above are of uncertain importance, but some could change the game, and not enough people in government or news outlets are talking about them. The UK variant spread like wildfire there and doubled hospitalizations almost overnight. Cases of it are doubling every 10 days here and it will be the dominant US strain by March. Cases of the South African and Brazil/Japan strains are here. The first is resistant to some vaccines and the second is implicated in a new epidemic that engulfed Manaus, an Amazonian city of 2 million.
  2. Dr. Peter Hotez, probably the nation’s leading expert on vaccine development, says we need 3 million doses in arms per day, almost twice what we have now, and there are no plans announced to get to that number. Dr. Michael Osterholm gave up his own second dose because he believes triage requires that we (like the UK) choose to vaccinate twice as many people once before we give second doses (see #3 above).
  3. President Biden has promised to “level” with us, and, like FDR, to give it to us “straight from the shoulder.” But if he did that, he would not talk about 600 million doses by mid-summer as if it were adequate. He would apologize and pledge more. And he would certainly not, as I have heard him, blame his predecessor, which is uncomfortably reminiscent of what his predecessor did.
  4. Israel, the UK, and even the United Arab Emirates show that vaccinations can move much faster than they are moving here now. The UK has been on lockdown for many weeks and will reopen only slowly as conditions allow in March. Bhutan, Rwanda, and Senegal have done far better than we have in controlling this pandemic. Are we still too proud to learn the lessons all those countries and more have to teach us?
  5. The issue of school reopenings has been handled by the new CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, almost as bumblingly as by her predecessor. On Sunday the 14th CNN’s Jake Tapper asked her to defend her new guidelines. She tripped all over herself. She said (for example) that community transmission has to be controlled where the school is. Tapper pointed out that 99 percent of US schoolkids live in red zones. No answer. This was without noting that thousands of schools would go bankrupt if they met the guidelines for cleaning, ventilation, and so on. Biden’s White House did not back her up. Of course kids need school, but the new CDC is still being disingenuous. Vaccinate the teachers, janitors, and food workers.

Speaking of kids, I reached the two-week anniversary of my second Pfizer dose on Friday, and on Saturday I snuggled with my grandkids while reading to them for the first time in almost a year. We were outside and I was still masked, but it was a great feeling. One of the new studies mentioned above told me I would be unlikely to carry it asymptomatically to them

As I said to some of you yesterday, I wish I could tell you to party. You have as much right to party as I have to hug my grandchildren. But if you do it now, you will join the ranks of the foolish who infect themselves and others.

This is not over. Not all 4,000 viral mutants are “variants of concern,” most are biologically silent, but some make the disease more likely to transmit, more deadly, or more resistant to vaccines and our own immunity. I was happy to hear cable news talk about natural selection, but I am not happy with the results of that selection. And we are underestimating it because we do so pathetically little viral genome sequencing.

Dr. Michael Osterholm said Friday on PBS that we are in the calm before the storm, and that a new surge caused by the UK variant (B.1.1.7, which current vaccines do prevent) is inevitable. Based on the UK’s own experience, we could see 195,000 hospitalizations a day, compared to the 130,000 a day that overwhelmed our hospitals in January—the surge that among other things required a fleet of refrigerated trucks to store the bodies.

Dr. Fauci said yesterday we may still be wearing masks in 2022—some degree of normality by the end of ’21, but not without masks and other precautions between now and then. Today he said, “This is a common enemy. We’ve all got to pitch in. We’re in some good shape now with the vaccines, but it’s going to be a race against the infections that keep coming.”

Dr. Tom Gillespie, of Emory’s Environmental Sciences Department, was quoted in yesterday’s New York Times (“And Then the Gorillas Started Coughing”), commenting on two San Diego Zoo gorillas that contracted SARS-CoV-2—which they could only have gotten from humans—warning that apes and other infectable species could become a reservoir that preserves the virus after the pandemic and circulates it back to us. Viruses of many kinds are a long-term threat.

Mohamed El-Arian, financial advisor and president of Queen’s College, Cambridge, said today we were in a two-horse race, vaccines against the virus, but that now it’s a three-horse race, with the third horse being the new variants, and if that horse comes up fast, we could be in bad trouble again. We only beat the third horse with the precautionary measures we have been advised to take all along.

As you know, Emory itself, which has done very well all along, has had an unprecedented burst of cases among students in just the past week, for unknown reasons.

Parts of the country are in the deep freeze, but baby it’s covid outside. Stay safe,

Dr. K

PS: Please don’t rely just on me. The best resource on what is happening specifically in the state of Georgia is Dr. Amber Schmidtke’s Daily Digest. More generally, I recommend the following: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation COVID-19 Update, aka The Optimist; for the science of viruses, especially the new coronavirus, This Week in Virology (TWiV) podcast; Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction; COVID-19 UpToDate for medical professionals; and for the current numbers: Johns Hopkins University (JHU); Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME); Our World in Data (OWiD); The New York Times Coronavirus Resource Center (NYT). For uncannily accurate warnings, follow @Laurie_Garrett on Twitter. I also recommend this COVID-19 Forecast Hub, which aggregates the data from dozens of mathematical models, and this integrative model based on machine learning. For an antidote to my gloom, check out the updates of Dr. Lucy McBride, who doesn’t see different facts but accentuates the positive.

New Sheriff, New Bad Guys

      “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill, House of Commons, June 4, 1940

     “C’mon man, gimme a break!” President Joe Biden, January 21, 2021, answering a reporter who asked if a million vaccinations a day was enough

Dear Students,

Don’t get me wrong. I love Joe Biden. I supported him when most of my family and friends supported Elizabeth Warren—who by the way was the smartest person running for president, and had policy views most similar to mine—or Bernie, or others. Also, I didn’t think anyone as old as me should be president again. Yet I supported Biden because I was fairly sure that he had the best chance of winning, and because I was completely sure that he is an exceptionally good man. Although I did not say this to many people, I thought that he might be a great president.

Also, he is off to a good start. The new sheriff is laying down the law—on racism, LGBTQ rights, economic rescue, environmental protection, masking, social distancing, and vaccinations. But as far as the virus goes, he does not get a break from me, and no, it is not nearly enough.

Dr. Peter Hotez, a distinguished physician-virologist who is probably the most knowledgeable person about the pandemic after Dr. Fauci—but who can speak more freely than Fauci even now—wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on January 26th in which he described the new variants of the virus as a “looming catastrophe” that will bring us to 600,000 deaths by May. We need to deliver 500 million doses of vaccines—into Americans’ arms—to end community transmission. Do we want to wait 500 days? By that time the new variants will have run all over us. We need to do it by summer. Which is why Dr. Hotez is calling for 3 million vaccinations a day.

This means that we need more than two vaccines; a vast and rapid (warp-speed?) expansion of vaccination centers beyond those already planned; unprecedented invocation of the Defense Production Act; imaginative use of the armed forces, even beyond the National Guard; and innovative use of syringes and other equipment to minimize vaccine waste. A good account of the current vaccine development situation in terms of science is here, but we need more than science, we need wartime logistics.

We also need a new level of seriousness about masks, social distancing, and handwashing. If we don’t ramp up our use of these measures, we will surely face more lockdowns, with all the associated economic, social, family, educational, and psychological pain.

If you have studied with me, you recognize that we are in an evolutionary arms race with this virus. All infectious agents adapt and evolve. They evade our defenses—both vaccines and treatments. That’s why after almost four decades we don’t have a vaccine against HIV, which evolves even within one person. That’s why we need a new flu vaccine every year. That’s why every year, thousands die of TB and malaria because they are infected by strains that resist all known treatments.

If we don’t (culturally) adapt and evolve in the face of this new virus—or should I say these new viruses?—we will lose, and as always, black, brown, and Native American people will lose most. We will not win this arms race, this by far most deadly of all our wars, by asking for “a break.” We will only win by fighting the virus every hour of every day, in every place, in every way.

Good News

  1. The new sheriff is really, really different from the old one. His deputies can shoot straight and they know how to round up bad guys—bad viruses. The heads of the CDC, FDA, HHS and many other agencies responsible for fighting disease are superb people, not third-raters and sycophants like their predecessors; they are already speaking directly and frequently to the American people, without fear of censorship for delivering scientific truth. For the first time there is a national plan, and it is a fairly good plan. With it, we are building a shield against the virus that we never had before.
  2. There has been a significant decline in the past couple of weeks in the number of US cases and hospitalizations but not yet deaths, probably related to the end of the big holiday surge.
  3. The Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines are working safely, and pretty soon a few million Americans will have approximately 95 percent protection (two weeks or so after their second dose). Preliminary data suggest that protection levels could be even higher in the community than they were in clinical trials.
  4. The Janssen/Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine will likely be approved (like the first two) for emergency use in the U.S., within a couple of weeks. Despite being less protective than its predecessors, it is more effective than the seasonal flu vaccine and easily passes the threshold of 50 percent protection set by health authorities. It hides the DNA—the gene—of a SARS-CoV-2 spike protein inside the Trojan horse of a cold virus disabled from reproducing. It has tremendous advantages: first, it only requires one shot; second, it does not require any specialized freezing or cooling equipment (DNA being much more stable than mRNA). These advantages will make it literally a lifesaver in rural America and in the developing world.
  5. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, despite some stumbles in the Phase III trials, is being used in the UK and was just approved by the European Union. It requires two doses but no special freezers, and will probably be added to the US vaccine arsenal in April. It is similar in principle to the J&J but uses a non-reproducing chimp adenovirus (instead of a human one) as the Trojan horse. The DNA is stable at higher temperatures, but it is still being worked out what the ideal doses would be.
  6. A monoclonal antibody drug (bamlanivimab, Eli Lilly) has shown 80 percent effectiveness in preventing infection in a randomized controlled trial in nursing home patients, and even greater effectiveness against deaths. This would have been tremendously important a few months ago, before we had vaccines, but now that we do, it’s not clear how the antibodies will be used—especially since they may interfere with vaccine effects.

