(Finally) Quick hits

So, last week was beach vacation, so, not much blogging.  And, I was busy enough catching up on other stuff upon my return, that I didn’t get a weekend quick hits out.  But, damnit, I still read lots of good stuff at the beach I need to share.  So…

1) And I’m going to start with Zeynep Tufekci, “Scolding Beachgoers Isn’t Helping: People complain that going to the shore is a careless act during a pandemic, but the science so far suggests otherwise.”

So why on Earth do so many articles about this crisis feature pictures of people frolicking on wide-open beaches? Why is an attorney dressed as the grim reaper bothering beachgoers in Jacksonville, Florida? Why are cities such as Los Angeles shutting down beaches?

The answer, unfortunately, goes a long way to explain why, of all the developed, rich nations, the United States may well be stuck in the worst-case scenario, and for the longest amount of time.

Our national pandemic conversation, like almost everything else, has turned into a polarized, contentious tug-of-war in which evidence sometimes matters less than what team someone is on. And in a particularly American fashion, we’ve turned a public-health catastrophe into a fight among factions, in which the virus is treated as a moral agent that will disproportionately smite one’s ideological enemies—while presumably sparing the moral and the righteous—rather than as a pathogen that spreads more effectively in some settings or through some behaviors, which are impervious to moral or ideological hierarchy. Add in our broken digital public sphere, where anger and outrage more easily bring in the retweets, likes, and clicks, and where bikini pictures probably do not hurt, and we have the makings of the confused, unscientific, harmful, and counterproductive environment we find ourselves in now.  

“You’d think from the moral outrage about these beach photos that fun, in itself, transmits the virus,” the Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus told me. “But when people find lower-risk ways to enjoy their lives, that’s actually a public-health win.”

The beach shaming is especially terrible because, so many months in, we now know that the virus spreads most readily indoors, especially in unventilated, crowded spaces, and even more so in such spaces where people are talking or singing without masks. Outdoor transmission isn’t impossible, of course, but being outdoors is protective for scientifically well-understood reasons: Open air dilutes the concentration of virus in the air one breathes, sunlight can help kill viruses, and people have more room to stay apart in the great outdoors than within walled spaces.

In other words, one can hardly imagine a comparatively safer environment than a sunny, windy ocean beach. It’s not that there is any activity with absolutely zero risk, but the beach may well be as good as it gets—if people stay socially distant, which is much easier to do on a big beach.

And yet many news organizations have seized upon beaches, and scenes of beachgoers, as a sign of why things are so bad in the United States.

2) Obviously, leftists have the right to say we need to take down statues of Washington and Jefferson, but damn do I hate judging people by the moral standards of the current time instead of the times people live in.  Sorry, we should not be canceling George Washington.  In this Op-Ed about Washington and Lee University we get, “Our university’s veneration of both men implicitly signals continuing support for racial subordination and violence.”  No.  No it does not.  Generally not a big fan of Robert George, but this twitter thread is dead on.

3) Unfortunately, police officers lie all the time.  That’s a huge part of the culture that really, really needs to change, “Why blue lies matter: It is everyone’s business when police fail to tell the truth”

There are everyday lies that police tell. On an individual level, these lies can lead to wrongful convictions of vulnerable people, and on a systemic level, they can lead to irrational public policy, like when New York State rolled back bail reform this year.

To combat these lies, public defenders all across the United States recently launched a social media campaign called “Cops Lie: We Witness.” We organized this digital campaign to show that police abuse is not about a couple of bad apples or isolated incidents. For generations, police lying and abuse has been met with indifference by prosecutors, judges, and elected officials alike, with little to no consequences, despite the harms inflicted upon disproportionately black and brown working-class communities.

Now, using the hashtag #CopsLie, public defenders are sharing countless stories of cops abusing the truth. These lies are blatant and common, including when there is video evidence that directly contradicts their testimony or shows them planting evidenceEmily Galvin-Almanza, senior legal counsel at The Justice Collaborative, recalls, “An officer claiming my client tried to punch her, insisting it happened even when confronted with crystal clear video showing…it never happened.”

Cops lying is so prevalent that Diana Nevins, a New York City public defender, says she warns her clients about it. “Literally public defenders have to prepare our clients not to have outbursts in court when #CopsLie because judges may use it against our clients instead.” In fact, cops will openly admit to the practice of their entrenched perjury, also known as testilying. City prosecutors know this too, and maintain databases of cops who lie

Whenever there is a killing of black people by police, the police immediately claim they had reasonable fear for their lives. As public defenders, we are witnesses to the lies told by cops to justify their racist policing, prosecutions and violence. Public defenders see the constant and consistent lies that are a fundamental part of everyday police work. These stories give context and visceral meaning to the national demand to defund the police.

