Amoeba’s Lorica: Losing COVID Religion

“Michigan reported 8,413 new Covid-19 cases on Saturday [10 April 2021], bringing the state’s total pandemic case count to 692,206.”

So proclaimed a post on the Outer Party social media site, decrying the cresting of the monstrous fourth wave of COVID-19 in the Untied States of America (about which, of course, you could find the full story on the poster’s blog and podcast, hint hint). A clueless, and hapless, commentator lamented the heartlessness of those who were failing to recite the sacred COVID catechism (“wear masks, wash hands, distance your foul self from humanity”, commonly preached by the saintly who still have jobs, against the lepers who do not) and prostrate themselves accordingly. Only to be set upon by trolls who, having been cast out of Facebook by its political correctness bots, had descended en masse onto the Outer Party site to, at long last, lift it out of its long-standing online obscurity and ridicule.

The not-empty roads on a Hawaiian Saturday morning. Corner of Lako Street and Mamalahoa Highway, Kailua Kona.Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba was contemplating the meaning of all this while sitting in his car, his left shoulder smarting, on the roads of Kailua Kona, Hawai‘i. Roads that had been brought to a standstill by hordes of visitors who had chosen to ignore the warnings about coming to the Big Island, thinking that it was a COVID oasis. And it occurred to him to ask, “What is this fourth wave that all the screaming headlines and social media bashfests are all about? What are the …

[Block your eyes, dear readers, YFNA is about to type a four-letter word.]

“…[ahem] What are the data?

So, when he finally managed to get himself – and the car – home, and while, as usual, he was supposed to be doing something else, he spent some time compiling data on just what the “fourth wave” of COVID-19 looked like on this weekend after Easter, 2021 CE.

And this is what he came up with. In the map, green states are those with no detectable uptick in COVID cases since the abatement of the ‘third wave’ (the 2020 ‘holiday season’, November 2020 – January 2021). Yellow, a slight uptick, possibly not statistically significant. Orange, a definite but small increase in cases. Red, the case peak approaches that of the third wave. (Michigan’s peak is cresting, one hopes, now, whereas Iowa’s was a short, sharp spike in February, since abated.) Grey, no fourth wave because the state had not yet recovered from the third wave. 

In case you missed it:

  • To date, the ‘fourth wave’ exists only in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and Oregon.
  • The ‘green’ states, with a few prominent exceptions (California, for example), overlap the ‘red’ states of the last two Presidential elections, with the not-green states overlapping ‘blue’ states.
  • Green states encompass locations that span the range from massively restrictive (California) to massively non-restrictive (Texas) states.

OK, that’s, um, uncomfortable. Not least the blasts of snark emanating from the green states, with their vocal rejection of ‘vaccine passports’ and anything else that seems the least bit sensible according to the sacred COVID catechism.

“But Hawai‘i is a COVID oasis, right? Right?!? Say ‘right’, Amoeba, because if it isn’t and my bar closes down because of it, this time for good, it’s a small island and I know where to find your sorry ass, damn you!”

Right. Robert A. Heinlein knew, in 1958, what would happen to aloha under stress, and said so. Alas. We the People didn’t pay attention to that, either. But the question is valid. What, if anything, have all the precautions or lack thereof, all the angst, all the sweating about who does this, or that, or t’other, actually amounted to?

Sure, some states have high case counts, some have low. Some states have high total populations, some have low. Go to the place with the least COVID, yeah? Not so fast. A state might have a lot of COVID cases, but if that state also has a high population, it may be doing better than we think. Conversely, a state with low case numbers, if it also has a low population, may not be doing particularly well.

So, YFNA compiled a ranked list of states by population, and a ranked list of states by total number of COVID cases. For each state, he divided the population rank by the COVID rank. If COVID cases were randomly distributed across the USA, then each state’s COVID score would be exactly 1, as its population rank would be the same as its COVID rank. A state with a COVID score greater than 1 has had more COVID cases than it “should” have, based on its population, and therefore will have (pick one) handled COVID badly / had bad luck. A state with a COVID score less than 1 has had fewer COVID cases than it “should” have, and will have (pick one) handled COVID well / lucked out big time.

Here’s what that map looks like. Green states are in the lowest quintile of population (smallest numbers of people; ranks 41-50). Yellow states are in the fourth quintile, orange states in the third, red states in the second, and magenta states in the first (population ranks 1-10). The numbers represent the COVID score (population rank divided by COVID rank, rounded to two significant figures) for each state.

Here’s the data table. It also present the rank of each state by population density (PoDe Rank), and a value for the difference (simple subtraction) between a state’s population rank and its COVID rank (COVID Diff). The COVID Difference might give a better picture of how well/badly a state that is near the top or bottom of the population ranking is doing than the COVID Score does.

And some of the takehomes:

  • Most states have COVID scores close to 1, suggesting a distribution of COVID cases that corresponds with population, and not with a state’s size, population density, geography, or political persuasion.
  • In particular, the four most populous states in the nation, two of the bluest (California, New York) and two of the reddest (Florida, Texas) have COVID scores exactly equal to 1; their population and COVID case number rankings are identical. It is hard to imagine four polities that could be more different, and hard to see how the differing actions they took in response to the pandemic have, in the end, made any relative difference.
  • Michigan, the site of the current ‘fourth wave’, has a score of 0.77, suggesting that, until this fourth wave, it had done far better / been far luckier (or had done a poorer job of screening for COVID) than its neighbors.
  • A person coming to Hawai‘i to ‘escape the pandemic’ might as well go to Philadelphia, or Cleveland, or Baltimore, or even (until last month) Detroit.
  • If any state has ‘bragging rights’ about how it handled COVID-19, it is Washington state, ironically the first state in the USA to report the virus, and the first to take action against it (and get its leadership fried for doing so). Assuming, of course, that it has properly reported its COVID cases.

UPDATE – Sink the Mayo Day 2021

The new data table:

A few states have changed position. Mostly, states with higher scores have gone down (example, South Carolina), while states with lower scores have gone up (Michigan). After a month, COVID scores have become more aligned with population, a possible example of regression toward the mean.

So we cheat and we lie and we test, or maybe we don’t. We get the COVID vaccine, or maybe we don’t, and we argue about whether it’s any good and how long it will last if it is. We complain about masks and whether or not we can find a restaurant, never mind get a seat at one, and we bitch about how life hasn’t returned to normal yet, not realizing, or caring, that human life since the discovery of penicillin has been anything but normal, not realizing, or caring, that humanity is setting itself up for a knockout punch from an increasingly grim and determined biosphere, a biosphere whose probing jabs land no matter how we thrash.

Just over a year ago, when the news was full of how We the People would soon put COVID down and initiate a V-shaped economic recovery, YFNA made a more sombre prediction about the outcome of the COVID pandemic. A year later, when the news is full of how the COVID vaccines will save us and usher in a new (and planet-destroying) Roaring Twenties (though one might wish to ask India about that), he stands by his prediction. And hopes that we may be that lucky.

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3 Responses to Amoeba’s Lorica: Losing COVID Religion

  1. Tora says:

    Interesting

  2. nathhoke says:

    I hate it when you’re right.

  3. Pingback: Amoeba’s Lorica: How Dense Is Your State? | Dude & Dude

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