Bad News

  1. The big bad news, and it is really bad, is that the virus has evolved new variants—new bad guys that will make the new sheriff’s job much harder. Of course, it has been evolving all along. A new paper, “Emergence of a Highly Fit SARS-CoV-2 Variant,” traces the first big leap the virus took last spring. As you know, “highly fit” in this context means spreading faster for more reproductive success. That first mutation was a single base change known as D614G that emerged in Southern Europe and by June was the dominant strain in the world.
  2. Viral evolution continued. In December a new “variant of concern” (B.1.1.7) was found in Southern England that contained multiple mutations and was determined to spread much faster and cause more severe disease. The mutations make it easier for a spike protein on the virus to combine with ACE2 receptors on human cells to gain entry. Hospitalizations doubled in the UK as the new variant became dominant there. More replication, more fitness, more dominance. It has been found in several US states and is predicted to be the dominant strain here by March. Fortunately, it does not evade already existing vaccines.
  3. A new South African variant (B.1.351) with different mutations of the spike protein—one of the mutations is on the presenting tip of the spike protein—is spreading rapidly and may soon threaten my old friends in Botswana. Two cases were found in South Carolina. Dr. Brannon Traxler, Interim Public Health director for the state, announced that they are independent of each other and have no travel history. She added cogently, “We know that viruses mutate to live and live to mutate.” Another independent case was found in Maryland. Given that we only sequence half of one percent of the virus samples taken in this country, it may already be everywhere. Like the English variant, it is more contagious and produces more severe cases, but unlike the English one, it also appears to be less responsive to existing vaccines.
  4. A new Brazilian variant (P.1) is worrying scientists. It is spreading explosively there and has been found in Minnesota. It may infect people who have had the disease before. It may or may not turn out to be implicated in the newly announced tragic COVID-19 deaths of nine children in the remote Amazonian villages of the indigenous Yanomami.
  5. There is no chance that one million vaccinations a day in the United States will stay ahead of the coming invasion of these new viral variants. The best, if not the only chance, is a great intensification of other preventive measures, the same that have been recommended all along. Unfortunately the behavioral trends seem to be going in the opposite direction.

On “Meet the Press” yesterday, top epidemiologist Michael Osterholm said, “The surge that is likely to occur with this new variant from England, is going to happen in the next 6 to 14 weeks. And if we see that happen—which my 45 years in the trenches tell us we will—we are going to see something like we have not seen yet in this country… Imagine where we are, Chuck, right now. You and I are sitting on this beach where it’s seventy degrees, perfectly blue skies, gentle breeze, but I see that hurricane, Category 5 or higher, 450 miles offshore. And telling people to evacuate on that nice blue-sky day is going to be hard. But I can also tell you that hurricane’s coming.”

Dr. Nahib Bhadelia of Boston University’s School of Medicine, asked to comment on Osterholm’s metaphor, said we are in  “the eye of the storm,” not sitting on the beach with the storm hundreds of miles out. She means that the worst part of the storm so far—December and January—is deceptively slacking off. As the hurricane moves over us, the lull of the eye passes, and we get slammed with another monstrous storm surge in March and April.

Dr. Osterholm went on to say that we need “an audible”—American-footballese for a last-minute yell on the field that changes the plan. He thinks we need to get as many people as possible vaccinated once right now, and forget about the second dose until later. There is controversy about this, but Osterholm is really smart.

Recall what Dr. Traxler, South Carolina surgeon-turned-health official, said when she became the first American to announce the South African strain: “We know that viruses mutate to live and live to mutate.” She continued, ““That’s why it’s critical that we all continue to do our part by taking small actions that make a big difference. These include wearing our masks, staying at least six feet apart from others, avoiding large crowds, washing our hands, getting tested often, and when we can, getting vaccinated. These are the best tools for preventing the spread of the virus, no matter the strain.”

On December 15th, when I posted “Double Down or Double Deaths,” we had just crossed 300,000, but we were having the first vaccinations and hope was in the air. I said we could go to 600,000 if we don’t change our behavior. The IHME model now projects 582 thousand by May , 600 thousand taking the new variants into account. That’s the doubling. Considering we’re at 440,000 today, it’s not a stretch.  Depending on what we do and what the variants do, we could be anywhere between 600 and 2,400 daily deaths in May. The difference would be the equivalent of two 9-11’s every two days. And of course May will not be the end.

The new shield we got on January 20th is not nearly big enough or thick enough. And the new variants teach us that unless we think about protecting the developing world, protecting the whole world, which is the virus’s continuous playground, our shield will be full of holes.

Are you tired of the precautions? I am too. I want to hug my children and grandchildren so bad it hurts (and I don’t care that it’s ungrammatical). I want to see live theater. I want to eat out with my wife in any sort of restaurant, even McDonalds. I want to smile at people and see them smile back. I am tired of restricting myself for the benefit of myself, my community, and my country. I am, to use an  expression my mother might use, bone-tired. But I am not yet dead-tired. I will be dead-tired if and when the virus kills me.

And oh, by the way. In case you get to whisper in President Biden’s ear, give him this message from me: Mr. President, Sir, with all due respect, the next time a reporter asks you if a million vaccines a day is enough, do what you always said you would do: Level with us. Don’t say, ‘Gimme a break man.’ Say, ‘No, it’s not enough. We need three million a day at least, and  I promise you I will not rest until we have that. We are at war. We will fight this virus in the clinics and in the stadiums, we will fight in the pharmacies and supermarkets, we will fight on street corners and parking lots, we will fight in convention centers and on fair grounds, we will fight in the poor dense cities and in the bucolic countryside, we will fight with syringes and tests and masks and distancing; we will never surrender.’

Stay safe,

Dr. K

Superspreader Insurrection

     “The vaccine is the weapon that will end the war, but it won’t hit critical mass until June, September or even December. If we float along relying solely on the vaccine, the way many states are, we are looking at months of shutdowns and the economic, mental, and spiritual hardship they bring.…We can’t do that. We just can’t let that happen. We can’t float along, watching the pain, the hardship and the inequality grow around us. That’s not what we do in New York. We must take control of our destiny.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo, State of the State Address, January 12, 2021

     “If quick action isn’t taken, then the highly infectious B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19 will become the main variant in the United States by March, further burdening our already overburdened health care system.” Frank Diamond, Infection Control Today, reporting on Centers for Disease Control warning, January 18, 2021

Dear Students,

My wife Ann and I got our first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Friday, and while we’re not changing our precautions at all yet, it’s a huge relief to have gotten started. We’re both over 65, which puts us in priority Group 1A in Georgia, but there was a lovely personal touch as one of my former students who is in practice in Atlanta reached out to us and said her office had vaccine. She was sitting right where you are around 15 or 20 years ago. Slightly sore arms were the only side effect.

Since today is the holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great legacy, it behooves us to remember that of the 400,000 Americans killed by the virus so far, a greatly disproportionate number are black. African Americans have also borne a disproportionate share of the economic devastation. I have written about this before, but I am emphasizing it again today. In 1963, two days before my 17th birthday, I was present in Washington for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We have come a long way since then, but we still have a long way to go.

Case in point: the insurrection that took place in the same city on January 6th was overwhelmingly white, and many among them were avowed white supremacists. Nobody thinks that if the rioters had been black they would have been allowed to get as far as they did in taking over our government.

Two days from now the same huge mall that I stood on with two hundred thousand others on that day in 1963 will be decidedly empty, despite the fact that President Biden will be inaugurated.

One reason it will be empty is the virus of course, which Biden has so much more knowledge of, and so much more appropriate caution about, than his predecessor. But the twenty thousand National Guard troops deployed to D.C. this week are not there to defend against the virus. They are there to defend against another right-wing insurrection.

The attempted coup on January 6th at the Capitol, designed to prevent the transfer of power to a duly elected new president, was also a superspreader event. Very few of the rioting revolutionists were wearing masks, and they certainly weren’t observing any kind of social distancing.

More surprising perhaps, some members of Congress who were hiding from them also did not wear masks, despite being crowded into rooms where they were sheltering from violence. Some of them mocked their colleagues and their official physician who were wearing and distributing masks. These members of Congress were Republicans.

