Why is Trump getting more popular now (political science can explain)

I first meant to write about this over a week ago, but I keep putting it off.  On the one hand, it is really frustrating to see Trump’s approval go up as he flails about and lies at press conferences and has failed to lead in a response that will surely mean more dead Americans.  On the other hand, the very modest increase in approval he’s had is eminently predictable and explainable by how political science has long understood presidential approval and it suggests this will be short-lived.

Political Scientist, Matthew Dickinson, with a really nice post:

For the denizens of Twitter, and for those whose primary source of news is cable talk shows and editorials in the NYC-Washington DC media axis, the upward trend in Trump’s approval may seem baffling, particularly given their steady drumbeat of stories criticizing the administration’s response to the corona virus. But it shouldn’t be. Trump is benefiting from a “rally ‘round the flag” effect  – the same phenomenon that has boosted support for previous presidents in times of national crisis.  First documented by political scientist John Mueller in a study focusing predominantly on Cold War military events. Mueller’s finding has subsequently been confirmed, and developed, in several additional studies that provide a clearer portrait regarding the basis of the rally effect.

The primary source of this phenomenon is rooted in presidents’ relatively unique position in the American political system. At the most basic level, presidents – as the only elected official with a national constituency – are the closest we have to the individual embodiment of national sovereignty.  The impact of that role is heightened by the fact that in the U.S., the President plays a ceremonial function in additional to his (someday her) partisan political position.  As such, when circumstances threaten the nation’s sovereignty, he benefits from his stature as both political head of government and chief of state by becoming the focal point of public concern about events…

We can see, then, why Trump’s approval ratings have gone up.  First, he has appeared on an almost daily basis, often in prime time, to give press conferences documenting his administration’s response to the corona virus…

Moreover, Trump has been flanked at these press conferences by non-partisan medical experts…

Most importantly, Trump’s policies, if not his framing, have attracted support at all levels of government.  The most visible example is the $2.2 trillion economic relief package, which sailed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by Trump yesterday.  Despite Trump’s best efforts to step on his own bipartisan message, for now at least he is reaping the benefits of the administration’s highly visible response to the Covid-19 pandemic, one that in its broad outlines is attracting generally positive reviews nationally, as measured by polls…

Of course, that assumes that Trump’s higher approval ratings will persist until June.  There is good reason to suspect that won’t be the case. George W. Bush received an initial boost in approval after invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power.  But as the Iraq war dragged on, and U.S. casualties mounted, his support dropped steadily, as shown here…

More generally, studies document that most rally effects are short-lived, and barring additional events, presidential approval typically reverts to the pre-event level.  In the event of a sustained rise in the death toll caused by the coronavirus during the next several months, one could envision a similar drop in Trump’s approval, particularly if that leads to a renewal of the partisan polarization among political elites that Trump has confronted through most of his first term in office. This is almost certain to happen as the presidential election campaign comes back into focus, and Joe Biden ramps up his attacks on Trump’s handling of the pandemic…

An additional consideration is how the administration’s response to the coronavirus will impact the economy. Most election forecast models include a measure of aggregate economic performance as one of their explanatory variables.  Abramowitz, for example, finds that a 1% drop in GDP can cost incumbents nearly 20 electoral votes.  Should the economy fall into an extended recession, despite the passage of the stimulus bill, it could very well jeopardize Trump’s reelection chances, assuming past performance is a reliable indicator.

And Yglesias just came out with a nice piece summarizing a lot of good info on this:

Italy has become the poster child for the coronavirus’s global spread, and the Italian government’s handling of the outbreak is widely cited as a cautionary tale of mistakes to avoid.

But the public gives high marks to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his cabinet, a hastily composed coalition government that was formed last year in a desperate bid to keep the far right out of power. Polls show a sky-high 71 percent approval rating for a formerly unpopular team.

Smaller but still large approval bumps are also evident for Merkel and Macron.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approval ratings have also soared into the high 70s, despite a policy approach characterized by a confusing back-and-forth on whether to even try to contain the virus, leading to a situation where the prime minister himself has been infected

Franklin Roosevelt’s numbers went up after Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Carter’s rose in the initial phase of the Iran hostage crisis, and George W. Bush’s soared after the 9/11 attacks. One common thread in all of this is that voters seem to discount the question of presidential conduct before the crisis hit. The hostage crisis, for example, was precipitated by the Carter administration’s decision to admit the recently deposed shah of Iran into the country after a lobbying campaign led by Chase Manhattan Bank. The Bush administration ignored warnings about al-Qaeda during its first nine months in office and sidelined plans it inherited from the Clinton administration for more aggressive action.

But in both cases, the incumbent president played the role of national leader on television very effectively in the early days of the crisis; only later would public support eventually wither…

The most striking thing about Trump’s approval rating bump, however, is simply that it’s very small. Compared to other politicians in the US and abroad, he’s very bad at playing a unifying figure. As a politician, that weakness is offset by the way the Electoral College overweights his coalition. But given the public opinion equivalent of a layup, he’s falling far short of the hoop.