4) This pooled testing idea is great.

Here’s how the technique works: A university, for example, takes samples from every one of its thousands of students by nasal swab, or perhaps saliva. Setting aside part of each individual’s sample, the lab combines the rest into a batch holding five to 10 samples each.

The pooled sample is tested for coronavirus infection. Barring an unexpected outbreak, just 1 percent or 2 percent of the students are likely to be infected, so the overwhelming majority of pools are likely to test negative.

But if a pool yields a positive result, the lab would retest the reserved parts of each individual sample that went into the pool, pinpointing the infected student. The strategy could be employed for as little as $3 per person per day, according an estimate from economists at the University of California, Berkeley.

By testing large numbers of people at a fraction of the cost, time and necessary ingredients, pooled surveillance could be widely adopted by workplaces, religious organizations, and schools and universities seeking to reopen.

The method works best in such settings, where the number infected is likely to be low, rather than in high-risk workplaces like meatpacking plants.

5) I’m consistently frustrated by non-nuanced reporting on airborne spread of Covid.  Simple fact is, it it were commonly spreading as an aerosol, it would be way more infections that we know it to be.  Just came across a nice piece from an epidemiologist who explains:

I’m surprised that we can’t stop arguing about the modes of SARS-CoV-2 transmission, despite the fact that most experts (including our friends at WHO) agree on the important issues. Our colleague Jorge Salinas very nicely summarized these issues (and their implications) in this post.

The latest kerfuffle: media coverage of 239 experts who are upset that the WHO is not acting as decisively as they’d like on an evidence base that the experts themselves admit is far from definitive.

As we’ve outlined here and here, a major problem plaguing this discussion is the false dichotomy between “droplet” and “airborne” transmission that we use in healthcare settings (for simplicity of messaging, and because it has served us well for several decades—for reasons I’ll get back to later). This dichotomy divides application of transmission-based precautions between those pathogens spread via respiratory droplets, all of which must absolutely fall to the ground within 6 feet of the source, and those pathogens which become airborne, meaning they travel long distances on air currents, remain in the air for very long periods of time, and most importantly, can cause infection after their airborne sojourns if they find the right mucosal surface.

But we know (and WHO experts know) that there is no such dichotomy—it’s more of a continuum. At the very least there is a middle category, let’s call it Small Particle Aerosol Transmission (or SPAT). Many respiratory viruses (not just SARS-CoV-2) can remain suspended in aerosols and travel distances > 6 feet. As Jorge outlined, it’s probable that transmission events occur when these aerosols are concentrated in closed, poorly ventilated spaces or in very large amounts (e.g. a 2+ hour choir practice, a 3 hour indoor birthday party, a crowded bar). This may explain the superspreading events that drive a lot of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.

It’s important to distinguish SPAT from “classic airborne transmission” (let’s call it CAT). The CAT pathogens (TB, measles, VZV) have very different transmission dynamics than SPAT pathogens, as I outlined here (R0s of >10, household transmission rates of 50-90%). The distinction is important because for most healthcare epidemiologists, using the term “airborne” implies a common set of “one-size fits all” interventions to prevent transmission, interventions that require resource-intensive engineering controls and PPE requirements. It is not at all clear that such interventions are required to prevent transmission of SPAT pathogens. In fact, most evidence (and real world experience) suggests that they are not. This is why the droplet-airborne dichotomy has served us fairly well over the years—either because droplet precautions appear to be pretty effective at preventing SPAT, or because SPAT is rare even among those viruses capable of it. [emphasis mine]

I could say more about my feelings about aerosol-scientists criticizing epidemiologists and clinicians for having an “overly medicalized view” of the evidence, but I don’t want to be CAT-ty. I just want to end the SPAT.

So let’s redirect the discussion instead to: with the limited information we have, what additional interventions should WHO and/or CDC recommend for transmission prevention during the pandemic? [emphasis in original] Masks in crowded indoor spaces? Sure, but avoiding such spaces is preferred. Improved ventilation in all indoor environments? Absolutely, let’s get to work on that. N95s in the community? Don’t make me laugh, it might generate aerosols. N95s for all patient care? Fair to consider, but by now we’ve gathered quite a lot of experience safely delivering care using existing WHO recommendations. And as Jorge aptly pointed out, “a debate only centered on whether respirators or medical masks are needed can distract us from the bigger challenges.” Indeed.