Since the pandemic began, 62 members of Congress have contracted COVID-19, 44 Republicans and 18 Democrats. At least 7 have tested positive since the insurrection, most likely because of mask refusal by Republicans. Looking at the course of the American epidemic, blue states were affected first but controlled the spread better, and red states have had a much worse fall and winter surge, especially after controlling for rural and urban populations.

I try not to get too political in these updates, but these are the facts.

Some students have asked me what will be different after President Biden is inaugurated at noon on Wednesday. My answer is: a lot. First, we have to get there, and the possibility of further disruption by Trump supporters both before and after Wednesday is real.

But here is the good news:

  1. Biden has already appointed the most competent and experienced physicians and scientists to deal with the pandemic. There is a world of difference between them and the people they are replacing. This includes the heads of the CDC, FDA, HHS, the Coronavirus Task Force, and many other positions, starting with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who will finally have the ear of the president and the ability to speak directly to the American people.
  2. Biden has a detailed national plan for rectifying the dismal failure of the vaccine rollout, with an attainable goal of having 100 million doses delivered in the first 100 days of his presidency. Far from abandoning the states to their own floundering, he will work closely with the states and their governors to properly organize distribution and injection.
  3. Similar national plans for huge expansion of testing will be implemented, giving America its first detailed knowledge of who has and who is spreading COVID-19. Ditto (see #2 above) on working with the states.
  4. Public health education for preventive measures against the virus (masking, social distancing, etc.) at a national level will be hugely improved, along with increased mandates where possible, and the standards and models set by people in national government will be positive instead of negative.
  5. President Biden will invoke the Defense Production Act much more extensively than his predecessor, giving manufacturers well-compensated mandates to produce more vaccine, vials, syringes, freezers, protective personal equipment, and many other sorely needed products to fight the war we are in, as has happened in previous wars, but so far very inadequately in this great war against the pandemic.
  6. While the Senate is only narrowly controlled by Democrats, Biden, like Lyndon Johnson before him, is a ‘man of the Senate.’ He spent most of his life there, knows the institution and its ways, and is friends with many sitting senators. He may not get 100 percent of the funding he wants to fight the virus, but he will know how to compromise and he will get a lot.

The bad news is:

  1. Political opposition to all of the above will continue. That includes resistance to public health measures, vaccine refusal, and pretty much everything else the new administration wants to do. The same people who brought you 400,000 deaths will do all they can to bring you at least a couple of hundred thousand more. Continuing insurrection will make all this worse.
  2. New variants of the virus, especially the B.1.1.7 strain first identified in England, are spreading fast in the United States. This is partly because they spread at least 50 percent more efficiently, and partly because our precautionary measures have been so inadequate and the vaccine rollout such a failure. Continuing insurrection will make this worse too.
  3. 100 million doses of vaccine in the first 100 days (i.e. by the end of April) will get us nowhere near the herd immunity that all vaccination campaigns aim for. Even with the (probably) soon-to-be-approved one-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson added to our current options, we will still have protected only a fraction of Americans.
  4. And probably the worst news of all is that we could easily have a late spring and summer surge in the new variants, given the laxity of proper precautionary measures, and the slowness of even a greatly improved vaccine rollout. The dual graph comes from the new CDC paper on this. On the left is a reasonable model of what will happen with vaccination but without strict precautionary measures. On the right, a likely result of vaccination with masking, social distancing, and so on.

So, due entirely to our own failures, the overall pandemic will likely be with us through the summer and possibly into the fall of this new year and beyond. But it won’t be as bad as it is now, it just won’t yet be normal. Of course, we could change all that if we did the right thing.

Stay safe,

Dr. K

PS: Please don’t rely just on me. The best resource on what is happening specifically in the state of Georgia is Dr. Amber Schmidtke’s Daily Digest. More generally, I recommend the following: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation COVID-19 Update, aka The Optimist; for the science of viruses, especially the new coronavirus, This Week in Virology (TWiV) podcast; Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction; COVID-19 UpToDate for medical professionals; and for the current numbers: Johns Hopkins University (JHU); Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME); Our World in Data (OWiD); The New York Times Coronavirus Resource Center (NYT). For uncannily accurate warnings, follow @Laurie_Garrett on Twitter. I also recommend this COVID-19 Forecast Hub, which aggregates the data from dozens of mathematical models, and this integrative model based on machine learning. For an antidote to my gloom, check out the updates of Dr. Lucy McBride, who doesn’t see different facts but accentuates the positive. For an up-to-date account of the clinical facts by the marvelous front-line doc Daniel Griffin, listen to TWiV episode 701, a marvelously clear step-by-step from exposure to recovery in 39 minutes.

 

 

 

350,000

“The vaccine rollout has been embarrassingly slow. I’m having patients call daily, anxious, fearful that they won’t get vaccinated, and as you know we’re losing thousands of lives a day. I think what needs to happen is a better communication between the federal government and our states; we need coordination of delivery; and we need more funding to get the shots out of the refrigerator and into people’s arms.” Dr. Lucy McBride, internal medicine physician, on Bloomberg TV, January 4, 2020

“The challenge we have right now should’ve been expected. I’ve been talking about the last mile and the last inch for the better part of several months. What we did is we invested a great deal of money in the basic research and development, the licensing and approval, the actual manufacture of the vaccines, but we we forgot about what will it take to actually get this vaccine in to peoples arms… Long-term care facilities are being handled by a private pharmaceutical or pharmacy company and they were not really ready to go. Healthcare workers have been slow in getting the vaccine to because they’re also in the middle of a crisis, and so to try to do both vaccination and care for all these patients has been a challenge.” Dr. Michael Osterholm, epidemiologist, on Bloomberg TV, January 5, 2021

“Come back and look with me. I have no beds. I have nowhere to put you.” Jenna Rasnic, Methodist Medical Center Emergency Room Nurse, USA Today video, January 4, 2021

 

Dear Students,

Happy New Year, sort of. If you’ve been following the news at all you know that we are in the worst phase of the American pandemic, getting worse every day. Hospitals are overwhelmed (in California, Mississippi, Georgia, etc., etc.) and the Christmas week (not to mention New Year’s Eve) surges have not even darkened their doors yet. Patients are being cared for in chapels and gift shops. Triage committees have been implemented in many hospitals so that patients can be turned away because others have a better chance of recovery. Naval hospital ships are being begged for in some cities. National guard troops have been mobilized to store the cascade of bodies needing refrigeration after death.

I won’t tell you in my own chosen words how the vaccine rollout is going, but it rhymes with “duster truck.” Also, with “muster luck.” Luck is something we have only really mustered in one domain since this time last year: the beautiful science of the vaccines. And that wasn’t luck anyway, it was earned by brilliant scientists. Apart from heroic clinical care, it’s the only thing we have done right.

If you want to understand why there are tens of millions of lifesaving vaccine doses sitting in freezers right now, why the government’s predicted number of actual vaccinations—20 million by the end of 2020—turned out to be a pathetic 2 or 3 million, all you have to do is remember the year that was: how carefully we handled containment in the early weeks, how strongly and promptly we stepped up production of personal protective equipment, how well we did testing and contact tracing throughout, how responsibly we followed the simplest public health measures, how effectively we communicated the dangers, and how cleverly we avoided and flattened the predicted and avoidable monstrosity of the fall and winter surge.

Oh wait, I forgot. We didn’t do any of those things.

Bad luck, you could say, I suppose, except it wasn’t. It was failure. Failure after failure after failure. Abject, shameful, humiliating, lazy, reckless, titanic failure. Failure on a scale and in a manner unprecedented in our nation’s history. Failure of thought. Failure of planning. Failure of ethics. Failure of patriotism. Failure of equality. Failure of caring. Failure of love.

For a while you could say we were lucky in one other way. We had a corps of nurses, doctors, and others on the front lines in ERs and ICUs who never flagged or shirked their duty even when they were crying in their cars on the way to and from work, terrified of infecting themselves and their families yet going back and back for more. They even worked out a few inventive ways of lowering our chances of death once we enter the hospital.

And how do we reward them for conspicuous bravery, compassion, brilliance, and patriotism under fire?

We reward them by grabbing them by their hospital gowns, slamming them against the ICU wall, and punching them until they fall down. We reward them by slobbering and spitting more and more virus in their beaten faces. We reward them by kicking their wounded bodies when they’re down. Those of you aiming for clinical careers take note.

And now, with the new holiday surges about to come, we will give them their ultimate reward: we will kill them with our virus. We will kick them until they are dead. And then the National Guard can come and store their bodies alongside ours in the overflow refrigerator trailers. Maybe trailer parks can double as makeshift cemeteries.

Some of you have thought that I wrote angrily before. I guess I have reached a new level of frustration, anger, and grief. To trash the beautiful hopes raised by the vaccines by having no plan to distribute them, to leave them to spoil on shelves while the hospitalizations and deaths mount and mount, is not only a last straw, not only an insult to the genius of those scientists who invented, developed, and tested them in record time and with near-perfect precision, it is an insult to humanity. Yours. Mine. Everyone’s.

Someone said that the mark of a civilized person is to be able to look at a page of numbers and weep. We are learning, more every day, to look at a graph and weep—and yet I don’t believe for one minute that we are civilized.