Right, as Jonathan Bernstein (I think?) likes to say, Trump just isn’t very good at presidenting.  When the world seems to change so much in just a matter of days it seems foolhardy to try and predict, but I’ll go out on a limb and predict Trump’s approval ratings in October will be notably lower than they are now.  And, for his odds of reelection, that’s decidedly not good.

Miscellaneous Covid thoughts

1) I so loved this article about why we all need to wear masks once we come out from under social distancing.  In part because I’ve already been reading so much, this one really convinced me on the value of masks.  And, the fact that we should just use good-old fashioned surgical masks and definitely save N95 for medical personnel.  And, in making its case, I learned so much about respiratory virus transmission.  Lots of really, really good stuff here.

2) It seems that this coronavirus seems to be mutating pretty slowly as these things go.  That’s great news, as it suggests that once we get a vaccine, it will actually work for a while.

3) And this was a terrific primer (put together by the good folks at NC State) on viruses and viral evolution with a bunch of scientists– again, learned so much.

4) If you only think you know what you are talking about, never, never submit to an interview with Isaac Chotiner.  Richard Epstein is a law professor who thinks he’s an epidemiologist and wrote a very influential piece (likely influencing Trump) suggesting we are over-reacting.  Rarely, oh so rarely has an emperor been seen to be so starkly naked as he is in this interview.  It really is a must-read– just trust me.  Also, just a great example of “if all you have is a hammer…” and his hammer is evolution despite knowing nothing evolution in viruses.

Honestly, reading #2 and #3 above you will definitely more about evolution in viruses than Epstein does and yet he based a whole policy argument based on what he doesn’t understand.

5) Will Covid-19 diminish in Summer?  Lots of science, and… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.  Though, more than anything… don’t count on it.  And, if it does, we’ll get to say… it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.

6) It’s really hard to know what I would have made out of this when I was a very young adult before I had settled on political science.  But, I can say, if I, as in some crazy body-switch movie, went back to being 18, I would so go into epidemiology.

7) I really wish I had had some more warning the library was closing.  Just cannot do e-books and really wanted to read a novel, but not a lot of unread novels lying around my house.  So, I made the very rare for me decision to re-read a novel and I started re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Very good call

Quick hits (part II)

1) Really interesting piece from Seth Masket comparing Covid to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927:

The flood was the product of several freak storms in the winter and spring of 1927. The flood surge destroyed the homes of roughly 700,000 people as it worked its way down the Mississippi River, killing 500 people and flooding 27,000 square miles of land (an area larger than West Virginia). Damages in today’s currency would likely exceed a trillion dollars. It remains the most destructive river flood in American history. 

Here’s the part that really echoes: as the flood surge approached New Orleans, city leaders there made a fateful decision to dynamite the levees that were protecting the poorer regions of St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish, saving the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. 

Now, the specific details of the flood aren’t that much like the COVID-19 virus, obviously. But the similarities lie in what the flood revealed about the society it tore apart.

As Barry argues, a powerful popular belief at the time was the idea of noblesse oblige, the idea that the wealthy and powerful would look after everyone else because it was their obligation to do so. Of course there was rampant economic and racial inequality in the 1920s and well prior to that, but it wasn’t so bad because the people on top would take care of everyone else when the chips were down. 

That philosophy died hard when New Orleans city leaders blew the levees. Now, I need to be clear what “city leaders” here means. As Barry describes it, the leaders were not so much elected officials as they were the city elders, leaders of prominent families, and especially the elite clubs known as krewes who held the real power in town. (Krewes today have much more pleasant tasks like creating Mardi Gras floats — back then they more or less ran the city.)

The flood, and the calloused and self-dealing manner in which city elites responded to its threat, undermined their rule and the ideology of noblesse oblige that had propped them up for so long. Poorer citizens would no longer trust elites to do the right thing in a crisis. The flood’s aftermath created an environment for populist politicians like Huey Long to rise to power by running against the elite families. Herbert Hoover, then the US Secretary of Commerce, organized a massive federal relief effort in the region, setting a precedent for federal remedies for local and regional catastrophes (and also bolstering his 1928 presidential run). 

Importantly, when the Great Depression hit a few years later, there was little expectation that local elites or wealthy patrons would remedy the problems. The federal government was expected to fix it.

We may be seeing something like this at work today, although we are still only at the beginning stages of the Coronavirus pandemic. President Trump, while seeking efforts to shore up the economy, has largely resisted using governing tools like the Defense Production Act to respond to demands for masks and ventilators and virus tests, instead insisting that governors and private industry should be doing more. 

2) Be suspicious of a wine bar that starts selling gourmet pizza during a pandemic, “A restaurant in South Carolina has been accused of reselling Costco pizzas at a 700% markup as ‘gourmet Roman-style thin crust pizza'”

3) If Hillary Clinton had been president we probably would have not closed the border as quickly, but we would have done virtually everything else so much better.  Max Boot.

