More Covid Mysteries – The New York Times
Consider these Covid-19 mysteries:
In India – where the Delta variant was first identified and caused a huge outbreak – cases have dropped in the past two months. A similar drop could now be underway in Britain. There is no clear explanation for these declines.
In the United States, cases began to decline rapidly in early January. The decline began before vaccination was widespread and has followed no obvious change in Americans’ attitudes towards Covid.
In March and April, the Alpha variant helped cause a sharp increase in cases in the upper Midwest and in Canada. This epidemic seemed poised to spread to the rest of North America, but it is not.
This spring, the files were not consistently higher in parts of the United States that had relaxed masking and social distancing measures (such as Florida and Texas) than in areas that remained vigilant.
Large parts of Africa and Asia have yet to experience epidemics as large as in Europe, North America and South America.
How to solve these mysteries? Michael Osterholm, who heads an infectious disease research center at the University of Minnesota, suggests that people keep one central idea in mind: humility.
“We have attributed too much human authority to the virus,” he told me.
“Much, much sweeter”
During this pandemic, I found one of my first assumptions particularly difficult to shake. It’s the one that many other people seem to share, that a virus continues to spread, eventually infecting almost everyone, unless humans take action to stop it. And this idea has crucial aspects of the truth. Social distancing and especially vaccination can save lives.
But much of the ebb and flow of a pandemic cannot be explained by changes in human behavior. That was true with the flu a century ago, and it’s true with Covid now. An epidemic often turns mysteriously, like a forest fire that fails to jump from one square of trees to another.
The experience with Alpha in the Midwest this spring is revealing:
Even Osterholm said he assumed the spring push would spread from Michigan and his home state of Minnesota to the whole of the United States. This is not the case. It barely spread to neighbors in Iowa and Ohio. Whatever the reasons, the diagram shows that the mental model that many of us have – in which only human intervention can have a major effect on the number of cases – is wrong.
Britain has become another example. The Delta variant is even more contagious than Alpha, and it looked like it could infect any unvaccinated UK residents after it started spreading in May. Some experts have predicted that the number of daily cases will reach 200,000, more than three times the country’s previous peak. Instead, cases have peaked – for now – around 47,000, before dropping below 30,000 this week.
“The current Delta wave in the UK is proving much, much softer than we expected,” wrote David Mackie, chief European economist at JP Morgan.
Granted, you can find plenty of supposed explanations, including the end of the European football tournament, the school holiday schedule and the notoriously late summer weather in Britain, as London bureau chief Mark Landler noted. of the Times. But none of the explanations seem big enough to explain the drop, especially considering that India has also seen an explosion and a drop in the number of cases. India, of course, has not played in the European Football Championship and is not known for its cool weather in June.
‘Rest in peace through’
A more plausible explanation seems to be that Delta spreads very quickly at first and, for a set of unknown reasons, runs out long before a company achieves collective immunity. As Andy Slavitt, a former Covid adviser to President Biden, told me, “It seems to be spreading very quickly and infecting the people it is going to infect. The most counter-intuitive idea here is that an epidemic can subside even if many people remain vulnerable to Covid.
This is not guaranteed everywhere, and there will likely be more variants after Delta. Remember: Covid behaves in mysterious ways. But Americans shouldn’t assume that Delta is destined to cause months of increased cases. Nor should they assume that a sudden drop, if one starts this summer, is a tidy narrative that attributes the turnaround to the increase in vaccination and mask wear.
“These outbreaks have little to do with what humans do,” Osterholm says. “It’s only recently, with vaccines, that we have started to have a real impact.”
No need for nihilism
I don’t want anyone who thinks Osterholm is making a nihilistic argument. Human responses do make a difference: Masks and social distancing can slow the spread of the virus, and vaccination can end a pandemic.
The most important step was the vaccination of many elderly people. As a result, the total UK death toll has increased only modestly this summer, while deaths and hospitalizations remain rarer in heavily vaccinated areas of the United States than in less vaccinated areas.
But Osterholm’s appeal for humility has political implications. He argues for giving priority to vaccination over any other strategy. It also reminds us to avoid believing that we can always know what behaviors create risk.
This lesson is particularly relevant for schools. Most of the Covid rules that school districts make seem overconfident about what matters, Osterholm told me. Ventilation seems useful, and hiding children can be. However, reopening schools inevitably carries risks. The alternative – more months of lost learning and social isolation – almost certainly involves more risk and higher costs for children. Fortunately, school workers and teenagers can get vaccinated, and severe childhood Covid remains extremely rare.
We are certainly not helpless in the face of Covid. We can reduce its risks, just as we can reduce the risks associated with driving, biking, swimming, and many other daily activities. But we cannot eliminate them. “We are not in control as much as we think we are,” Osterholm said.
A programming note: Starting Monday, I take my annual summer break to write this newsletter. While I’m away, an exciting rotation of The Times reporters will be arriving in your inbox. First, Monday: Vivian Wang, from China. I’ll be back on Tuesday August 24th.
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The fact that their protest was recorded as “a subversive sensation,” writes Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post, “tells you how much the Olympic contenders possess their otherwise powerful forms.” Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman points out that similar questions arise in many workplaces. “People have increasingly rebelled against the traditional and highly gendered dress codes imposed on them. “
Rebecca Liu, writing in The Guardian, describes how she was drawn to the glitz of rhythmic gymnastics as a child. “At six, at seven, at eight, at nine, have I ever sat down and thought, ‘Yes, I want to embody a conventional view of womanhood in the most fashionable way. strange and most disturbing? “No. I just wanted to look pretty. – Natasha Frost, a morning writer
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