The Year of Colossal Failure will now be extended, not for weeks but for months. September is now an optimistic view of when we are done with this. Welcome to 2021.

Dr. K

PS: Please don’t rely just on me. The best resource on what is happening specifically in the state of Georgia is Dr. Amber Schmidtke’s Daily Digest. More generally, I recommend the following: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation COVID-19 Update, aka The Optimist; for the science of viruses, especially the new coronavirus, This Week in Virology (TWiV) podcast; Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction; COVID-19 UpToDate for medical professionals; and for the current numbers: Johns Hopkins University (JHU); Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME); Our World in Data (OWiD); The New York Times Coronavirus Resource Center (NYT). For uncannily accurate warnings, follow @Laurie_Garrett on Twitter. I also recommend this COVID-19 Forecast Hub, which aggregates the data from dozens of mathematical models, and this integrative model based on machine learning. For an antidote to my gloom, check out the updates of Dr. Lucy McBride, who doesn’t see different facts but accentuates the positive. For an up-to-date account of the clinical facts by the marvelous front-line doc Daniel Griffin, listen to TWiV episode 701, a marvelously clear step-by-step from exposure to recovery in 39 minutes.

 

Shiny Object

            “I think the bottom line here is that the interventions that are needed to prevent the spread, regardless of which variant it is, are the same, and I think that’s key and that’s where we should be focusing. While scientists are still doing the lab experiments to figure out what are the implications of this new variant—Does it really enhance transmissability as has been suggested? Does it really prevent antibodies from binding to the virus? Will it have any implications for vaccine efficacy?—these are still questions that scientists are hopefully going to answer in the coming days and weeks.” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, MD, World Health Organization Chief Scientist, on Bloomberg Television, December 21, 2020

            “I think it’s pretty likely that social distancing and wearing masks will be helpful for this period. I mean, [the new strain] doesn’t have magical powers. If people aren’t near each other, it can’t spread. So this is a moment when you have to really realize that it’s both the vaccine and what we do that drives the population rate down, and as that comes down, we get to do more things in our lives. So, it’s, you know, a real sign that it’s not enough just to wait for the vaccine.” Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, MD, Johns Hopkins Vice Dean for Public Health Practice, on Bloomberg Television, December 21, 2020.

            “We’ve learned a lot in the last year about how to treat patients. We have therapies, modalities such as steroids, which reduce the risk of mortality 20, 30 percent. So we don’t have any game changers or homeruns on the forefront of therapeutics at this point. And so we’re gonna have to rely on public health, you know, sound public health prevention to get over this period. It’s gonna be a difficult next several months during these winter months as this surge is occurring, not only in the United States but in many parts of the world.” Dr Albert Ko, Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine and Chief of Medicine, Yale Medical School, on Bloomberg Television, December 24, 2020

Credit: Andrzej Wojcicki

Dear Students,

I’m going to keep this short, because of the holidays—the quotes above say it all—but also because of the holidays, I can’t not do it. There is too much danger around us right now.

A new type of SARS-CoV2 has been found in southern England. It is referred to by the British scientists as a VUI—Variant Under Investigation. There is limited evidence that it may be more transmissable, possibly 70 percent more, than previously identified variants. It has 23 mutations that have been seen in other variants, but not together. Some experts are skeptical that higher transmissibility has been proved.

Sealing the UK off from the rest of the world seems simply too late to do effectively now. The most likely reason it was found in the UK is that the UK does more viral genetic sequencing than any other country, far more than we do. Especially if it is indeed more transmissable, it is probably already in many other countries, including ours.

What can you do about it? What I hope you have been doing all along: masking, social distancing, handwashing, and avoiding social gatherings, including small ones that include people from two or three households. If you have been slacking off, stop slacking off and double down on all precautions. For our country, this is the worst time so far, by far.

The photo shows a shiny object that is distracting many people. Forget about those who are fool enough to reject the vaccine. I’m talking about those who feel complacent because they think the vaccine has already saved us. Not even close. That’s the point of the hourglass in the syringe. For each one of us who gets a first dose, the jab comes with a four to five week delay until protection.

For the country as a whole, it comes with a delay of six to eight months. That means we will not only not have protection as a nation, we will actually be in worse shape for the next two to three months than we have ever been before, or for that matter worse than any nation in the world has ever been before.

Because you see, although the vaccine’s scientific development has been Operation Warp Speed, the distribution will be Operation Snail’s Pace. I heard someone on TV brag today that we’ve vaccinated a million people already! In just ten days!

Good luck getting back to normal at that rate. Of course, it will increase. There will be millions by New Year’s Eve. But we need scores of millions right now, not millions, and we will need hundreds of millions to get back to normal—July 1st, if everything goes according to the non-plan. If it doesn’t…

Yes, the non-plan. There never was a plan for distribution, and there isn’t one now, not a national plan. This past week the White House finally got an order in for a decent number of vaccine doses. Manufacturing will start on that order, and…and…

If there had been a plan, especially if the Defense Production Act had been invoked to start producing the number needed, as could have happened long before approval—it was just a matter of money to make and store them—then we would be deploying scores of millions of doses now.

But there was no plan and the DPA was not invoked. So we face the worst now, for two to three months, and a pandemic that lingers, worsening until spring, then tapering slowly until summer.

Don’t get me wrong, the vaccines are great. They are very safe and highly effective. I would take either of the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) already deployed right now, today, if I could. In fact I would take my chances with either of the adenovirus vaccines (Astrazeneca and Johnson & Johnson) that haven’t even finished clinical trials.

The science behind them did not begin this year, it began with SARS-1 in the early 2000s. It’s being finished this year. What’s not going to be finished until the middle of 2021 at best is delivering this great science into the arms of the American people, and making our lives whole and normal again.

So it’s still up to you. Protect yourself and your loved ones. Protect neighbors and strangers too. Don’t be distracted by the shiny object in the photo. It won’t bring normality any time soon. It won’t even bring safety. Only you can do that.

Have a safe and happy holiday season by not trying to have a normal one. Live, and help others live, to celebrate normally next year and for many years after.

Be wise and stay safe,

Dr. K

 

Double Down or Double Deaths

            “I feel great. I feel hopeful today, relieved — I hope this marks the beginning to the end of a very painful time in our history.”

            —Sandra Lindsay, Director of Critical Care Nursing at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, after becoming the first person in New York, possibly in the U.S., to be vaccinated against COVID-19, December 14, 2020

             “It was truly, truly a humbling moment to be able to do that… So, this is the light at the end of the tunnel, and we truly have to be patient in order to make this work we have to make sure that we continue on to follow the guidelines —socially distancing, wearing our mask, washing our hands, and not having large gatherings—following those guidelines along with the vaccine, we can defeat this. This is something that is giving us that huge light at the end of the tunnel. It’s still a long tunnel but again, it’s up to us to do our part to assist in stopping this pandemic. So with those things in place along with the vaccine, it’s a good prognosis for the future… Let science speak for itself.”

       —Dr. Michelle Chester, DNP, director of employee health services at Northwell Health, who injected Ms. Lindsay with the vaccine, interviewed on CNN December 15, 2020

            “This disease is real, it is serious and it is deadly. Wear the mask, socially distance, if not for yourself then for others who may lose a loved one to the disease.”

—Kim Miller of Carbondale, Illinois, in the obituary she wrote for her husband Scott

Dear Students,

Two milestones for our country yesterday: the first people outside of research trials to get a COVID-19 vaccine were inoculated; and we crossed the threshhold of 300,000 deaths from the virus, by far the most of any country in the world. The vaccine will eventually be everywhere, but that death toll is only in America.

The first photo shows Sandra Lindsay (quoted above) being vaccinated by Dr. Michelle Chester (also quoted above) and the second shows Ms. Lindsay applauding as she gets her bandaid. She was one of the very first and possibly the first person in the U.S. to receive any COVID-19 vaccine outside a research trial.

People are understandably excited about the vaccine. For a few days it seemed that all I saw when I turned on the news was freezer trucks leaving Pfizer vaccine factories and distribution centers. You would think they were carrying the secret of life, and in a way they were, for those few who will be vaccinated soon. By next week at this time, trucks will be rolling out with a second very effective mRNA vaccine, from Moderna.

But I couldn’t help think of a different kind of refrigerator truck, the portable morgues that are being brought in to hospitals and coroners’ offices all over the country—and not for the first time—to store the overflow of bodies of people killed by COVID-19. Hundreds of hospitals are at full capacity for those still alive, and a third of U.S. hospitals are almost out of ICU space.

Doctors agree that death rates will go up as health care workers are overwhelmed—they, not ICU beds, are the ultimate bottleneck of care—over the next two to three months. Remember that the small number of front-line heroes being vaccinated this week will not have full immunity until the third week of January. Even according to the Trump administration, always bragging about solving the problem, projects 20 million people will be vaccinated in December, and another 20-25 million in January. That’s the first dose; 3-4 weeks later, the second dose, and then a week more for full immunity.

There are 350 million people in the U.S. We add roughly 200,000 cases and more than 2000 deaths a day, with deaths lagging by about 3 weeks. You do the math. Vaccines will have no impact on the next 60 days’ deaths (adding 120,000) and little impact in the next 60 after that. Community spread will continue up to and beyond April 1st, when deaths are projected to pass 500,000, or 600,000 with relaxation of mandates.

