Watching A Wave Come In

I have been following COVID in as much detail as I can squeeze into my every ounce of free time and it still pokes me in the eye with surprises every few weeks. I just finished my big monthly “here’s what’s happening with COVID” post, but then things moved quickly, so I feel I need to provide an update.

Unfortunately, a lot can happen in a week and a lot has happened this week. It’s interesting stuff, but also something to be prepared for so let’s make sure we are prepared.

  • Applying Our COVID Learnings

  • How Then Shall We Live

  • Disney Shorts: Man’s Best Friend

Applying Our COVID Learnings

A few months ago, it was discovered that COVID could be detected early in wastewater samples. It turns out that infected persons expel the virus in their stool even before they show signs of infection and that testing wastewater is an effective means of identifying early infection.

This was great news and was put to use in universities where they could isolate the wastewater to certain dorms and interrupt a possible mass infection. Hooray and halleluiah. This is better than mass testing, which is comparatively onerous, tedious, and time consuming. We found a way to quickly and easily identify an outbreak of COVID. Yay.

But a larger society is not a college dormitory.

Massachusetts is the only state I know that has started publishing wastewater results to help identify early COVID outbreaks. They publish every three days and the latest results are… um… not encouraging.

Biobot Data Graph

On the one hand, this is good news. Based on the positive tests, MA does not yet look like they are having a dangerous outbreak, so we can be hopeful that this alternative metric for measuring infections puts them ahead of the curve. We know enough early enough to do something about it, right?

And that’s where we are running into a wall. We know so much more now. We know where to look, what to measure, we have better therapeutics, better testing, better mitigations. And yet the state of Massachusetts is not a college dorm. Students in a university can be ruled and directed in a way a collection of free and independent citizens cannot.

This is a moment where all the rhetoric and policy surrounding COVID comes crashing into a wall of reality.

Let’s lay down some caveats first. Yes, this is only one metric. But it’s one that has been tested and is known to be an early predictor. But there are only a few data points here. Is this really enough data to act on? And what does it mean to act on this data?

There are basically two theories of action at this point. The first is that the state needs to shut down in order to try to nip this surge in the bud. Close schools, close restaurants, possibly close other businesses, whatever is necessary to keep the infection as low as possible. The second theory is to try to alert the general public to the dangers and the infection rate and let them make their own decisions.

Let’s not mince words; the first strategy will result in fewer infections and the second strategy will result in more infections.

However, the first strategy is one of disruption and strict enforcement that depends on high levels of community compliance. There is a very serious question whether or not compliance is something that can be expected this late into the game. The second strategy probably involves disruption as people decide to stay home more often. But it requires no enforcement and community compliance is a bit of a moot issue.

How Then Shall We Live?

I could be wrong and, in fact, I am very often wrong. But everything I can see says we are looking at a second wave in many of the states first hit by this virus.

Here is the good news: We are vastly more prepared than we were in March and April. We have a better understanding of COVID, we have better therapeutics, people are more cautious. There is *some* immunity and our infrastructure for detecting surges is vastly more robust.

The bad news is that all of this is not enough to actually stop this disease. All of the rhetoric that came from people like Governor Cuomo about how wonderfully he was able to stop COVID after it devastated his state may come back around to bite him. Taking credit for a natural lull in a disease cycle may have been a bit of a premature victory dance. The real challenge is if he can suppress cases in his own state using policy and enforcement when the disease surges in the region surrounding him.

Because, in the end, that is what COVID policies are about. Can we, through public policy, change the outcome of a disease infection such that fewer lives are lost than if we did nothing at all? We are about to find out.

Disney Shorts: Man’s Best Friend

As a youth, Goofy was certainly my favorite Disney character. This was long before I understood the artistry of cartooning, the history of the animated medium, or the subtlety of character animation.

The Goofy cartoons are largely a mockery of these principles. In the shorts where Goofy is on his own (and not paired with Mickey and Donald as a trio of misfits), the narrative strategy is to pair an idealistic narration against the much messier reality that Goofy faces.

In this short, the narrator speaks nobly of the idyllic master-pet relationship and every scene pairs these imaginings against Goofy’s realities of pet ownership. The short is incredibly cute, culminating in an over-the-top home robbery that the puppy sleeps through entirely.

But also, it’s an awfully cute dog.