6) I could tell White Fragility was a con without ever cracking a page.  Damn does Matt Taibbi let loose on it as only Taibbi can.

It’s been mind-boggling to watch White Fragility celebrated in recent weeks. When it surged past a Hunger Games book on bestseller lists, USA Today cheered, “American readers are more interested in combatting racism than in literary escapism.” When DiAngelo appeared on The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon gushed, “I know… everyone wants to talk to you right now!” White Fragility has been pitched as an uncontroversial road-map for fighting racism, at a time when after the murder of George Floyd Americans are suddenly (and appropriately) interested in doing just that. Except this isn’t a straightforward book about examining one’s own prejudices. Have the people hyping this impressively crazy book actually read it?

DiAngelo isn’t the first person to make a buck pushing tricked-up pseudo-intellectual horseshit as corporate wisdom, but she might be the first to do it selling Hitlerian race theory. White Fragility has a simple message: there is no such thing as a universal human experience, and we are defined not by our individual personalities or moral choices, but only by our racial category.

If your category is “white,” bad news: you have no identity apart from your participation in white supremacy (“Anti-blackness is foundational to our very identities… Whiteness has always been predicated on blackness”), which naturally means “a positive white identity is an impossible goal.”

DiAngelo instructs us there is nothing to be done here, except “strive to be less white.” To deny this theory, or to have the effrontery to sneak away from the tedium of DiAngelo’s lecturing – what she describes as “leaving the stress-inducing situation” – is to affirm her conception of white supremacy. This intellectual equivalent of the “ordeal by water” (if you float, you’re a witch) is orthodoxy across much of academia.

7) And Cedrick-Michael Simmons, “I’m Black and Afraid of ‘White Fragility’: Robin DiAngelo’s corporate-friendly anti-racist screed actually reinforces racist beliefs.”

There’s a more essential problem at play here: White Fragility actually reinforces racist beliefs. Sociologists generally agree with the notion that ethnicity can refer to an identity that individuals or communities assert, but races are labels that are ascribed to individuals. As scholars like Barbara E. Fields, Adolph Reed Jr., and, amusingly, DiAngelo’s fellow-traveler Ibram Kendi, have repeatedly noted, racist beliefs and practices presume and reify the belief that nature produced different types of humans with unique, inborn attributes. DiAngelo doesn’t talk about supposed “racial” differences in skulls or intellectual capacity, but the book is filled with associations of race with physiological differences. Terms such as racial stressracial [dis]comfortracial controlracial knowledge, the unavoidable dynamics of racismracial relaxation, and racial manipulation disturbingly resemble inverted beliefs communicated by white nationalists and commodified by the Armitage family in the film “Get Out.

I do not believe that DiAngelo is racist. But anyone claiming to be an expert on the sociology of race and racism should recognize the consequences when associating physical characteristics with racial differences. No matter how many times she confidently claims that “as a sociologist [but not really], I’m quite comfortable making generalizations [without deploying sociological methods],” racial essentialism is racial essentialism. And unlike DiAngelo, my family and I are incredibly vulnerable when police officers, politicians, educators, doctors, lawyers, and other folks with power act upon this brand of racial essentialism.

Yes!  Racism on a personal and system level remains a huge problem.  But racial essentialism is sure as hell not the solution.

8) Stanley Greenberg, “Believe the Polls This Time: These aren’t Hillary Clinton’s numbers. Biden has a wide lead because the landscape has changed.”

But this moment is very different. To start, during the summer and fall of 2016, Clinton never had the kind of national poll lead that Biden now has. She led by an average of four points four months before the election and the same four points just before Election Day. This year, after Biden effectively clinched the nomination, he moved into an average six-point lead over Trump, which has grown to nearly 10 points after the death of George Floyd and the weeks of protests that have followed. The lingering apprehension among Democrats fails to recognize just how much the political landscape has changed since 2016. We are looking at different polls, a different America, and different campaigns with different leaders…

So one reason to trust my polls more now than in 2016 is this change: Four years ago, those without a four-year degree made up 48 percent of my survey respondents; today they account for 60 percent. Whites without a college degree were 33 percent of my surveys; today they are 43 percent. That is a huge change—an elixir against being deceived again. The pain of Trump’s victory and disastrous presidency has concentrated the minds of campaign staff and the polling profession in ways that give me confidence that Biden’s lead in the polls is real.