But you know of course what can slow the spread right now, today? Masking, social distancing, avoiding gatherings, and proper hand washing. What are the chances that enough Americans will take these simple measures during the holiday season? Close to zero, even though they would save scores of thousands.

In the past nine months, Americans have chosen the worst kind of “social Darwinism” which is contrary to Darwin’s own beliefs. We have chosen to allow the virus to kill off certain groups of people we evidently consider expendable: the old, the sick, the obese, and people whose skin is not white. And now we are cheering and celebrating the deployment of vaccines that will not make a significant dent in community spread for months, and will not stop the U.S. epidemic until we have doubled the number of deaths.

The choice is clear, as it has been all along, except now we have the worst two months of the pandemic right in front of us. We can either double down on precautions or double down on deaths. Remember that young people will be among those killed. And a much larger number of people young today will live out their lives getting reminded every day of the permanent damage the virus did to their bodies.

Celebrate the vaccines, sure, but bear in mind that they will not make a real dent for a long time. Other preventive measures will make a great difference now.

Enjoy the holidays safely, so we can truly have a blowout celebration next year. I’ll see you in January, unfortunately still on Zoom.

Stay safe,

Dr. K

 

Hope and Death

John Berman, interviewing Dr. Sanjay Gupta, December 3, 2020:

            “But there’s every reason to think that what’s going to happen over the next three weeks isn’t just awful but I’m talking historically catastrophic I’m talking 1918 levels of pain for the next month and a half or so until the vaccine comes into play.”

            “I have been tracking exactly what you said very closely John to sort of see where are we in this country as compared to what is widely considered as the worst public health disaster in the history of the world hundred years ago or at least the last few hundred years and … we have better hospitalizations, ICUs, therapeutics, and an ambulance system and despite that, if you look at the numbers, we are tracking just as badly as back then which speaks to the fact that no matter how good we get scientifically and all the wonderful things that medicine can do, despite all that, human behavior is still sabotaging us…”

            “I was looking at the models again last night and the projected peak keeps moving but sometime in January —the issue really is that we may stay there and just plateau at that unacceptably high-level for a long period of time…The exponential growth is too high…90% of hospitals now are at capacity around the country. Where do you go? …if the entire country is on fire what is the escape hatch? It is becoming increasingly hard to find one”

            “I don’t know where this peaks at this point I mean this is starting to defy the models even the aggressive ones in terms of how bad things could get…I don’t know if viewers have noticed but we hardly ever present those worst case models what we are presenting to you is sort of the middle of the road sort of model they could be better if we actually started to employ mask mandates and talk about those five locations restaurants, bars, cafés, hotels, houses of worship for example or it could be a lot worse as well and right now I’m not sure where we’re headed, but it’s very disheartening to hear that they’re still having this party at the White House, not just because of the White House but because then I get 100 emails from people saying hey how bad is it really? having a bunch of relatives over for the holidays will be OK right? That’s what I get all the time and I have to be the guy who says no it’s not and I hate to be the guy that says that, I enjoy a great holiday party as much as the next guy but this is not the year to do that.”

 

Dr. Michael Osterholm, leading epidemiologist, December 3, 2020:

            “Now the actual percentage of deaths as a number of people hospitalized is going to start going up because we can’t provide the same quality of care so you’ve got that factor at the same time you’ve also got the surging number of cases overall and that’s up to us that’s on us you know. We have a lot of power over this virus if we just stop swapping air with our friends, colleagues, and unknowns and if we don’t do that we’ll see the case numbers go up while the quality of medical care will actually go down because of the inability to provide adequately trained healthcare workers that’s the perfect storm and at that point I don’t know what this number could look like. It could obviously grow substantially.”

 

Dr. Robert Redfield, CDC Director, December 2, 2020:

            “December, January, and February are gonna be rough times. I actually believe they’re gonna be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation, largely because of the stress that it’s gonna put on our health care system.”

 

Dear Students,

It’s been almost six weeks since I’ve written an update, and the reason is I haven’t known how to approach the disaster we’re in, or to really add to what’s on the news. I have never been so proud of medical science or so ashamed of my country.

Yes, it’s been a rolling disaster since March but now it’s a quickly swelling disaster and we have failed in every possible way to do the simplest things we’ve been advised to do all along. They didn’t originate with me of course but as those of you who studied “Disease and Human Behavior” with me last spring, I have been issuing warnings about the new coronavirus since January. I have said the same things over and over again, along with others who know much more than I do about this, and all advice has been ignored.

Why repeat it yet again? Well, if a fraction of people who hear the message heed it, that is a few cases prevented and a few lives saved.

Flu pandemic of 1919 vs COVID-19

If you were in that class, you saw a version of this graph before. It was an old-fashioned looking but perfectly respectable summary of the three waves of mortality in the flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which we studied. What I’ve done here is not an exact comparison, at all. These are mortality rates of major cities around the world. I’m superimposing points and projected points in the U.S. epidemic, which as you know I believe is most accurately drawn from hospitalizations, which you can see in the second chart. What is similar is that the 1918 pandemic started with a very serious wave, or two waves depending how you look at it, followed by the real killer wave, the worldwide tsunami. In the second chart you can see how our hospitalizations nationwide came in two waves, in different parts of the country.

COVID hospitalizations as of 12-4-20

The second chart ends with an exponential rise that has swept past the peaks in the first two waves and is going straight up. (The chart, shown on CNN December 4th, comes from The Covid Tracking Project and is almost identical to the chart shown on the same day in the machine-learning-based model of models that integrates many sources.)

As you know if you’ve read these updates before, I like to present good news and bad news. One part of the problem right now is that the bad news is worse than ever. How do I word things when I’ve given so many warnings before? It’s not that I’ve “cried wolf”—quite the opposite, every warning I’ve issued has tragically proved true.

No, it’s that as a writer I can’t figure out how progress from bad to terrible to horrible to disastrous to catastrophic without sounding like a repetitive jerk. And how am I supposed to find words to say that the next two months will be by far the worst we have had? And that the reason will be the same as it has been all along, or at least since we went from bad to worse back in March: Not the virus, but behavior—which viruses don’t have—human behavior.

Okay, nothing new. Yes, denial has gotten worse. Heroic nurses have described people dying of COVID-19 whose last words were that COVID-19 is a hoax. Trump rallies were held throughout the summer and early fall with near-zero precautions and each one was followed by a sharp spike in cases, roughly a doubling, in the communities where they were held, with hospitalizations and deaths close behind. Failure to follow guidelines caused predictable spikes after the Memorial Day weekend, the July Fourth weekend, the Labor Day weekend, and Halloween.

Oh, did I leave out Thanksgiving? No. We don’t have the data yet. It will come soon, and it will add a big surge of cases to what is already—let’s see, are we at catastrophic yet, or only disastrous? Hmm.

I know, we’re not the only ones. Canada had its Thanksgiving on October 12th, and since Canadians also didn’t follow guidelines, they are in their Thanksgiving surge now. But they never got, and will never get, to the levels we have been brought to by American Exceptionalism. We are the worst in the world. Japan is worried right now, but they have had fewer cases in the whole pandemic than we had yesterday!

What about the good news? I’ll get to it soon, but first I have to explain why good news is bad news. The good news is mainly about vaccines, and in my opinion they are going to be wonderful. Some of you have asked me what I think of them, and my answer is that collectively they represent one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. So how can they be bad news?

They can be bad news if they add to the denial of the pandemic—if they make people think it’s basically over, right when we’re starting the worst months of it—months during which the vaccine will do little or nothing to stop it. If you are reading this, it is overwhelmingly likely that you will not be able to get a vaccine until April, May, or later.

Depending on the models, we are talking about adding between two and three hundred thousand American deaths before that time, perhaps as much as doubling the total we have today. And that doesn’t take into account an unknown but undoubtedly large minority who will refuse the vaccines, or the potential for halting vaccinations in the unlikely event of a vaccine safety disaster. By the way, if any of the three vaccines I describe below were offered to me today, I would take it.

The Good News

  1. On November 9th the Pfizer-BioNTech collaboration on an mRNA vaccine announced completion of their Phase III trials and reported an astounding 95 percent efficacy. The FDA will make a decision on December 10th about approving it, and if they say yes, it will be deployed to the highest-priority populations starting December 15th. (An mRNA vaccine consists of messenger RNA injected with the hope that it will enter cells that read the message, assembling a spike protein of the virus, which provokes your specific immune response.) This vaccine is already approved for use in the UK.
  2. On November 16th Moderna announced that its vaccine (also mRNA) completed Phase III trials with an efficacy of 94.5 percent. The FDA will decide on December 17th whether to approve it, and if the answer is yes it will start shipping on December 22nd.
  3. On November 23rd, the Astrazeneca-Oxford University collaboration completed Phase III trials and announced that its vaccine had on average 70 percent efficacy, easily crossing the threshold for FDA approval (50 percent) despite falling short of the two prior announcements. However, they made a mistake in one arm of their study and only gave half the usual first dose, giving a full dose for the second injection. This arm of the study had an efficacy of 90 percent. More important, their vaccine, unlike the first two, can be stored for 30 days at ordinary refrigerator temperatures. (Their vaccine uses an adenovirus vector genetically engineered to carry the message for a coronavirus spike protein and to be unable to reproduce itself; one possible explanation for the happy dosage mistake is that some people develop immunity to the adenovirus and therefore the booster shot doesn’t work as well—unless your first shot was a half-dose. Needless to say, this is under study.)

