Jerks

As news trends about a strain of H1N1 influenza virus in China with “pandemic potential,” Democrats on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis put out a Green New Deal-lite climate plan that references the murder of George Floyd and the movement for racial justice on its first page, and the Program on Climate Change Communication of the-institution-formerly-known-as-Yale releases survey data suggesting that “in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, voters want climate action as part of the economic recovery plan and are more likely to vote for candidates that support renewable energy,” I’d like to encourage everyone to listen to or watch this unsettling interview with Laurie Garrett on Democracy Now!

The segment is heavy (and bears the title: “Massive Case of Denial: COVID Surges in US, Tops 10M Globally, as Pence Touts “Remarkable Progress”), but there are a lot of funny moments in there. Here’s the most memorable:

I mean, Amy, you probably have been following the case of the Harper’s bar in East Lansing, Michigan. They opened up when Michigan started opening up. It was legal, what they were doing. The bar was a very popular hot spot in that college town, packed with twenty-somethings. Everybody took their masks off, you know, or they had them dangling from one ear, you know, as like a fashion statement. A lot of drinking. And now, last count, more than 80 people have been contact traced to having COVID directly because they went to that bar. Well, the only way to deal with that situation is to shut the whole bar down, disinfect the entire place, open all the windows, put fans in, blow the place clean.

And this is what we’re dealing with all over the entire United States now, is situations where people refuse to wear a mask. They take it as a political — you know, “Don’t tread on me, baby. I have a right in America. You can’t tell me what to do.” Well, it’s true. I can’t tell you. I can’t walk in and make you put on your seatbelt […] I can’t make you wear a motorcycle helmet […] But both of those are things that affect only you. You know, everybody in your car won’t die because you didn’t wear a seatbelt, but you will die.

But this is a situation where we’re asking you to be a good citizen and give a damn about the people around you. And if you can’t do that, if you can’t manage to care about them the way you would, say, with secondhand smoking, or you would with various kinds of pollution that you might use, pesticide you spray on your front lawn as the wind blows it into your neighbor’s windows — if this is your attitude — your neighbors can just go ahead and have that pesticide because you felt like killing ants on your front lawn — then you’re not a good American, and you’re not a good Christian, and you’re not a good spiritual being. You’re a jerk.

Thanks to Garrett for the great work she’s been doing since COVID-19 emerged, and for decades before. And, as usual, sending love and support to everyone who’s in a place currently hard-hit by the pandemic.

Postscript: Police attacked protesters at Occupy City Hall early this morning. Budget deadline for NYC is today at midnight. Predictably, it seems like Mayor and Council are attempting to “cut” $1 billion from the NYPD budget to meet protesters’/the occupation’s demands by simply moving money (still earmarked for the police) to other city departments.

NYC’s Phase III Reopening Should Be Delayed

Brief post today to express my growing concern about New York City’s slated July 6th entry into Phase III reopening, which, as currently planned, will allow resumption of indoor dining and personal care services (per the New York Times, “like manicures and tattooing”), and to share some articles I found interesting this week.

Rather than re-write, here’s the email I sent to an acquaintance who sits on one of NYC’s mayoral task forces on reopening:

I’m concerned that NYC’s entrance into Phase III is premature and risks renewed explosive spread of COVID-19 in the City. Obviously, there are many unknowns, and it is possible that factors as yet unidentified – such as potential COVID-19 cross-immunity with common cold-causing coronaviruses – mean [that] NYC is already at or near herd immunity, and the risk is much lower than I fear.

That being said, the national situation re: the pandemic is obviously a disaster at present; NYC’s percent positivity on daily test results has ticked back up in the last week as Phase II unfolds; our [state-wide] effective reproduction number seems to be climbing back towards 1 (after all the gubernatorial talk about our efforts being the most effective in the country, etc.) and we continue to have 300-400 new confirmed cases daily [in the City] (when, for sake of comparison, ~100 cases confirmed recently over the course of a week in Beijing was considered a major crisis); and a quick survey of this NYT article on “How All 50 States Are Reopening (and Closing Again)” suggests some correlation between renewed spikes in confirmed case counts and opening indoor dining, personal services, etc.

It’s summer in New York. It’s nice to be outside. I understand as well as anyone the eagerness to fully reopen (my wife [partner’s business] remains almost entirely shuttered/online), but if we ignore the increasingly clear science – that transmission is almost exclusively through respiratory droplets and [occurs] almost exclusively indoors – I believe we do so at our peril. Masks will certainly help, but I’m not convinced the trade-off is yet worth it to be taking the risk to extensively reopen indoor activities, like dining, for which mask wearing is an impossibility.

