Weekend COVID-19 Briefing

Top news, reports and insights for today:

  1. Curated headline summaries for Saturday/Sunday:
  • U.S. COVID-19 cases keep rising in grim march to Election day (Reuters)
  • Chief U.S. virus expert Dr. Anthony “Uncle Tony” Fauci sounding increasingly negative this week in his updates about U.S. pandemic. He now says some vaccine may be here in January (BGR)
  • New York’s Governor Cuomo announces end of state quarantine list, requiring travelers to get tested instead (CNBC)
  • Europe’s COVID-19 cases double in five weeks, total infections surpass 10 million (Reuters)
  • Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb predicts that Thanksgiving will be ‘inflection point’ for winter COVID-19 surge. Warns that December “is probably going to be our toughest month”. (Politico)
  1. Three days, 3 new record high case totals as U.S. adds half a million cases in one week. Sixteen states set new daily high records. Deaths creep higher.
     The coronavirus pandemic is off to the races in the U.S. this week as unprecedented daily record highs are reached for three consecutive days (Figure A). At almost 8.9 million total cases (>9 million in other data), the U.S. has returned to a time not seen since the summer peak of more than a half million cases per week. To put that in perspective, on September 11, just six weeks ago, fewer than half that number had been added the previous week (234,390). Cases are increasingly in the Northeast (all states) and Midwest (all except Oklahoma), with isolated high increases in the West and South (Figure B). Compared to the week before, cases jumped by 40 percent or more in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, West Virginia, Connecticut, Washington DC, and Maine. Cases are still rising in the white hot upper Midwest and Mountain states of Montana (+15%), North Dakota (+25%). South Dakota (+38%) and Wisconsin (+9%). North and South Dakota now have stratospheric daily case rates of 132 and 117 per 100,000 per day respectively, the highest incidence rates we have seen thus far (Figure C).
     The daily total yesterday was 90,453, the highest number seen thus far, exceeding the two previous record-shattering days. Over the last 3 days, 16 states have set or broken daily peak case totals including Montana (1,063), New Mexico (1,078), Oregon (596), Utah (2,292), Wyoming (431), Iowa (2,939), Illinois (7,899), Indiana (3,618), Minnesota (3,073), North Dakota (1,433), Nebraska (1,605), Ohio (3,918), South Dakota (1,389), Wisconsin (5,278), North Carolina (2,626), and West Virginia (445).
    On Saturday, 905 deaths were reported due directly to lab-confirmed COVID-19. This number represents approximately 60-70 percent of the total deaths caused by the virus. While cases are now climbing at near exponential rates, the rise in daily deaths has been much slower but is expected to continue to move higher (Figure D).
     The bottom line: New record high daily cases portend a severe Fall period. With pandemic fatigue intensifying and the Holiday season starting, it is tough to find good news. Deaths remain on a much slower rate of rise for now. The time is now for America to start talking again about the need to flatten the curve to avoid a dramatic spike in unnecessary deaths.
Figure A
Figure B
Figure C
Figure D
  1. I have a theory: Cold weather is partly behind the big spike in cases in the upper midwest and mountain states.
      I have been staring at maps and thinking about cold weather. I’m not the only one doing that. A handful of scientific studies have shown this coronavirus lasts longer in the air and on surfaces when the air is cold and dry. This is partly why the outbreaks seen in meat packing plants have been so devastating; meat packing plants are kept cold all year round. Parenthetically, it is also why I have temporarily stopped playing hockey. In trying to understand just how and why things have gotten so crazy in North and South Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin and Idaho, I have been gathering relevant weather data. It turns out, it is not that easy to get historical temperature data at the state level. That surprised me but no matter. What I found is quite interesting to me and led to a theory of sorts. Again, I am not the only observer thinking about this, but I don’t see anyone else shining the spotlight on what I am seeing in the maps. I’ll show several maps below along with a new one I made by overlaying one on the other.
    Figure E came from the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University and it shows a model-based estimate of the average daily temperature in the U.S. for October 2020 up until the 28th. While most of the nation (and all the big population centers) remain at or above 46 degrees, there is a band of much colder air across the upper midwest and mountain states. The cold zone plunges down along the rockies through Idaho almost to the New Mexico border. It also grazes the top of New England and Michigan. Right off the bat, you can see where my mind is going. Average temperatures seem to map well to the areas that are now seeing cases spike the most. Figure F is a graph I made by looking at more detailed weekly trends by NOAA weather regions. It shows a tight distribution of regional average weekly temperatures up until the week of September 26. Starting the last half of October, three regions separate themselves and saw average weekly temperatures fall dramatically. The Northern Rockies & Plains region (red line) plunged from 58 to 30 degrees in 2 weeks. The upper Midwest (bright green) dropped 19 degrees while the Northwest (white) fell 14 degrees. By the way, for reference, Figure G shows you the states in each region. So now, let’s map the counties where cases have grown the fastest in the last week (see Figure H) using data from the New York Times. Take note of the data sparseness in much of the region of interest. It’s not that cases aren’t growing in the white areas, it’s just that there is too little data to estimate. I thought it was difficult to see a pattern so I fiddled for a while and created a final figure that superimposes this map over Figure E. To create the overlay, I basically stripped away all but the areas of high transmission intensity (orange and red) at the county level. Voila, have a look at Figure I.
     What have we learned: We have reason to believe that cold weather is favorable to the virus. There were some cold weeks early in the outbreak but we weren’t tracking well then and most of the cold was over before the coronavirus pandemic was in full bloom. Serious cold air has just started to descend on the U.S. in the second half of October. I believe it is possible the vanguard of cold air has intensified outbreaks already festering in the states that are the “hottest” from an outbreak standpoint. I am not a full-time researcher anymore but what I see is consistent with a spatial relationship between colder drier air and higher transmission intensity. A formal test of that theory would take a week and resources I don’t have. Why does this matter? As an academic, I am excited to see a relationship others may not. As an American, I am deeply concerned that this pattern may mean that SARS-CoV-2 is positioned to explode on a much bigger scale than we know when arctic air descends on the rest of the U.S. in the coming weeks and months.
Figure E. Screen grab taken October 29 from the Prism Climate Group at Oregon State University. https://prism.oregonstate.edu/mtd/
Figure F
Figure G: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/monitoring-references/maps/us-climate-regions.php
Figure H: New York Times from 10/29/20 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html
Figure I
  1. Quirky Qorner: Halloween in the time of coronavirus, down under
     I am sorry to say that I was a complete lump of coal this Halloween. I’m not sure why but I decided against setting out a carved and lit pumpkin, opting to lower the risk to myself and others. If I had seen this article in the Daily Mail showing what they did in Australia to celebrate Halloween in style during the pandemic, I might have made a different choice. Below are a few of my favorites I chopped from the article. Hey, if you had a rona-inspired costume, send my a selfie!
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