The Bad News

  1. Both of the marvelously efficacious mRNA vaccines have to be stored at ultra-low temperatures—the Pfizer at -70°C, the Moderna at -20—until almost ready to go into arms. Now I took a canister of liquid nitrogen (-195) with me to the Kalahari Desert to store blood samples for a study, so the temperatures themselves didn’t faze me. But I had a small number of samples and we need to store 700 million vaccine doses just to cover the US. Nothing remotely resembling the network of special freezers we’ll need exists in our country today.
  2. Aside from the thousands of freezers, an unprecedented distribution system will have to be created almost from scratch. I heard someone from Pfizer say that 20 freezer trucks are ready now to carry the vaccine where it’s needed, but that the eventual number of truckloads would be 40,000. The vaccines have to be shipped in perfect condition, and there has to be someone at the end of each journey qualified to inject it safely.
  3. Remember how many times we heard President Trump say that anyone who wants a COVID-19 test can get one? It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now, in fact testing capacity is declining when it should be many times what it is today. We will have a new president, one who takes science seriously, but science can only go so far against the formidable engineering, social, and political obstacles (much authority will devolve to the states) to doubly vaccinating 350 million Americans. You have to get the first dose, then come back three or four weeks later for the second, then wait a week for your immune system to really protect you. Varying estimates say 100 million Americans will be vaccinated by anywhere from February to July.
  4. Many, many Americans will refuse to be vaccinated, and it is uncertain whether we will ever have enough vaccine acceptance to achieve herd immunity.

Meanwhile, today is a day of milestones. There were 2,879 deaths yesterday, the highest number ever, expected to reach 3,000 a day soon. More than 100,000 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, and hospitals throughout the country are nearing full capacity. It isn’t the number of ICU beds or even any beds. It’s the heroes who stand next to them.

Remember when front-line health care workers left Georgia and other safe places for New York, and then later when New Yorkers returned the favor? Nobody is going to leave anywhere for anywhere because every state will need them—and many more like them—right where they are. Death rates in those hospitals will go up as they are overwhelmed.

Those of you who are pre-med or pre-nursing, remember what you see over the next two months, because it will be catastrophic, and this won’t be your last pandemic. Watch the doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists despairing, even crying every day until they collapse from exhaustion or get the virus themselves, knowing all along that this didn’t have to happen.

Because guess what: We have had since Day 1 measures as effective as many vaccines. Masking. Social distancing. Handwashing. These could have prevented most of the 277,000 deaths we’ve had so far, the untold suffering of the families of those people, and the many, many thousands who thought they had easy cases but will end up paying a physical price throughout their lives.

The same measures can save scores of thousands of lives not lost yet but standing in line for their own coffins as they go to bars, hold parties, and “celebrate” the holidays. This will be the most tragic holiday season in all of American history.

I have never been so proud of medical science or so ashamed of my country.

Mask. Social distance. Wash your hands. This is the vaccine you have had all along, and its efficacy is very very high.

Dr. K

PS: Please don’t rely just on me. The best resource on what is happening specifically in the state of Georgia is Dr. Amber Schmidtke’s Daily Digest. More generally, I recommend the following: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation COVID-19 Update, aka The Optimist; for the science of viruses, especially the new coronavirus, This Week in Virology (TWiV) podcast; Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction; COVID-19 UpToDate for medical professionals; and for the current numbers: Johns Hopkins University (JHU); Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME); Our World in Data (OWiD); The New York TimesCoronavirus Resource Center (NYT). For uncannily accurate warnings, follow @Laurie_Garrett on Twitter. With thanks to Prof. Craig Hadley, I also strongly recommend this COVID-19 Forecast Hub, which aggregates the data from dozens of mathematical models, and this integrative model based on machine learning, which has outperformed most others in its projections.

 

Sick Man, Sick Land

           “All of the information medical professionals want to know, all the things that are happening, vital signs, what his clinical exam looks like, what does he look like as a patient, are we treating the actual patient or are we treating a political ideology or a title or an office, and without that information at your disposal it’s hard to think about what are the processes going forward, how are we keeping this evidence based, how are we keeping this patient centered, are we doing the best we can to manage this actual human, this actual person‘s disease and if we are, we need to be transparent with it.” Dr. Myron Rolle, former NFL player, now a Neurosurgery Resident playing defense on the front lines of COVID-19, Massachusetts General Hospital, discussing the White House handling of Donald Trump’s case

            “Do you think these rallies like the White House event a few weeks ago are likely to become superspreader events?” Jake Tapper, CNN

            “Yes, I really do, and the virus is the constant here, it is very contagious. You put people together for long periods of time, longer than 15 minutes, closely clustered, maskless, those are the ingredients for a superspreader event. The challenge has been there are so many newly infected people every day in this country, contact tracing has basically become a futile task. How do you contact trace 50,000 people every day? It would be an entire sector of our society dedicated to doing that. But what we did and we have some reporting on this, we were able to go back to these cities, Tulsa you mentioned, Phoenix, and then Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in the beginning of August. you know after people are exposed to the time they get hospitalized is typically a few weeks, right?… It’s hard to actually contact trace back to the event, but hospitalizations is a truer measure. In Tulsa as you mentioned Herman Cain [former presidential candidate and Trump supporter] may have been exposed at that event and subsequently died. But we know hospitalizations went up three-fold a few weeks after Tulsa. We know in Phoenix hospitalizations were about 2000 per day at the time of that rally and went to 3000… Oshkosh—hospitalizations went up 20 percent within that time period after the rally so, again, cause and effect is always gonna be challenging to draw but look what happened in all the cities a few weeks after. People got sick. Hospitalizations went up. Was it directly related to the rallies? We may never know. But in places where the virus is already spreading like this? It’s really challenging.” Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN

            “The next 6 to 12 weeks are going to be the darkest of the entire pandemic.” Dr. Michael Osterholm, leading epidemiologist, Meet the Press, Sunday, 10/18

            “Its not like it’s a mystery anymore of how to beat this thing, it’s just a matter of implementing what we know.” Dr. Ashish Jha, leading epidemiologist, 10/19

 

Dear Students,

I am writing in a different mood from my usual fact-based, hyperlinked style. My mood, I have to say, has become more meditative, and even sad. I have not avoided politics completely in past updates, but now I have come to a point where it is impossible to discuss the health of Americans in this dangerous moment in history without taking a political stand. The behavior of our current president is severely damaging to the public’s health, more so every day.

Because of his arrogance and negligence, he himself was colonized by SARS-CoV2, as were his wife, his teenage son, and many of his closest associates. He invited the virus into his body in late September, either at the superspreader event celebrating his Supreme Court Justice pick on the 26th, or in the next few days of intensive, close, maskless debate practice.

His young aide Hope Hicks became ill on Thursday, October 1st, and was confirmed to have the virus too late to protect many, including the president. Whether she gave it to him or got it from him is impossible to say, because of consistent lying about the president’s frequency of testing, not to mention refusal to reveal the results. In the small hours as Thursday turned to Friday, it was announced that both he and the First Lady had tested positive.

Friday afternoon he was ‘coptered to Walter Reed Army Hospital and admitted. After a number of days of concealment and lying by his doctors—both of which are still going on—we learned that he had had a significant fever, that his blood oxygen had been below normal on at least two tests, although no numbers were offered except that it was below 94 and above the low 80s. Since he had serious lung symptoms and signs, it is inconceivable that he did not get a chest X-ray, a chest CT, and possibly other lung studies; however, the results of those studies were not shared with us.

Similarly, we were never told the reason for his impromptu visit to Walter Reed Hospital a year ago. Lies were told first about it being an early start to his annual physical, then about it being a follow-up. He and his doctor officially denied that he had been evaluated for transient ischemic attacks (temporary strokes), but he bragged about his performance on a cognitive test with a very low ceiling, meaning it was only intended to rule out big brain problems such as stroke and dementia.

The first medical information we got about him was a letter from his personal physician saying he would be the healthiest man ever to become president. Obviously that physician could not have made the comparison, and he admitted that Trump had dictated the letter to him. Later we found out that he had a cholesterol in the 260s, since brought down. He is also reported to have a common cardiac problem, which based on his cholesterol levels in the past and on his obesity, would most likely be coronary artery calcification.

That’s about all we know of his underlying conditions (other than age and body mass index) relevant to his recent case of COVID-19. Based on the medications he was given, it is widely agreed that his doctors at Walter Reed—some of the best in the world—were very concerned. The main medications were:

  1. An experimental antibody medication that the president refers to as Regeneron—the name of the company that makes it, since the drug does not yet have a name;
  2. Remdesivir, an antiviral medication that many (including me) have thought was very promising but which a new WHO study (published since Mr. Trump got it) has cast doubt on;
  3. Dexamethasone, a standard steroid treatment for inflammation in many diseases, proven to save lives in advanced COVID-19.