NYC City Councilmember, Mark Levine, shares my concerns, as do NYC Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams and another acquaintance of mine who sits on one of the task forces convened by Governor Cuomo (though the latter person confides, “Phase III likely will be delayed. We are trying … but a lot a pressure from businesses”). Understandable, of course, but reopening just to re-close will do that much more economic harm, and having once got things very very wrong here, we should now be striving, going forward, to get them right. My hope is we’ll see a convergence of informed public/political opinion around this and at least delay until we have firmer evidence around our present level of risk in NYC and to what extent resumption of indoor activities has been a key driver of explosive transmission in other states across the US.

Okay, and some articles to share:

  • Key takeaway from this National Bureau of Economic Research paper on “Black Lives Matter, Social Distancing, and COVID-19” is as follows: “[W]e find no evidence that urban protests reignited COVID-19 case growth during the more than three weeks following protest onset. We conclude that predictions of broad negative public health consequences of Black Lives Matter protests were far too narrowly conceived.” An important caveat here is that, when the authors write “too narrowly conceived,” they’re actually arguing that, while the protests themselves may, indeed, have been sources of significant contagion, overall, mobility decreased in cities/areas experiencing major protest activity, and because protesters constituted a relatively small (I’ve estimated elsewhere, low single-digit, at most) percentage of the overall population, the net effect of protests seems to have been roughly neutral, as a small fraction of the population exposed themselves to heightened risk, while the vast majority of the population actually reduced, on average, their risk of exposure, though out of fear of the “unrest” and not of the virus. Simultaneous protests and reopening of the economy in many places seems like an obvious potential confounding factor to me for this sort of study, and given the time horizon of epidemic spread (weeks to months) and the fact that protesters are not only protesters (just like meatpacking plant workers are not only meatpacking plant workers), I worry that this analysis understates the risk of super-spreading events at protests leading to ripple effects that, in the absence of contact tracing and in view of the above-mentioned conflation, will be impossible to attribute. Still, great that there hasn’t been a pronounced effect, and – as I’ve written elsewhere – I imagine my initial concern would have been significantly reduced had we known with clarity at the end of May what we know now about COVID-19 transmission.
  • My friend Ryan shared this study from Nature which shows that “Far-UVC light (222 nm) efficiently and safely inactivates airborne human coronaviruses.” Could be a promising disinfection method in some settings.
  • I think it’s wrong to say “the Virus Won” for many reasons, but this New York Times multimedia piece is instructive, nonetheless, as a breakdown of the breakdown of the US pandemic response to date.
  • Good, long, infuriating piece from Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept on “How the NYPD Weaponized a Curfew Against Protesters and Residents.”
  • Finally, David Dayen thinks the President will lose the election in November because “he’s bad at being president, and with the coronavirus he’s found a way to be bad in public.” I hope Dayen is right.

Also, not an article, but always nice when someone “come[s] clean about a lie [he] spread as a health insurance exec: We spent big $$ to push the idea that Canada’s single-payer system was awful & the U.S. system much better. It was a lie & the nations’ COVID responses prove it.”

Hope everyone’s staying healthy, sane, and engaged, and sending my love and support to friends and readers in now-hard-hit states across the US, and in India, Brazil, and countries elsewhere around the world which are now facing what we suffered through in New York not so long ago.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

It’s been welcome and strange to give myself permission to take a step back from nearly four months of constant engagement with the pandemic and its ensuing crises; however, the privilege of stepping back itself is simply a function of where I sit, in New York City, as, globally, the COVID-19 situation has never been worse. Cases and deaths are spiking sharply in Brazil, India, and Mexico, and across the United States, we are witnessing a precipitous collapse of even our modest mitigation achievements.

Briefly, the New York Times shows 27 states now registering increasing daily confirmed case rates; Rt Covid-19 depicts, differently, more or less the same; this graph from 91-DIVOC shows new national confirmed cases per day climbing sharply in the past two weeks; the percentage of positive test results in NYC has quietly ticked up since the weekend (though whether or not the uptick is statistically significant, I can’t say) and we are still registering more than 300 new confirmed cases daily in the City, even as we move into further reopening; the Times further reports that, predictably – after the de Blasio Administration’s disastrous mishandling of the effort – contact tracing in New York is “Off to a Slow Start”; the jury remains out on the impact of the protests on the spread of COVID-19 (with Business Insider urging last week, “Don’t blame Black Lives Matter protests for the spike in coronavirus cases across the US,” while, more recently, officials in Arizona – perhaps in an attempt to divert blame for their disastrous failures to contain the virus – are suggesting that the protests may be responsible for some of the explosive spread of the disease in that state); but it is certain that our society is still studded with institutions – including prisons, jails, immigration jail and prisons, long-term care facilities and nursing homes, meatpacking facilities, Amazon warehouses, etc. – where congregate settings couple with corporate and governmental sadism to create near-perfect conditions for transmission. Such institutions in turn fuel the spread beyond their walls. (Good audio interview here on that front.)