4) Meanwhile the fundamental rule of law in our court system continues to be undermined.  Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern:

Nowhere is the problem of asymmetrical rhetorical warfare more apparent than in the federal judiciary. For the past several years, federal judges, notably those appointed by Donald J. Trump, have felt unmoored from any standard judicial conventions of circumspection and restraint, penning screeds about the evils of “big government” and rants against Planned Parenthood. Most of the judicial branch, though, has declined to engage in this kind of rhetoric. There are norms, after all, and conventions, standards, and protocols. There seems to also be an agreement that conservative judges demonstrate deeply felt passion when they delve into such issues, while everyone else just demonstrates “bias” if they decide to weigh in. So when Justice Clarence Thomas just last year used a dissent to attack the integrity of a sitting federal judge in the census case, it was mere clever wordsmithing. But when Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggests, as she did recently, that the conservative wing of the high court seems to be privileging the Trump administration’s emergency petitions, she is labeled—by the president himself—unfit to judge. It’s such a long-standing trick, and it’s so well supported by the conservative outrage machine, that it’s easy to believe that critiques of fellow judges by conservative judges are legitimate, while such critiques from liberal judges are an affront to the legitimacy of the entire federal judiciary…

A startling number of Trump judges appear to believe that, like Ho, their job is mainly to own the libs in print. Neomi Rao, a Trump judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has created a cottage industry out of writing preposterous Trump-friendly polemics. On the same morning that South Texas College of Law Houston professor Josh Blackman expressed his outrage at Adelman’s article, Rao issued yet another dissent that would protect Trump, this time by denying the House of Representatives access to the unredacted Mueller report. Rao’s position is so extreme that Thomas Griffith, a conservative George W. Bush appointee, penned a separate concurrence just to shred it. It is impossible to ignore the fact that Rao keeps running interference for the Trump administration, making arguments that are promptly shunned. And it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that her lengthy, contorted dissents begin with the proposition that Trump must triumph and work backward from there.

5) NPR, “Why Germany’s Coronavirus Death Rate Is Far Lower Than In Other Countries”  Testing.

6) Enjoyed this little history of toilet paper.  Also, glad my wife went out and bought one big jumbo pack at the beginning of the craziness so we didn’t have to worry.

7) I really wish more people understood how fundamentally white Christian evangelicalism in America is tied to white supremacy in the South.  (MB will definitely want to read this whole link).

I grew up in a rural Indiana town surrounded by symbols of American exceptionalism. Despite our size, we maintained one of the biggest Fourth of July parades in the state. Bright red, white, and blue flags and bunting decorated our houses and businesses year-round, including our plethora of churches. At the time, I had no idea that I was being raised in a nationalist, white-identity, Neo-Confederate cult that worshipped power, white supremacy, and hypercapitalism. I’ve come to call this massive and dangerous sect the Cult of the Shining City.

The America I knew—the America that so many of us grew up believing in—was not simply true, it was the only truth. The history we were taught in school focused on the United States of America as the one certain hope in a world of danger and evil. That message was echoed in our preachers’ sermons every Sunday morning as figures like Jesus Christ and George Washington were treated with similar reverence. What those history lessons and sermons didn’t teach us was the means by which evangelical Christianity had come to merge with the secular worship of wealth and power, creating a nationalist, racist faith.

8) Fixing the economy, Nordic style:

In Denmark, political parties from across the ideological spectrum joined with labor unions and employers associations this month to unite behind a plan that has the government covering 75 to 90 percent of all worker salaries over the next three months, provided that companies refrain from layoffs.

The Danish government also agreed to cover costs like rent for companies that suffer a shortfall in revenues. These two elements are collectively estimated to cost 42.6 billion Danish kroner (about $6.27 billion), after factoring in the savings on the unemployment insurance system.

The Netherlands produced a similar scheme, with the government stepping in to cover 90 percent of wages for firms that show losses of at least 20 percent of their revenue. The British government pledged to cover 80 percent of wages, and on Thursday extended those protections to the self-employed.

The aim of this approach is to prevent the wrenching experience of mass unemployment, while allowing businesses to retain their people rather than firing and then hiring them again. Once normalcy returned, companies would be in position to quickly resume operations, restoring economic growth.

“There was quickly an understanding that we were in an exceptional situation where it was necessary to very quickly produce exceptional initiatives,” said Carl-Johan Dalgaard, an economist at the University of Copenhagen and chair of the Danish Economic Council, which advises policymakers. “If you can tide firms over and thereby reduce the severity of bankruptcies and firings, you can expedite the return to normal.”

The primary reason that this sort of approach appears unthinkable in the United States is the same one that limits options to expanding health care and lowering the cost of university education: Wealthy Americans have proved adept at shielding themselves from taxation.

“You don’t have a comprehensive welfare state in the United States, because it implies a politically unacceptable level of redistribution,” said Jacob F. Kierkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “As long as you’re not willing to tax wealthy people and give some of the money to people who are not wealthy, these sorts of options are not on the menu.”