Mr. Trump got all three treatments within the first day or two of his symptomatic illness, very unusual for dexamethasone. His doctors were either extremely worried from the outset or they were giving him VIP treatment, not always beneficial to the VIP.

He was also given supplemental oxygen, only instituted because of low blood oxygen and/or difficulty breathing, and fever-lowering medications, including dexamethasone. We never heard anyone on his medical team mention those medications when they repeatedly announced that he was fever-free.

He was released from the hospital Monday evening. He did not speak spontaneously but he had made a few brief videos for public consumption. After climbing the White House steps he removed his mask, appeared to have difficulty breathing, and did not speak.

If his course of dexamethasone was usual, it would have lasted ten to fourteen days. We have not been told if or when his dexamethasone was tapered to zero. If he was indeed tapered and has not been taking it for the past week or so, then it is quite possible he had a mild case, less serious than most who are hospitalized.

Because so little is known about the monoclonal antibodies he took, we can’t be sure when his own antibody response would be expected to kick in, but 21-25 days is a reasonable expectation after the Regeneron antibodies clear. We do not know if or when he stopped taking dexamethasone.

These questions are important for two reasons: 1. Is he immune or even partly immune to reinfection? 2. Is he still potentially subject to self-attack by his own immune system, which happens in so many COVID-19 patients—including, probably, his wife, who yesterday dropped out of her first campaign event in months, reporting a persistent cough.

COVID-19 is a two- or three- phase disease in the serious cases. First, the virus does its nasty work on your lungs, but it usually remains in the cells lining the lungs and bronchi. In most cases it does not enter the bloodstream or affect other organs on its own. It tends to stay where you breathed it in. It can kill you in this phase, but often doesn’t.

Phase 2 is your immune system response. This produces an attack on the walls of blood vessels everywhere in your body. This, your own body’s response, is usually what damages your heart, kidneys, brain, blood vessels, and other organs. This is very often the cause of death, including in children. By the way, the same was true of the influenza of 1918-19, although most deaths were in young adults, who are relatively protected from COVID-19 death.

Phase 3, which we are learning occurs in more people than we thought, is what has been called the “long haul.” Long haulers have symptoms, probably due to the lasting effects of inflammation, for months after recovering from the main part of the illness. The virus is too new for us to know whether these months may turn into years.

When Former Governor Chris Christie, whose COVID-19 was almost certainly contracted while coaching the president for the debate, left the hospital after a more serious case than Mr. Trump’s, he said loudly and clearly that he had been wrong, that he had let his guard down, that he had underestimated the virus. He also said that everyone should take the virus very very seriously.

Mr. Trump said the opposite. He told us not to be afraid of the virus, that he had beaten it and we could too; we should refuse to let it dominate our lives. He said that he had been cured by “Regeneron,” a completely experimental treatment no ordinary patient can get. There is no cure for COVID-19 as yet. In the days that followed his discharge, Mr. Trump showed what are very widely recognized mental symptoms caused by dexamethasone: strangely elevated mood, disorganized thought processes, and hypomania.

He soon returned to his most intense level of campaigning, making long speeches without difficulty breathing. The most likely explanation for this recovery is that he simply dodged the bullet—he had a mild, short case irrespective of his medications. The second is that he really was greatly helped by the trio of medicines he was given: the cocktail of two antibodies given to very few people in the world; the Remdesivir; and the dexamethasone started exceptionally early in his illness. As far as we know, no one has ever been given this combination of drugs with this timing.

A third, and I think distant, possibility, is that he is not yet over it. It is only 19 days since he entered the hospital. His treatment may have postponed his Phase 2, the autoimmune attack, rather than putting it permanently aside.

Mr. Trump’s public remarks about the virus since he had it are something like a worst case scenario for almost every public health expert and every family mourning a COVID death. He has stepped up his rhetoric minimizing the virus and he has held two to three likely super-spreader events per day for the last week, many in states that have rapidly rising case loads and hospitalizations. He continues to violate and ridicule the only preventive measures we have, or will have, between now and when we can be widely vaccinated, and he continues to lie relentlessly about when such vaccination is likely. He has caused, and will continue to cause, many thousands of needless deaths, and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of survivors of the virus and of the loss of loved ones.

Which brings me to the question of the other kind of illness he may have.

For years now psychiatrists have been arguing over whether it is possible to give Mr. Trump a diagnosis from a distance. The American Psychiatric Association defends the Goldwater rule, which rejects such diagnoses of political or other public figures without examining them. This organization preemptively threatened sanctions against member psychiatrists who attempted to diagnose Mr. Trump without examining him personally.

Others, including a group led by Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist and ethicist at Yale Law School, have concluded that the well-established Duty to Warn applies to Mr. Trump. This duty holds that patient confidentiality may or must be violated when the doctor concludes that the patient poses a clear and present danger to others, based on what the doctor has learned.

Few psychiatrists would claim that they can glean more information in a face to face two-hour diagnostic interview with a new patient than they already have about Donald Trump in the public record, which, importantly, goes back through his adolescence and childhood. I have an MD but do not practice medicine and am not licensed to do so. I have a lifelong interest in psychiatry and neurology but I am not qualified in either, but neither do I have anything to fear from APA sanctions.

So I will not give you a diagnosis, but I will tell you the criteria for the diagnoses that are most frequently discussed as mental disorders Mr. Trump may have.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD, DSM-5 301.81):

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD, DSM-5 301.7)

  1. A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
    1. Failure to conform to social norms concerning lawful behaviors, such as performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
    2. Deceitfulness, repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for pleasure or personal profit.
    3. Impulsivity or failure to plan.
    4. Irritability and aggressiveness, often with physical fights or assaults.
    5. Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others.
    6. Consistent irresponsibility, failure to sustain consistent work behavior, or honor monetary obligations.
    7. Lack of remorse, being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person.
  2. The individual is at least age 18 years.
  3. Evidence of conduct disorder typically with onset before age 15 years.
  4. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Not surprisingly, both of these disorders are far more common in men than in women. When a person meets the criteria for both disorders, the term malignant narcissism is sometimes applied, although it is not an official DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the APA, 5th edition) diagnosis. In neuropsychiatric terms, it seem reasonable to hypothesize that someone who meets the criteria for both disorders has a lower than average inhibitory capacity of the prefrontal cortex in relation to the impulses stemming from the amygdala.

When a man (and it would likely be a man) who meets even some of these criteria is in charge of the “land of the free,” he puts millions of people at risk. Objectively, his personal behavior resulted in his family, aides, staff, associates, and their families becoming infected with SARS-CoV2. Whether they mostly got it from him (quite possible) or got it from each other under conditions he created and insisted on, he caused them to be ill. His wife is still coughing, too sick to campaign with him. His friend and debate coach Chris Christie spent a week in the hospital with a much more severe case than Mr. Trump had, and after his release he publicly announced that he was wrong and publicly advised Americans to do the opposite of what their president is encouraging them to do.

The result has been, and will continue to be, what Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains above in his answer to Jake Tapper’s question. Yes, the President of the United States is continuing to hold one superspreader event after another, and yes, the President of the United States has caused and will cause at least scores of thousands of unnecessary deaths, which are the tip of the iceberg of American suffering.

A few hours ago, an analysis published by the Columbia University School of Public Health estimated that between 130,000 and 210,000 of the 223,000 people who have died of COVID-19 in the US to date had preventable deaths. Suppose we take the lower number and cut it in half to get to a rock-bottom minimum. That would leave 65,000 needless deaths so far, approximately the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War.

Or, consider how news outlets and people throughout the world react to the crash of a single jumbo jet that kills 350 passengers and crew; billions of people react with pity and grief, and eventually may get angry, trying to find out why the plane crashed and who perhaps should be held responsible. My very-lowball estimate of 65,000 preventable deaths so far is the equivalent of 186 jumbo jet crashes, or around one crash every day since the first US case.

As you know, I’m not enthusiastic about predictions, but the consensus model (thanks again to Dr. Craig Hadley) has us at around 5,000 cases a week right now, rising to around 5,500 over the next month. If protective measures are relaxed, we could go to over 7,000, or if they are more strongly applied, half that. If we stay between 5,000 and 5,500, we will have added 50,000 to 55,000 deaths by New Year’s Eve. I consider that a low estimate, but we could easily reduce it to 30,000 or less, or if we are reckless enough, increase it to 70,000 or more.

Thus with this very conservative model of models, we could save at least 40,000 lives by enhancing rather than relaxing protective measures. Taking into account the advent of flu season, the effect of winter driving people inside, and the holiday season creating larger-than-usual family gatherings, the maximum number of deaths, and therefore the potential number of saved lives, could be much greater.

This is without considering the impact of Mr. Trump’s more than daily superspreader events around the country for the last three weeks leading up to November 3rd. Mr. Trump’s behavioral role in causing the new wave of the pandemic we are in would be explained if it were possible to find in him traits 4 and 7 in the NPD criteria above, and/or traits 5 and 7 in the ASPD criteria. Speaking as a lay person who has access to all public information about Mr. Trump, I think it is legitimate to state that he has those four traits. This is not a diagnosis, but it is tantamount to finding that he is an effective ally of the virus in its spread through our people.