David Dayen explains why death rates may not be spiking as sharply as new case counts (basically, new infectees are skewing younger – as governmental abandonment of pandemic control forces elders and those otherwise at risk to take matters into their own hands or otherwise risk their lives, while low-risk youths pretend like the pandemic is no longer a thing – and treatment and understanding of the disease have improved), while a recent study in Nature Medicine suggests that infection with SARS-CoV-2 may not confer lasting immunity (that is, that reinfection risk may be very real).

In short, we should all still be taking this disease very seriously, and here in New York City, I encourage everyone to make a daily habit of looking at the regional monitoring dashboard and the early warning monitoring dashboard lest we lose sight of what we suffered through and what it is we hope to avert going forward.

Now, looking back, I promised to spend some time thinking about what I got wrong in recent months. First, I’ll give myself credit, I think I got the big picture right, and I’ve never really varied from my core position: That drastic measures were necessary, given our disastrous mishandling of the crisis, but that we never should’ve been in that position in the first place, because we’ve known for more than a hundred years (in New York City, most of all) how to confront epidemic disease, and we should have been preparing from January onward and ready with an aggressive program of testing, tracing, isolation, and quarantine to complement clear public health guidance and widespread public buy-in to practices of social distancing, mask-wearing, etc. All of this, I’d say, is pretty obvious now, but it was obvious even in March to anyone who’d spent much time engaged with New York City history.

Okay, that being said, a few things I clearly got wrong, working backwards:

I fear my concern about the protests as sites of major contagion may have been overstated. Only in June has it become increasingly clear that outdoor transmission of the virus is extremely limited; that mask-wearing is highly effective (and perhaps the most meaningfully mitigatory intervention individuals can commit to personally); and that surface transmission is extremely limited. Some transmission must certainly have occurred and be occurring at demonstrations, but the greater risk remains the hapless reopenings and utter abdication of responsibility by all levels of government in this country, and, had the scientific consensus been clearer in late May regarding transmission pathways, I suspect my concern about the protests as potential superspreading events would have been somewhat less pronounced.

Ditto on the concern about people’s careless behavior outside. I never advocated park closures (at least, I certainly don’t recall doing so), but I was very alarmed by people’s behavior on the streets and in the parks and public spaces of my own neighborhood, and it would seem – in view of what we now know, which varies markedly in some respects from the earlier public health guidance – that transmission risk in these settings is quite limited. That being said, the drunken street parties that have been materializing across NYC in recent weeks are probably still ill-advised.

On masks, I embraced them as soon as the CDC guidance came out, but I was not among the earliest adopters, and actually expressed a degree of skepticism, not so much as to their efficacy, but to the commensurateness of mask-wearing as an intervention as NYC’s crisis was peaking. In some ways, I stand by that position; we’d dug ourselves so deeply into a hole, that truly draconian mass quarantine measures became necessary, but, nonetheless, I was off-base in understating the relative importance of mask-wearing. Again, now it seems obvious, and had there been strong guidance to wear masks in public starting from early March, I think we would have seen a different and less awful outcome in NYC, even if all the other bungling had gone forward unabated.

This is a more subtle point, but I challenged, in March, the “ideology” of flattening the curve as one of which the “relevance for us was short-lived.” My overall treatment of the issue was balanced, as the original post from March 22nd bears out, but, as a matter of fact, I’d say NYC did manage to flatten the curve in a more or less textbook fashion (from a very high baseline) in a way that likely averted much deeper catastrophe here. I’ll let readers go back and make their own assessment of the post if they care to, but I believe that its core assertions – that a lack of coherent public health guidance was leading to a “blindfolded leading the blindfolded” scenario of policy-making via Internet influencer, and that strategies of mitigation (rather than suppression or elimination – which was not even in my pandemic vocabulary at that point) were likely to lead to mass, if reduced, death – hold up pretty well.

Finally, coming back to the present, the discourse around the nationwide movement for racial justice is, at the moment, cacophonous. I stand by reservations I’ve voiced previously, while also continuing to feel conscience-bound to support and participate in this movement. I worry about the unkind aspersions, the “bizarre purity tests/ stupid infighting on the left” as my friend Dan put it, and the ahistorical analyses bubbling to the surface in a heady moment, but let’s see what the future holds. In the meantime, I hope and work for the best.

