A COVID-19 moonshot
18 July 2020
In this essay, I will briefly describe how well our response to the coronavirus pandemic is going (preview: not well), what we know about it, and what we can do about it. I join with Boyd Matheson of the Deseret News in calling for a 55-day moonshot to overcome the pandemic.
Where we are
Please see the official State of Utah coronavirus website statistics:
The state starting tracking coronavirus cases in March. By April 10, 2020, there were over 2,000 active cases. Despite efforts at containment, instead of decreasing, the number of active cases increased slowly, until on May 31, the estimated number ofactive cases in Utah was 3,656. (Go to the Cumulative Cases chart and hover over the orange bar for May 31.) If we were successful in controlling the coronavirus, this number would be going down, until it reached a low level that was kept in check by contact tracing and quarantine. If this were the case, the economy would not be suffering.
Unfortunately, around May 31 the growth in the number of cases began to accelerate instead of shrink. On May 26, there were 96 new cases. On July 9, there were 896. As of July 17, the number of active cases is estimated at 12,669 (as compared to the 3,656 on May 31.) The chart labeled Lab-Confirmed COVID-19 shows the accelerating growth in new cases reported each day. If this sort of growth continues, eventually our hospitals will be overwhelmed, schools will have to close, more people will lose their jobs, and business will suffer even more.
At the national level, the situation is even worse. The United States has about 4% of the world’s population, but the United States has had 23% of coronavirus deaths. (140,119 out of 601,512 on July 18 as reported by https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html.) Many countries in Asia and Europe have had a great measure of success in controlling the coronavirus, while the United States has not. We are not in the company of Japan, Taiwan, China, and South Korea in controlling the coronavirus. We are in the company of Brazil, where the spread of the coronavirus is accelerating.
What we know
The nature of science is that early results are tentative and subject to revision as more is learned. Over time, the uncertainty goes down. Research into the novel coronoavirus is just beginning, but the initial studies seem to be supporting these conclusions:
- The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is highly contagious.
- The wearing of cloth facemasks helps prevent its spread.
- Maintaining physical distance from other people, especially indoors, helps reduce the spread.
- Many people with COVID-19 do not have symptoms and do not know that they are infected, but they can still transmit the disease to others.
- COVID-19 can be serious, even deadly, at any age, but the older the victim, the more likely they are to suffer serious, permanent consequences or death.
These conclusions are preliminary, and there may be changes. But enough studies have been done that the above seems more convincing every day.
There was some confusion about the wearing of masks at first. The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) initially recommended against wearing masks because a) they wanted to keeps masks available for health care worker who had a greater need for masks, b) they did not want people to develop a false sense of security that a mask would eliminate the need for maintaining physical distance and so forth, and c) at the time there was no evidence that masks would significantly reduce transmission. None of this is true any more.
We do know this pretty much for certain based on some simple math and hundreds of years of experience with pandemics: In order for a pandemic to die down, it is not necessary to stop all transmission from person to person. As long as each infected person infects, on average, more than one other person (say 1.1 per person on average) before they recover and are no longer contagious, then the pandemic will grow. If each person infects, on average, less than one other person (say 0.9), then the pandemic will shrink and eventually disappear. One way to think of it is if each successive “generation” of people infected is larger, the number of active cases will grow. If each successive “generation” is smaller, then the number of active cases will shrink. The coronavirus pandemic is unlikely to disappear completely until there is a vaccine and most people are vaccinated, but the number of cases can be reduced to a small, manageable level, depending on people’s behavior.
What we can do
On July 13, 2020, Boyd Matheson of the Deseret News published an opinion piece in which he calls on Utah to undertake a “moonshot” effort to quell the pandemic. (See Utah’s 55-day moonshot: Our quest to quell the pandemic.)
I suggest that you read the entire article, but here is a quick synopsis:
- We can all come together in a common cause and make shared sacrifices.
- We may not know with 100% certainty that wearing masks will reduce cases of the virus, but it’s all that we have right now. If it turns out that they help, then we will get the pandemic under control, save the economy, and save a lot of lives that would otherwise have been lost. If it turns out that they don’t help, then we will have suffered a little inconvenience and discomfort for a few weeks.
- An all-out effort to control the coronavirus is compared to Kennedy’s appeal to go the moon, the “moonshot.” It was difficult, but doable, and ultimately successful.
- We can come together to do this “without shaming, judging, or virtue signaling.”
- Success will not come from the government. Success will depend on each of our individual choices.
I close with this quote from the article: “To the skeptics, to those that oppose the wearing of masks, we need you. Come along for 55 days with us on this journey. We can disagree on whether or not the science is unsettled. But if those that suggest masks are part of the solution are right, we will greatly reduce both the spread and the potency of the viral load.”