9) OMG Thomas Massie really is the worst and I love the way that Dana Milbank points out that he’s very much a creation of the perverse dysfunction that is the modern Republican Party (also, he apparently went to MIT, just more proof that you can have high IQ and be a moron):

Massie, a believer in the “deep state” conspiracy, is a product of the tea party, a protege of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and a collaborator with outgoing Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who is becoming Trump’s chief of staff, when they tried to oust then-Speaker John Boehner. “I’m ready to be unpopular,” Massie said after his 2012 election, and he has opposed even anti-lynching and human rights legislation — and celebrated when he uses “the process” so that “things die.”

He is emblematic of the newer Republicans who congressional scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann say have turned the GOP into an “insurgent outlier,” rewarding bomb-throwers and making compromise with Democrats all but impossible.

“Newt Gingrich gave them the theme that the best thing they can do is discredit government and blow up all of government,” Ornstein told me Friday as Massie perpetrated his shenanigans. Massie, he said, “is a monster created by their deliberate attempt to get people to have contempt for government and institutions that are part of government.” That contempt gave rise to Trump, but it also remade the Republican caucus in Congress.

10) Peter Wehner on how astonishingly unsuited Trump is for this moment:

The thing to understand about Donald Trump is that putting others before self is not something he can do, even temporarily. His attempts to convey facts that don’t serve his perceived self-interest or to express empathy are forced, scripted, and always short-lived, since such reactions are alien to him.

This president does not have the capacity to listen to, synthesize, and internalize information that does not immediately serve his greatest needs: praise, fealty, adoration. “He finds it intolerable when those things are missing,” a clinical psychologist told me. “Praise, applause, and accolades seem to calm him and boost his confidence. There’s no room for that now, and so he’s growing irritable and needing to create some way to get some positive attention.”

Adam Serwer: Trump is inciting a coronavirus culture war to save himself

She added that the pandemic and its economic fallout “overwhelm Trump’s capacity to understand, are outside of his ability to internalize and process, and [are] beyond his frustration tolerance. He is neither curious nor interested; facts are tossed aside when inconvenient or [when they] contradict his parallel reality, and people are disposable unless they serve him in some way.”

It’s useful here to recall that Trump’s success as a politician has been built on his ability to impose his will and narrative on others, to use his experience on a reality-television show and his skill as a con man to shape public impressions in his favor, even—or perhaps, especially—if those impressions are at odds with reality. He convinced a good chunk of the country that he is a wildly successful businessman and knows more about campaign finance, the Islamic State, the courts, the visa system, trade, taxes, the debt, renewable energy, infrastructure, borders, and drones than anyone else.

Read: How the pandemic will end

But in this instance, Trump isn’t facing a political problem he can easily spin his way out of. He’s facing a lethal virus. It doesn’t give a damn what Donald Trump thinks of it or tweets about it. Spin and lies about COVID-19, including that it will soon magically disappear, as Trump claimed it would, don’t work. In fact, they have the opposite effect. Misinformation will cause the virus to increase its deadly spread.

So as the crisis deepens—as the body count increases, hospitals are overwhelmed, and the economy contracts, perhaps dramatically—it’s reasonable to assume that the president will reach for the tools he has used throughout his life: duplicity and denial. He will not allow facts that are at odds with his narrative to pierce his magnetic field of deception.

11) Love this idea from Jay Rosen:

What: A daily briefing on where we are in fighting the Covid-19 virus. 

When: Every day for the forseeable future, 4 to 5 pm ET. 

Where: On the internet. Streaming video and audio always. Broadast whenever a particpating channel or station decides to pick it up. All guests appear remotely. All questions asked remotely. 

Why: For the same reason there needs to be a daily briefing at the White House, but this one is independent from the White House. It provides a stream of factual and relevant information from experts who can speak with authority, and people on the front lines who are in a position to know. 

Who: Originated by the “network pool,” a consortium of ABC, CBS, NBC, FNC and CNN that already collaborates on big occasions like the State of the Union, plus a few other events like this. Any other media company can join for free, submit questions live, and carry the video or audio, which are also available on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and as a podcast. 

How: Features 4-5 guests a day who have advanced knowledge or a vital perspective: public health experts, epidemiologists, scientists, hospital officials, governors. Journalists who are part the AMDB can submit questions live. Anyone on the internet can submit questions in advance. 

12) This is great from Parker Molloy, “By reframing Trump’s incoherent inaccurate ramblings as bland political copy, journalists are carrying water for the president.”  Lots of great examples at the link.

13) Farhad Manjoo, “How the World’s Richest Country Ran Out of a 75-Cent Face Mask: A very American story about capitalism consuming our national preparedness and resiliency.”

14) You are probably not getting things wet enough or leaving the moisture long enough with your disinfecting wipes for them to actually do the job.  I’ve just been wiping lots of stuff down of late with straight-up rubbing alcohol.  

15) It is utterly amazing to watch people trash their reputation to give the president the most ridiculous and literally incredible praise (here’s looking at you, Dr. Birx.  But my friend, Michael Cobb, raises the good point that we should not put scientific experts in the position where they feel they have to do this to save their job.  

16) I’ve been telling people I’m really glad I live in a state with a Democratic governor.  Now, some empirical backing:

 

Quick hits

1) Given how right-wing evangelicals have so perverted the fundamental teachings of Jesus, sure, I’ll happily blame them for Trump.

