The pandemic year in retrospect

Tagged: COVID / MathInTheNews / Politics / ϜΤΦ

Time for perspective: we’ve been stuck in a pandemic for a year now. What’s the best summary of your experience?

Light at the end of the tunnel?

My anxious, pessimistic, depressive side continually reminds me that when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel… you’re still in the tunnel. That’s what life has seemed like to me, for most of the last year. What’s it been like for you?

The Washington Post asked readers for their summaries. [1] In my typically pessimistic view, the best description came from 9-year-old Clarke Smith, who was also the favorite of the authors:

Like looking both ways before crossing the street and then getting hit by a submarine.

Yep. Kid knows what’s goin’ on.

Of course, for visual thinkers, this police dashcam video is perhaps the best summary of 2020 and its sequelae. (Go ahead and watch the short video. Really. I’ll wait.)

“Fire bad. Tree pretty.” We should note that, unlike COVID-19, apparently nobody was hurt in that incident.

Now, that’s a summary of my plague year: minding my own business, doing work in cancer drug research, crawling toward retirment… and then that happens.

Scary thought: Coulda been worse. Think about that for a second.

Oy.

The case for optimism

Ok, that’s dark. But then, that’s where my thoughts naturally go. Is there any data which can drag us back to a more optimistic outlook?

As it happens, yes.

Consider first what Derek Lowe said at In the Pipeline on 2021-Feb-24 [2], which we quoted in our writeup of the J&J VRBPAC review at the FDA:

But the big message is the same: right now, variants and all, we’re winning. The vaccines work, there is a whole list of them, and their production is increasing while we watch. The countries that have gotten off to faster starts vaccinating their populations are already seeing the effects, and no bad safety signals are yet complicating things. Nor are we seeing evidence so far of antibody-dependent enhancement (worse infections recurring in people who have already been vaccinated). If we can keep this pressure up and keep ramping up vaccine supplies and their rollout around the world, we are going to beat this virus. Good riddance to it.

Ok, winning. I like winning. Let’s do some more of that, for a change.

What else is there? Well, consider Ashish Jha (Dean of the School of Public Health at Brown), responding to Nate Silver (statistical prediction wizard behind FiveThirtyEight), both experienced, fiercely intelligent, and worth a listen:

It’s hard to understate how much the mRNA vaccines in particular are going to change the face of vaccination forever. It’s quick to generate a candidate, no more than the usual time to do clinical trials, and especially in the face of emergency the FDA analysis is unusually quick. These are very effective medications that can be generated quickly in response to a dangerous world. That’s absolutely excellent news.

Of course, we still have to (a) distribute the vaccines and get them into arms with substantially less corporate bungling, (b) stomp on the pusillanimous politicians who want to re-open economies immediately before their citizens get vaccinated, and (c) educate the knuckleheads who think the vaccines are somehow going to hurt them with tracking microchips, or the Mark of the Beast, or… a long, sad list of nincompoopery.

Not doing so well there: our vaccines are so slow and bungled, we’re giving plenty of time for new mutations to generate vaccine-resistant variants, not to mention depriving the developing world of vaccines so they become a breeding ground for viral variants.

AP: impact of vaccine rollout structure AP: impact of vaccine rollout structure

For example, a recent AP News article [3] showed that states in the US doing more structured vaccine rollouts (medical & first responders, then people in congregate living settings, then the elderly & those with co-morbidities, then by age down the rest of the list) did reasonably well. They did a lot better than states that just opened up to everybody, inviting the equivalent of gladiatorial combat for vaccination appointments.

Now, I admit: the regression they showed as proof of their claim looks like nonsense on stilts. Yes, the regression line of doses/100k vs % eligible adults does technically have a negative slope. But there’s so much noise that I can’t bring myself to believe they got a statistically significant $t$-statistic on the slope coefficient to prove it’s a real effect. And, of course, being more or less scientifically hopeless mainstream media, they don’t say one way or the other. (And, to be fair, I’m not motivated enough to screen-scrape their data and check. Yet.)

Even just a small amount of forethought counts. (Here in my state, I’m glad there was forethought to the order of vaccination, but rather less pleased with the bungled registration website!) But… to continue the slender thread of optimisim, we’ve seen some forethought in some places. Perhaps with our newly resurrected federal government we’ll learn and remember for the next time. Because there will be a next time.

Nobody is safe until everybody is safe:

Yeah, I want vaccines to win too, as does anybody else who’s not a knucklehead. So quit opening up, weark masks, distance yourself from others, and get vaccinated. Yes, that’s a light at the end of the tunnel; no, we’re not out of the tunnel yet.

Addendum 2021-Mar-23

Your humble Weekend Editor has a weakeness for good donuts. (Well, good pastry generally.) So we were frustrated here at Chez Weekend to note the following offer of free donuts to vaccinated people:

Alas, the Krispy Kreme nearest Chez Weekend is 2 states away. So optimism is in order… just not in our immediate vicinity.


Notes & References

1: E Goren, S Kulkarni, & K Vongkiatkajorn, “The best summation”, Washington Post, 2021-Dec-18.

2: D Lowe, “The J&J Vaccine at the FDA”, In the Pipeline blog at Science Translational Medicine, 2021-Feb-24.

3: C Johnson & N Forster, “A rapid COVID-19 vaccine rollout”, AP News, 2021-Mar-21.

Written Mon 2021-Mar-22

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