And to end with some good news, here’s to victories by AOC, Jamaal Bowman, and (hopefully, as the vote counts come in) others! Volunteering on AOC’s 2018 primary campaign, and her subsequent victory, were transformative in my life, and I hope we see a future where such victories are increasingly not the exception but the norm.

Summer / Time

I promised myself back in March – as an adulthood’s worth of good habits and best practices gave way, in a matter of days, to the pandemic’s onslaught – that I’d take a prolonged break from the Internet at some point when all this was over. “All this” certainly isn’t over – or, so far as the pandemic is concerned, even really done starting, yet – but, of course, the idea of a hard end to any big historical shift often proves illusory. Who know what comes in the wake of the rise of this mass movement for racial justice (hopefully racial justice), but it’s easy enough to imagine that the hard to imagine might just keep happening, and that I’ll never take that break I promised myself if I don’t just take it. As the solstice approaches and the long, sunny days invite us to luxuriate when we’re able, I’m inclined to do just that.

It’s been a privilege having so many challenging, educational, and moving conversations/exchanges as a byproduct of this record I’ve been keeping of our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. My hope is that the worst is truly behind us here, even as the worst is very much upon others elsewhere. Sadly, our negligence in New York, and the United States more broadly, has played a major role in exacerbating the impact of the pandemic globally, and I only hope that we learn from our deadly mistakes so as to avoid repeating them in the coming years and decades.

To that end, I will try to take some time in the coming weeks to reflect back on what I got wrong over the past three months. Knowing myself, there’s a chance that I keep writing daily regardless of my best intentions, but if these posts become less frequent for the next month or two, please know that, to all of you who have been reading regularly, I’m deeply grateful and send out love, strength, and appreciation to you as we confront what the next three months hold.

Postscript: It occurs to me now that I started writing these daily posts on March 7th – the day that Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York State – and I’m winding them down (or may be!) the day after the Governor ended his 111-day unbroken streak of holding daily press conferences. Perhaps that’s not a coincidence. Just remember: If we’re smart, we’ll vote him out in 2022. New York deserves much better.

Summer Is Not Cancelled

It’s been amazing to see what this movement and nationwide uprising for racial justice have accomplished already, and I’ve welcomed the necessity of adjusting my own thinking about what is now possible. Without lapsing into undue optimism, I’m truly encouraged, and hope people of conscience all around the country are taking heart, finding courage, and committing to the long work ahead to move the US and the world towards a just, sane future.

I’m also taking heart from the evolving scientific consensus on COVID-19. Let’s keep wearing masks, practicing social distancing when necessary, observing basic hygiene best practices, and, perhaps most of all, keeping pressure on governments to get shit right when it comes to testing, tracing, isolation, and quarantine. We never should have been in this position, and – even with the ever-present threat of another pandemic – we need not ever be in it again.

About climate crisis, I don’t have any good news. The situation is bad, and – even with the pandemic-related slowdown of the global economy – getting rapidly worse. As we take stock of our lives and what the post-pandemic world will look like, we should all be committing to work towards achieving substantive, commensurate climate action at scale.

Finally, it felt good to ride the subway today, for the first time since early mid-March, and it was a sweet bonus that it was to attend a Juneteenth demo/celebration in Central Park at the site of the historic Seneca Village. (Just in the last year, the City and/or the Central Park Conservancy has belatedly installed a number of placards commemorating Seneca Village, a majority black settlement that was destroyed to make way for the construction of Central Park.) Even better, I came home and had a long phone conversation with a thoughtful, pragmatic friend about how we make progress on these big challenges of our times, and then was pleasantly surprised, in listening to the June 16th talk on climate crisis by Nouriel Roubini [paywalled], when Roubini digressed at length to encourage all his viewers to shift to a vegan or at least a vegetarian diet.

We have monumental work to do, but if the last six months have taught us anything, it’s that a lot can change in a hurry. Here’s to a better future, one big step at a time – to things changing rapidly, this time for the better instead of the worse – and to enjoying the summer in the meantime as we make progress towards racial justice, pandemic preparedness, and climate sanity all at once.

Postscript: Thanks to David Dayen for pointing, in his daily Unsanitized newsletter, to this interesting study on how “COVID-19 and Stabilization Policies Affect Spending and Employment”; key takeaway in my view was the following: “State-ordered reopenings of economies have little impact on local employment.” In short, reopening without addressing the pandemic does little to improve the economy, but does lead to disaster (as we’re witnessing in Arizona), and there is simply no substitute for the hard work of actually getting our pandemic house in order.