2) Of course Europe is responding with smarter policy for mass unemployment.  NYT Editorial, “Why Is America Choosing Mass Unemployment? European countries are paying to preserve jobs during the coronavirus crisis. Sadly for American workers, the United States is charting its own path.”

3) It is somewhat encouraging that Americans really get the fact that Trump is utterly lacking in basic human empathy.  He polls really poorly on this.

4) Head of China’s CDC says our biggest mistake is not wearing masks.

5) I remain cautiously optimistic that Remdesivir will be a genuinely effective treatment.  Here’s a more sober, but mildly optimistic take.

6) Rachel Bitecofer is out with her 2020 election prediction model.  It suggests good things for Democrats.  She hedges a lot, rightly, but I almost feel like a politically predictive model in the midst of Covid should just wait for after Covid.  Talk about uncharted waters.  Still:

As the Democratic primary winds down, with a Biden nomination a delegate-math inevitability even if contests remain on the calendar, it is time for one of the few updates I plan to my forecast, this one, the post-primary update. Of course, this update comes at a time of incredible turmoil, not only in America, but worldwide, as the unprecedented COVID19 pandemic unfolds — bringing the global economy to a halt and forcing much of the world’s population into self-imposed quarantines. In the July 2019 release of this forecast, I said that little could occur that could alter the basic contours of this election cycle: Democrats are fired up in a way they were not in 2016 because of negative partisanship powered by backlash to Trump and thus would increase their turnout significantly and be less likely to defect to third-party candidates.

I also said, “barring a significant shock to the system, Democrats recapture the presidency.” Significant disruptions I identified included an economic recession, but with the market humming along, willing to handicap Trump even on trade wars with China and Europe, and rate cuts keeping the economy around its 2016 metrics in terms of growth and unemployment, a recession seemed unlikely. Now it is all but certain this fall’s general election will take place immersed in a serious one, with some early reports suggesting potential unemployment numbers, at least in the short term, well into the teens.

To be sure, voters will likely see this recession as they saw the first term of Obama’s presidency, in context. No president can do much to avoid a total standstill of the global economy from an unprecedented virus. But Trump’s mismanagement of the underlying pandemic causing the economy to melt down will be judged by voters, and it’s already clear that the president’s missteps in the early days of the pandemic are exacerbating America’s economic woes.

If Trump had political capital to spend heading into this crisis, that would be one thing. But after the Russia investigation was followed in short order by the Ukraine scandal, Trump’s political capital tank is already on empty, with few Americans outside of Republicans capable of trusting him. Trump will be heading into the fall with the dubious distinction of being the most embattled, controversial, and scandal-plagued president to seek reelection in the history of the republic — and that was before this virus emerged to create a massive public health disaster and destroy his strongest claim for reelection: the economy.

But Donald Trump does have one formidable asset to help his reelection prospects: political polarization and hyperpartisanship, which even in the face of a recession and potential fallout from COVID19 management will likely provide him with a steady and reliable base of support, preventing the type of erosion in approval ratings we saw in the second term of George W. Bush’s tenure.

7) Thomas Edsall with, basically, everything political science can tell you about religion and politics.

A steady religious realignment has reshaped the white American electorate, turning religious conviction — or its absence — into a clear signal of where voters stand in the culture wars.

As mainstream Protestant denominations have declined over the past half century, there has been a hollowing out of the center among white Christians of all faiths. New generations of Americans have joined the ranks of evangelical churches, while others, in larger numbers, have forsaken religion altogether.

These two trends have transformed the strategic underpinnings of political campaigning.

The more religiously engaged a white voter is, the more likely he or she will be a Republican; the less religious the voter, the more likely to be a Democrat. But, as we shall see it’s not that simple: The deeper you go, the more complex it gets.

Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, has tracked religious trends for the past 30 years using data from the General Social Survey.

He reports that in 1988, 55.7 percent of Americans were members of traditional, mainstream denominations, 36.6 percent were members of evangelical and born-again denominations and 7.7 percent said they were not religious.

By 2018, membership in traditional denominations had fallen 20 points to 35.5 percent, born-again evangelical church membership had grown by 4.8 points to 41.4 percent, and the share of the nonreligious had tripled to 23.1 percent.

In an email, Burge warned that “in just a few years there will be no moderate Protestants left.”

This has been a windfall for the Republican Party.

Sorry this is short.  Spent too much time reading about Covid and not enough time on this post.  More later in the day :-).  But, heck, you’re probably under a stay at home order and not going anywhere anyway.

So many Covid questions

So back when shutting down the schools was only being suggested, I dove into this in the hopes that there was reason to keep my kids in school.  Turns out the balance of the evidence does seem to be to close the schools.  Though it is not quite the open-and-shut case the “close the schools now!” people were suggesting.  But, hey, we’re doing fine here in Steve and Kim’s homeschool (kids may think differently) so I’ve come to accept the epidemiological wisdom of the approach.