The chart, based on Johns Hopkins University data (not projections) suggests that we are well into the third wave of the US pandemic, with a steep rise in daily cases rivalling the maximum achieved nationally in July, and still very much on the upward swing. Thirty-one states have more cases this week than last, and only one, Hawaii, has fewer.

Hospitalizations (second chart), a much better measure, are already following suit, and many states, particularly in the Midwest and Great Plains, are beginning to see overflow crises comparable to what we saw in New York in March and April and in the southern states in July. Deaths will duly surge, although not as much as in the past, since fortunately we are saving more of those hospitalized.

What caused the third wave? Many factors. Dismally prepared college openings caused youth outbreaks which caused community spread. People let their guard down in crowded bars and restaurants. The President of the United States made fun of mask wearing and encouraged people to relax other precautions. Premature school openings were often reversed because of spikes in cases, not usually harmful to children but gravely threatening to teachers, staff, and families. And spread continued in and from nursing homes, prisons, and meat packing plants.

Good News

  1. While two major vaccine trials (AstraZenica, Johnson & Johnson) were halted because of adverse effects, including a death, two other major trials (Pfizer, Moderna) are progressing well and could request emergency use authorization from the FDA by early December. The FDA vaccine group is meeting today to discuss guidelines for approval.
  2. Although Remdesivir has proved disappointing in the most recent research, it has been successful in other studies, and it just became the first treatment approved by the FDA specifically for COVID-19.
  3. Another antiviral, now called EIDD-2801 has been extremely successful in a mouse model that carries transplanted human lung tissue. Unlike Remdesevir, it is an oral medication, and could be used as an outpatient treatment very early in the disease, or even prophylactically for those with known exposure. Human trials are under way.
  4. Antibody cocktails such as Mr. Trump received (part of his VIP treatment) are under study and may prove their efficacy in time, in ongoing trials.
  5. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, after an apparently near-death-experience with the virus—which he likely caught from or because of Mr. Trump—has become a strong advocate of taking the virus seriously and applying all known preventive measures.
  6. The best news is that we already have a hugely effective vaccination program: First Shot: Social Distancing; First Booster: Wear a Mask; Second Booster: Wash Your Hands; Follow-up Examination: TETRIS (Testing, Contact tracing, Isolation). This is the vaccination program that has utterly beaten the virus in quite a few other countries. Will we ever use it?

Do the right thing, be patient, this will pass, live to brag about how you didn’t get it and didn’t give it to anyone else, stay safe,

Dr. K

PS: Please don’t rely just on me. The best resource on what is happening specifically in the state of Georgia is Dr. Amber Schmidtke’s Daily Digest. More generally, I recommend the following: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation COVID-19 Update, aka The Optimist; for the science of viruses, especially the new coronavirus, This Week in Virology (TWiV) podcast; Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction; COVID-19 UpToDate for medical professionals; and for the current numbers: Johns Hopkins University (JHU); Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME); Our World in Data (OWiD); The New York TimesCoronavirus Resource Center (NYT). For uncannily accurate warnings, follow @Laurie_Garrett on Twitter. With thanks to Prof. Craig Hadley, I also strongly recommend this COVID-19 Forecast Hub, which aggregates the data from dozens of mathematical models, and this integrative model based on machine learning, which has outperformed most others in its projections.

Hope

Dear Students,

I’ve waited almost a month this time between updates, the reasons being (aside from having other responsibilities) that I saw no basic change in the situation, no real news that I felt a need to help explain, and my own general discouragement with the situation. Also, I always want to be able to offer hope, something we all badly need more of.

There is certainly news now. Hope is also the name of the former teenage model who rose to become the communications director of Fox News and then one of the closest aides to the President of the United States. Yesterday it was announced that she had tested positive for COVID-19, and that she had symptoms. Since she had been in constant close contact with President Trump, he and his wife, the First Lady, also a former model, were carefully tested and as of early this morning, both have the virus.

I mention the modeling because Mr. Trump has always tried to associate with beautiful women, and beauty carries with it a certain aura of superiority and invulnerability, but the virus doesn’t see it that way. Hope Hicks has symptomatic COVID-19, and Melania Trump is carrying, probably has infected others with, and may soon have symptoms also caused by SARS-CoV-2. They have joined the ranks of some seven million other Americans who could not avoid this infection.

The President also has thought himself invulnerable and has consistently acted as if he believed it. He has minimized the virus and failed to take or encourage needed precautions. Now the virus has proved him wrong. He has not only failed to protect the 208,000 Americans who have died from the virus and the millions more who have suffered in surviving it—some of whom will suffer for many years to come—but he has failed to protect his 31-year-old trusted and trusting aide, his wife, or himself.

There is a German word you may know, Schadenfreude, which English speakers appropriate for a certain emotion that English has no singular word for. It means literally something like damage-joy,* or taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering. It’s a natural human reaction, and if we are honest with ourselves, when we see others suffering we often have the fleeting thought, It’s not me.

Taking joy out of the suffering of people at the apex of American power is as wrong as it would be to celebrate the illness of anyone else, and as an MD I would be violating my oath if I felt that way. So I do all I can to suppress these unethical sentiments, and suppression starts with knowing myself, knowing that such feelings may be there.

But I have to say objectively that there is hope, the other kind of hope, in the fact that these people are now infected, and that others at the top are being tested, quarantined, and may become infected and even ill. There is poetic justice, surely—not the same as Schadenfreude—in the very powerful people who have failed to provide and even discouraged TETRIS (Testing, Contact Tracing, and Isolation) being put through this basic process themselves and, unless they are utterly stupid, being grateful for it.

But where is the hope here? It lies, quite simply and I think strongly, in the fact that the scores of millions of people who have believed the lies these people told them—the virus is no big deal, it only affects a few people, it will disappear like a miracle, we already have a cure in hydroxychloroquine, you can inject disinfectant, masking shows weakness, a vaccine is a few weeks away, we have turned the corner—these many millions of believers will now watch the leader who has lied to them, and those closest to him, directly face the consequences of his own mendacity, ineptitude, and forceful opposition to science.

I hope—I hope—that many lives will now saved by the example, this time unwilling, set by the most prominent man alive, the same man who has up to now set the wrong example and thereby caused scores of thousands of needless deaths. At a minimum, I hope that he will  not go to Wisconsin, the state with the worst reversal of fortune and the fastest rise in cases, and speak to crowded rallies of mainly unmasked people, as he had planned to do this weekend. Those cancellations alone will save lives.

I hope that, going forward, many of those who worship President Trump as a savior, almost a god, will now see that their idol has clay feet, that the virus is not overblown, and that they should start to listen to someone other than him if they want to protect their families and themselves, as he failed to do. This is not taking pleasure in the fact that he and those closest to him are infected. It is simply expressing the hope that lives will be saved by this new example—or more exactly, counterexample.

As the graph shows, we are turning a corner. We have probably entered the second wave, without ever as a country really leaving the first behind. With five percent of the world’s population we have a fifth of the world’s cases and a fifth of the world’s deaths, largely because Mr. Trump has been a never-ending superspreader of misinformation about the pandemic of COVID-19. Maybe now he will, against his will, become a source of truth.

Recall that the second wave of the pandemic of 1918-19 was much larger and more devastating than the first. That may or may not happen this time. To a large extent, it’s up to us. I hope that by this time next year we really will have turned the kind of corner that puts this behind us, but what happens between now and then depends on what we have learned and what we do.

Don’t be among the college students who have already played a large role in starting the second wave. Don’t go to parties or mix in crowds. Keep your distance even in small groups, even in pairs, unless you have quarantined together. Wear a mask wherever you may encounter other people. Wash your hands for a count of twenty frequently. Get a flu shot or risk getting and spreading both infections at once.

We will get through this, and as I have said before, if you do the right thing you will live to brag to your children and grandchildren about how you survived and how you protected others. Your stories will help them get ready for anything, because they will learn how you were ready for this.

Stay safe,

Dr. K

*I had mistakenly translated schadenfreude as “shadow-joy.” I mistook schaden (damage) for schatten (shadows). Thanks to Shebardigan and Misha Pless for correcting me.

PS: Please don’t rely just on me. The best resource on what is happening specifically in the state of Georgia is Dr. Amber Schmidtke’s Daily Digest. More generally, I recommend the following: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation COVID-19 Update, aka The Optimist; for the science of viruses, especially the new coronavirus, This Week in Virology (TWiV) podcast; Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction; COVID-19 UpToDate for medical professionals; and for the current numbers: Johns Hopkins University (JHU); Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME); Our World in Data (OWiD); The New York TimesCoronavirus Resource Center (NYT). For uncannily accurate warnings, follow @Laurie_Garrett on Twitter. With thanks to Prof. Craig Hadley, I also strongly recommend this COVID-19 Forecast Hub, which aggregates the data from dozens of mathematical models, and this integrative model based on machine learning, which has outperformed most others in its projections.