TETRIS Is Dead. So Is the CDC. And the FDA. And 188,000 Americans.

            “We are not anywhere near done with this and I think we have more days ahead of us than we have behind us.”

            Ashish Jha, MD, Harvard School of Public Health, August 28

            “The problem here is the credibility of the FDA is crumbling before our eyes. This is an agency that so many of us in the scientific world have looked up to, trusted it, we know that they have these really rigorous scientific protocols, but that’s all changed this year.”

                        Seema Yasmin, MD, Stanford University, September 2

            “Obviously there are places around the world that have been able to control this. What I’m starting to feel is the existential threat is the human behavior. I’m discouraged and frustrated… Other countries are essentially vaccinated right now, not because they have a vaccine, but because they did these things, they are back to normal. They reduced their death rates into the dozens or hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands.”

                        Sanjay Gupta, MD, Emory University, September 4

Dear Students,

You remember what TETRIS is, right?

TEsting. Contact TRacing. ISolation.

Those are the “these things” Dr. Gupta is referring to above, along with mask wearing and social distancing, that have enabled other advanced countries with large populations to have hundreds of deaths from COVID-19, while we have hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Good News:

  1. Many other countries have got this under control, and they are immediately using TETRIS to bring any new breakouts under control. Per capita hospitalizations and deaths are a tiny fraction of what they are here now, and that gap will only widen as they prevent and control their second wave—which we won’t have because never controlled the first wave, only smushed it down and smeared it, and that only a little. Our second wave will come on top of an enduring first wave.
  2. Cases per week have gone steadily down in the U.S. for at least a month, and that is good news if real. As you know I was skeptical of case rates when they were going up because politicians were saying daily that the rise was only because of more testing. Now when we know testing is going down, because it was badmouthed by politicians and the CDC recommended doing less of it. You don’t hear politicians saying one reason for the decline in case rates is less testing. Deaths, being a lagging indicator, have gone down only slightly. Also, the southern states are doing somewhat better while the midwest is having its big first wave, and the northeast is rising but from very low levels.
  3. Vaccine development is proceeding around the world. Phase III testing is going slowly and will be difficult to interpret because of marked underrecruitment of minority people, who are way overrepresented among the cases, hospitalizations, and illnesses.
  4. Finally, the sum total of well-designed research has shown that steroid treatment (like dexamethasone) reduces deaths in patients severely ill with the virus. Death rate for 1,700 people across 12 countries was 32% with steroid treatment and 40% with placebo. That amounts to saving 1 in 5 very sick COVID-19 patients who would otherwise have died.
  5. There is a lot of talk about, and even some progress in, cheap rapid testing, but the deployment of these tests has been slow due to manufacturing bottlenecks and general badmouthing of testing by politicians. Nevertheless as these tests become more available, we should make progress against our U.S. pandemic (near the world’s worst), but that would require a revival of TETRIS and a modification of behavior based on test results.
  6. The CDC has issued a mandate against evictions until January 1, as a public health measure. But the CDC does not have a police department and it will leave enforcement to local authorities. There are many exceptions that would still allow people to be evicted, and after January 1 all those protected will owe all back rent. Perhaps there will be another Congressional stimulus package by then to soften that blow.