So, I was taken aback when I read the following in a recent New Yorker article about living in China under quarantine:

Fisher, the infectious-disease specialist from Singapore who accompanied the W.H.O. mission, told me that he opposes school closings. From the early case studies, Fisher predicts that children get infected at the same rate as adults yet tend to show mild symptoms or be asymptomatic. And although there is evidence of asymptomatic transmission, such events seem unusual and, in the analysis of the W.H.O., have not played a major role in the spread of the disease.

But a more difficult issue is presymptomatic transmission. There seems to be a brief window—perhaps two or three days—when people are infectious but not yet showing symptoms. Gabriel Leung, the dean of medicine at the University of Hong Kong, told me that he believes between twenty and forty per cent of infections come from people who don’t yet seem sick. “They could be spreading it through droplets, say during eating or speaking,” he said. “These droplets could contaminate surfaces, and this is how it spreads.”

The role that children play in this process remains unclear. Fisher pointed out that there’s no evidence that they have helped spread the disease in China or elsewhere. The W.H.O. report noted that, during the mission’s nine-day trip, none of the Chinese medical personnel who were interviewed could recall a case in which transmission occurred from a child to an adult.

“My view on schools is that children aren’t at risk of severe disease,” Fisher said. “They don’t amplify the spread, they don’t amplify the transmission. They are kind of bystanders while it goes on. There’s no good reason to keep them out of school, unless the society is in total lockdown. I’d rather see just a modification of school activities.” [emphasis mine]

Whoa!  I don’t recall seeing quite that take anywhere before.  How much of an outlier take is this?  What do we actually know about transmission from children?!  There’s been nearly half a million documented cases and a lot of contact tracing.  You’d think we’d have better and more clear answers by now.  Especially something so relevant to how we deal with this and live our lives.

Okay, next question.  Starting today at 5 I’m not allowed to interact with anybody who is not a family member or where there’s a caregiving role (except for the occasional grocery store clerk).  My plan for extrovert sanity had been to take walks with friends while being 6 feet apart.  It’s not actually particularly hard to communicate that way.  From what my recent crash course on infectious diseases suggest is that two people, outdoors, moving, keeping 6 feet apart have almost zero chance of spreading the disease to the other.  Likewise, it would be great to kick a soccer ball with a friend.  I do get the point of all these rules and understand the emphasis on family/living groups, but is there really a risk of spread from people exercising together outdoors if they are appropriately distant?

Lastly, how come we cannot figure out why seasonal colds and flu are seasonal.  I know you don’t want to experiment with colds, but you could actually experiment to test some of these theories on the common cold (and I know that they do actual studies where they let people contract a cold).  As of know, scientists just don’t know.  A Harvard summary:

Here are the most popular theories about why the flu strikes in winter:

1) During the winter, people spend more time indoors with the windows sealed, so they are more likely to breathe the same air as someone who has the flu and thus contract the virus (3).

2) Days are shorter during the winter, and lack of sunlight leads to  low levels of vitamin D and melatonin, both of which require sunlight for their generation. This compromises our immune systems, which in turn decreases ability to fight the virus (3).

3) The influenza virus may survive better in colder, drier climates, and therefore be able to infect more people (3).

Although other factors probably contribute as well, the main reason we have a flu season may simply be that the influenza virus is happier in cold, dry weather and thus better able to invade our bodies. So, as the temperature and humidity keep dropping, your best bet for warding off this nasty bug is to get your flu shot ASAP, stay warm, and invest in a humidifier. [emphasis mine]

Also a good very recent review in Science.  But, again, test some of these things.  Experiment with the relatively harmless common cold coronaviruses and put the viruses and humans in environments where you vary the humidity and the amount of daylight.  Let’s figure this out!

One article I read (cannot find now) earlier this week suggested that the dry air of winter thins out our mucus layers thus weakening an important first-defense of our immune system.  I like that theory.  So, test it!  I’ve always been a fan of steam humidifiers in winter so, since I started reading some of these theories, the humidifier is running in my bedroom at night.  And next winter?  All humidifiers all the time (if nothing else, my skin will love me for it).

Anyway, really interested in the takes on these questions from the smart people who read this blog.

How does this end?

Really, really good piece in the Atlantic (really, you should subscribe) from Ed Yong about how this ends.  I’ve already written about the political failures of how we got here, but they are worth reiterating:

The testing fiasco was the original sin of America’s pandemic failure, the single flaw that undermined every other countermeasure. If the country could have accurately tracked the spread of the virus, hospitals could have executed their pandemic plans, girding themselves by allocating treatment rooms, ordering extra supplies, tagging in personnel, or assigning specific facilities to deal with COVID-19 cases. None of that happened. Instead, a health-care system that already runs close to full capacity, and that was already challenged by a severe flu season, was suddenly faced with a virus that had been left to spread, untracked, through communities around the country. Overstretched hospitals became overwhelmed. Basic protective equipment, such as masks, gowns, and gloves, began to run out. Beds will soon follow, as will the ventilators that provide oxygen to patients whose lungs are besieged by the virus.

With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.

Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. [emphases mine] On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle.

Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared. “Much worse,” said Ron Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. “Beyond any expectations we had,” said Lauren Sauer, who works on disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “As an American, I’m horrified,” said Seth Berkley, who heads Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The U.S. may end up with the worst outbreak in the industrialized world.”

But, what’s done is done.  There’s still time to do better.  Though, that won’t be easy with this administration coordinating what needs to be a nationwide effort.  Here’s a good section on what is likely to come to pass:

These measures will take time, during which the pandemic will either accelerate beyond the capacity of the health system or slow to containable levels. Its course—and the nation’s fate—now depends on the third need, which is social distancing. Think of it this way: There are now only two groups of Americans. Group A includes everyone involved in the medical response, whether that’s treating patients, running tests, or manufacturing supplies. Group B includes everyone else, and their job is to buy Group A more time. Group B must now “flatten the curve” by physically isolating themselves from other people to cut off chains of transmission. Given the slow fuse of COVID-19, to forestall the future collapse of the health-care system, these seemingly drastic steps must be taken immediatelybefore they feel proportionate, and they must continue for several weeks…

The third scenario is that the world plays a protracted game of whack-a-mole with the virus, stamping out outbreaks here and there until a vaccine can be produced. This is the best option, but also the longest and most complicated.

It depends, for a start, on making a vaccine. If this were a flu pandemic, that would be easier. The world is experienced at making flu vaccines and does so every year. But there are no existing vaccines for coronaviruses—until now, these viruses seemed to cause diseases that were mild or rare—so researchers must start from scratch. The first steps have been impressively quick. Last Monday, a possible vaccine created by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health went into early clinical testing. That marks a 63-day gap between scientists sequencing the virus’s genes for the first time and doctors injecting a vaccine candidate into a person’s arm. “It’s overwhelmingly the world record,” Fauci said.

But it’s also the fastest step among many subsequent slow ones…

It’s likely, then, that the new coronavirus will be a lingering part of American life for at least a year, if not much longer. If the current round of social-distancing measures works, the pandemic may ebb enough for things to return to a semblance of normalcy. Offices could fill and bars could bustle. Schools could reopen and friends could reunite. But as the status quo returns, so too will the virus. This doesn’t mean that society must be on continuous lockdown until 2022. But “we need to be prepared to do multiple periods of social distancing,” says Stephen Kissler of Harvard.

Much about the coming years, including the frequency, duration, and timing of social upheavals, depends on two properties of the virus, both of which are currently unknown. First: seasonality. Coronaviruses tend to be winter infections that wane or disappear in the summer. That may also be true for SARS-CoV-2, but seasonal variations might not sufficiently slow the virus when it has so many immunologically naive hosts to infect. “Much of the world is waiting anxiously to see what—if anything—the summer does to transmission in the Northern Hemisphere,” says Maia Majumder of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital.

Second: duration of immunity. When people are infected by the milder human coronaviruses that cause cold-like symptoms, they remain immune for less than a year. By contrast, the few who were infected by the original SARS virus, which was far more severe, stayed immune for much longer. Assuming that SARS-CoV-2 lies somewhere in the middle, people who recover from their encounters might be protected for a couple of years. To confirm that, scientists will need to develop accurate serological tests, which look for the antibodies that confer immunity. They’ll also need to confirm that such antibodies actually stop people from catching or spreading the virus. If so, immune citizens can return to work, care for the vulnerable, and anchor the economy during bouts of social distancing

Scientists can use the periods between those bouts to develop antiviral drugs—although such drugs are rarely panaceas, and come with possible side effects and the risk of resistance. Hospitals can stockpile the necessary supplies. Testing kits can be widely distributed to catch the virus’s return as quickly as possible. There’s no reason that the U.S. should let SARS-CoV-2 catch it unawares again, and thus no reason that social-distancing measures need to be deployed as broadly and heavy-handedly as they now must be. As Aaron E. Carroll and Ashish Jha recently wrote, “We can keep schools and businesses open as much as possible, closing them quickly when suppression fails, then opening them back up again once the infected are identified and isolated. Instead of playing defense, we could play more offense.”

Whether through accumulating herd immunity or the long-awaited arrival of a vaccine, the virus will find spreading explosively more and more difficult. It’s unlikely to disappear entirely. The vaccine may need to be updated as the virus changes, and people may need to get revaccinated on a regular basis, as they currently do for the flu. Models suggest that the virus might simmer around the world, triggering epidemics every few years or so. “But my hope and expectation is that the severity would decline, and there would be less societal upheaval,” Kissler says. In this future, COVID-19 may become like the flu is today—a recurring scourge of winter. Perhaps it will eventually become so mundane that even though a vaccine exists, large swaths of Gen C won’t bother getting it, forgetting how dramatically their world was molded by its absence.

This is all… not great.  But it doesn’t have to be catastrophic if we do this right.  We know how to do this right.  The question is will we, and especially will we have the political leadership and social will to do it.

The mysteries of Covid-19

First, here’s a pretty cool video that packs a ton of information about the disease of Covid-19 into about 5 minutes.

One of the things I find so interesting about the disease is all the stuff we don’t know.  We have a pretty good scientific understanding of why people with heart problems, or lung problems, or weakened immunity (all of which are notably more common in older people, of course) are much more likely to get a severe or fatal case.  But, I keep hearing these stories of “otherwise healthy, regular-exercising 48 year old” that, for obvious reasons, kind of scare me to death.  Yes, the incidence of these severe and fatal cases in people with literally none of the risk factors is low, but it is decidedly not zero.  For example, in Spain, 14% of twenty-somethings were hospitalized (good Vox piece on the age breakdowns).

So, what’s going on?  Nobody really knows yet.  Also, very interesting is the latest finding that many sufferers seem to be losing their sense of taste/smell.  Would be great to get some good numbers on the prevalence of that.  Especially because, unlike headache, fatigue, cough, etc., which are so common in a variety of diseases if you suddenly lose your sense of smell right now, that’s almost surely got to be Covid.  My first local friend that I know of with the disease said that this was his most notable symptom, along with headache, and that he never even had a fever.  Also, for the record, he got tested because the person he caught it from warned him to get tested.  They had apparently shared “…just your normal dinner and drinks type of social contact. Handshake and a hug.”  Score one for the evidence of social distancing working to stop transmissions.

And, Ed Yong with a great piece at Atlantic about what we do understand (some) and don’t understand (a lot) about Covid-19 (also, let me make another plug for an Atlantic subscription being so worth the money):

But much about coronaviruses is still unclear. Susan Weiss, of the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying them for about 40 years. She says that in the early days, only a few dozen scientists shared her interest—and those numbers swelled only slightly after the SARS epidemic of 2002. “Until then people looked at us as a backward field with not a lot of importance to human health,” she says. But with the emergence of SARS-CoV-2—the cause of the COVID-19 disease—no one is likely to repeat that mistake again.

To be clear, SARS-CoV-2 is not the flu. It causes a disease with different symptoms, spreads and kills more readily, and belongs to a completely different family of viruses. This family, the coronaviruses, includes just six other members that infect humans. Four of them—OC43, HKU1, NL63, and 229E—have been gently annoying humans for more than a century, causing a third of common colds. The other two—MERS and SARS (or “SARS-classic,” as some virologists have started calling it)—both cause far more severe disease. Why was this seventh coronavirus the one to go pandemic? Suddenly, what we do know about coronaviruses becomes a matter of international concern…

For example, most respiratory viruses tend to infect either the upper or lower airways. In general, an upper-respiratory infection spreads more easily, but tends to be milder, while a lower-respiratory infection is harder to transmit, but is more severe. SARS-CoV-2 seems to infect both upper and lower airways, perhaps because it can exploit the ubiquitous furin. This double whammy could also conceivably explain why the virus can spread between people before symptoms show up—a trait that has made it so difficult to control. Perhaps it transmits while still confined to the upper airways, before making its way deeper and causing severe symptoms. All of this is plausible but totally hypothetical; the virus was only discovered in January, and most of its biology is still a mystery…

The new virus certainly seems to be effective at infecting humans, despite its animal origins. The closest wild relative of SARS-CoV-2 is found in bats, which suggests it originated in a bat, then jumped to humans either directly or through another species. (Another coronavirus found in wild pangolins also resembles SARS-CoV-2, but only in the small part of the spike that recognizes ACE2; the two viruses are otherwise dissimilar, and pangolins are unlikely to be the original reservoir of the new virus.) When SARS-classic first made this leap, a brief period of mutation was necessary for it to recognize ACE2 well. But SARS-CoV-2 could do that from day one. “It had already found its best way of being a [human] virus,” says Matthew Frieman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

This uncanny fit will doubtlessly encourage conspiracy theorists: What are the odds that a random bat virus had exactly the right combination of traits to effectively infect human cells from the get-go, and then jump into an unsuspecting person? “Very low,” Andersen says, “but there are millions or billions of these viruses out there. These viruses are so prevalent that things that are really unlikely to happen sometimes do.”…

But why do some people with COVID-19 get incredibly sick, while others escape with mild or nonexistent symptoms? Age is a factor. Elderly people are at risk of more severe infections possibly because their immune system can’t mount an effective initial defense, while children are less affected because their immune system is less likely to progress to a cytokine storm. But other factors—a person’s genes, the vagaries of their immune system, the amount of virus they’re exposed to, the other microbes in their bodies—might play a role too. In general, “it’s a mystery why some people have mild disease, even within the same age group,” Iwasaki says. [emphasis mine]…

“The scary part is we don’t even know how many people get normal coronaviruses every year,” Frieman says. “We don’t have any surveillance networks for coronaviruses like [we do for] flu. We don’t know why they go away in the winter, or where they go. We don’t know how these viruses mutate year on year.” Until now, research has been slow. Ironically, a triennial conference in which the world’s coronavirus experts would have met in a small Dutch village in May has been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“If we don’t learn from this pandemic that we need to understand these viruses more, then we’re very, very bad at this,” Frieman says.

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