Bad News

  1. The latest models from IHME and Johns Hopkins agree on where we are now, and the graph shows three projections as to where we are going, depending on one of threee assumptions. The most likely scenario (dark blue line) shows where we will be on January 1 if we keep on doing what we’re doing: 300,000 deaths total, and adding about 3,000 deaths a day. If we had universal mask use, that total would be around 230,000 and the daily deaths would stay under a thousand for a while in the fall before doubling or tripling again with the cold weather (more time indoors) and the flu season giving many both viruses. If we continue to have easing of social distancing mandates, we are expected to have 600,000 total deaths and almost 12,000 cases a day by years end. You will hear some politicians say that these projections have been wrong throughout in overestimating the future damage. This is a lie. Except for the very beginning when nobody knew anything, the IHME reference scenario has been too optimistic. Testing is going down or staying at low levels in most states, contact tracing is beyond inadequate, and isolation is accordingly moot.
  2. We’ve learned that infected people are most likely to infect others during the first week or ten days of significant viral load, which is why superspreader events attended by healthy people are the major U.S. source of viral spread right now. These are most likely to be indoor, largely unmasked, crowded events. Viruses linger in the air for hours in many such spaces. These superspreader events have included Mardi Gras, church services in Arkansas and elsewhere, funerals in Georgia and Ohio, and a Boston meeting of executives at Biogen, a large molecular technology company, among many others. The Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota in early August has resulted in at least 70 cases so far (it’s difficult of course to track folks from an event like that). These are in addition to the well known virus petri dishes known as cruise ships, prisons, nursing homes, meatpacking plants, choir practices, and now colleges and universities. Luck matters, since one person can be a key superspreader, and neither you nor they know which one in the crowd they may be.
  3. In the past month or two there has been a wave of oh-so-careful openings of colleges and universities, and now there is a national wave of even faster closings. (See my update predicting this and explaining why it was inevitable.) Despite evidence of universities acting to cover up coronavirus cases, we know that there have been outbreaks at many, and they are rapidly spreading the virus to the local communities. As of September 3, “More than 100 colleges have reported at least 100 cases over the course of the pandemic, including dozens that have seen spikes in recent weeks as dorms have reopened and classes have started. Many of the metro areas with the most cases per capita in recent days — including Auburn, Ala.; Ames, Iowa; and Statesboro, Ga. — have hundreds of cases at universities.” Thousands upon thousands of students are now being sent home, where they will bring virus to their communities. (See my update on “Bye-Bye Grannie.”)
  4. “Sloppy coronavirus immunity” is a term that has been used to describe the handful of documented cases of people getting the virus twice (it also applies to other coronaviruses, like the common cold). At least one of the reinfected patients caught a different strain, so as you know viral evolution will play a role. It should also apply to the question of how effective any immunity from a future vaccine will be, and how long it will last. Vaccine refusal in the U.S. has been at high levels for decades, and this vaccine will be no exception, unless the rushing of it and the prior erosion of public trust swells the ranks of anti-vaxxers to unprecedented levels (especially if, as is likely, it requires two shots). Imagine a COVID-19 vaccine that gives us about the same level of protection as the seasonal flu vaccine (~50%), lasts about as long (<1 year), and is accepted by 50% of the population. So we’d have seasonal protection for a quarter of the population, have to repeat the shots every year, and we’d still have to have over a hundred million more cases and hundreds of thousands more deaths to get to herd immunity.
  5. Harold Varmus, a Nobel Laureate and former National Institutes of Health head, and Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, published an article on August 31 called, “It Has Come to This: Ignore the CDC.” Their statement is based on the latest of a series of false, incompetent, and frankly craven pronouncements of “advice” issued or changed by the political appointee at the top of that organization, obviously in response to pressure from those who appointed him, non-doctors and non-scientists all. When Stanford’s Dr. Seema Yasmin said (above), “the credibility of the FDA is crumbling before our eyes,” she was likewise referring to the latest of multiple instances of knuckling under by the political appointee directing that organization. This would be (together with the CDC) following orders from non-doctors and non-scientists in the White House to order states to prepare for widespread distribution of a vaccine by November 1 or sooner. These non-experts say that it is purely coincidental that this is two days before our national election on November 3. The vaccine will be deployed with great fanfare on the basis of far-from-complete Phase III trials, it will put minority people at greatest risk, and there will no time to find out what damage is done by this half-baked but highly touted vaccine before people vote.
  6. The principal advisor on the pandemic in the White House is now Scott Atlas, MD, a neuroradiologist and health policy wonk at Stanford’s right-wing Hoover Institution. Dr. Atlas has no qualifications in infectious disease, epidemiology, or virology, but he is happy to parrot the long-standing White House views playing down the virus. He has denied reports by several reliable sources that he argues openly in Task Force meetings with Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx (the real experts) and he has more than hinted that he favors “herd immunity” as a strategy, which would entail far more American deaths than the huge numbers projected above. Like an overpopulated herd of deer, we would be culled.

I must say it surprised me to see the expression on Dr. Gupta’s face and hear him say he is “discouraged and frustrated.” I am too, and that’s why it’s been so long since my last update. Frankly, I expected more from him. He’s one of my greatest heros—a top-flight brain surgeon and medical school professor, the most inspired and gifted medical broadcast journalist who ever lived, and, I’m proud to say, our colleague at Emory.

My expectations for him were totally unfair. Unlike me, he has rubbed his nose in this stinking situation all day every day for eight months. Also unlike me, he probably has not had a dark view of human nature lasting a lifetime, based on a different branch of science—behavioral biology. So yes, he has a right to see the “existential threat” in “human behavior,” and he has more right than me to feel discouraged and frustrated, having worked his heart out 24/7 to prevent things from getting anywhere near this bad. Which it wouldn’t have if people had listened to him. It will still save many lives if people start listening now.

Mardi Gras: outbreaks. Memorial Day Weekend: big outbreaks. July 4th weekend: ditto.

So we’re in the Labor Day Weekend now.

What do I think is going to happen?

What do you think is going to happen?

Stay safe,

Dr. K

PPS: 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.

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