But much more important than all of that is the sustained, unwavering, and extremely well-documented opposition of the American people to every element of Donald Trump’s sexist, nativist, and racist vision. Indeed, the public’s deep aversion to Trumpism explains why Biden has such a poll lead.

9) This is cool for my fellow Covid geeks, “Covid-19 Superspreading Events Database.”

Preliminary Results

  • Nearly all SSEs in the database took place indoors: the exceptions are SSEs that took place in settings with both indoor and outdoor elements, with it not being clear if transmission there occurred indoors or outdoors
  • The vast majority took place in settings where people were essentially confined together for a prolonged period (for example, nursing homes, prisons, cruise ships, worker housing)
  • The great majority of SSEs happened during flu season in that location
  • Food processing plants where temperatures are kept very low (meat, dairy, frozen foods) seem particularly vulnerable to SSEs compared to other types of factories and plants where very few SSEs occurred

10) This mask ad is running on one of our local stations.  I may have actually played a considerable role in helping to bring it about and craft its message.

11) If I wasn’t on vacation last week, I definitely would’ve done a post on this terrific article from David Wallace-Wells, “People Don’t Trust Public-Health Experts Because Public-Health Experts Don’t Trust People”  Read it!

But all the way up through the beginning of the protests, and even after, America’s jury-rigged, Rube Goldberg health-messaging apparatus (epidemiologists, local public-health officials, civic-minded journalists, improvising and coordinating guidance in the totalabsence of any federal leadership) failed to communicate most of these nuances [emphases mine]— suggesting, for instance, that Georgia’s reopening was a “death sentence,” and that its governor, Brian Kemp, had “blood on his hands,” rather than emphasizing relative risks and the precautions that might be taken to avoid them. The Atlantic ran a piece calling the state’s reopening “an experiment in human sacrifice.” Groups of scientists who would weeks later defend the marches on public-health grounds vociferously attacked Wisconsin’s in-person election. Even the same scientist who called reopening the economy “extraordinarily dangerous” in late May “wholeheartedly” defended and embraced the protests in early June.

And while there has been plenty of crowing among conservatives, recently, about what these reversals say about liberals’ true concerns, the failure on the right has been considerably larger — because while it is indeed the case that reopenings can be relatively safe if the right precautions are taken, conservative leaders in the states reopening first have done basically nothing to ensure that they are. In Arizona, where the pandemic is growing rapidly, the governor has even tried to prohibit local officials from offering mask-wearing advisories.

This erratic pattern of advisories wasn’t just about mass gatherings, in other words. And it wasn’t a sign that the underlying science had changed; it hadn’t. Instead, it reflects an unfortunate pattern from the first months of the pandemic, in which public-health messaging has had a considerably less stellar and considerably less reliable record than you might hope for — not just for those worrying about the coronavirus threat but anyone who is concerned about the status of scientific expertise and technocratic policy more generally…

Throughout these months, public-health messaging was hobbled by two complementary and distorting convictions. The first was a strong preference for universal messaging rather than more targeted guidance, which brought us to effectively national shelter-in-place orders before most of the country had even tried social-distancing, mask-wearing, and a focus on the most vulnerable. This impulse is understandable, to some degree, since universal vigilance helped prevent spread to the most vulnerable, and since, in general higher vigilance has been useful in stemming the flow of the disease. But in some cases a more targeted approach would’ve been preferable — both more effective and more palatable. And it meant that rather than a slow ratcheting up of concern, beginning in January, the public was treated to a whiplash from “Just the flu” to “Stay home, perhaps for months.” As a result, we didn’t even try some of the moderate measures, like mask-wearing and the end of medium-size public gatherings, that have allowed Japan to basically defeat the disease without much pain at all. And as Zeynep Tufecki put it on Twitter, “when we conflate the highest risk and the lowest risk activities, we’re telling people it doesn’t matter what they do.”

The second was a lack of confidence in the public’s ability to process nuances and act responsibly, so that rather than be transparent about the limited protection offered by masks and the risks of supply problems, officials and journalists told the public they were useless. Similarly, rather than emphasizing that outdoor activity was basically safe, so long as you kept your distance from one another, we were told that for all but the most essential activities we should stay indoors — where we then entertained ourselves in part by shaming those selfish enough to walk through the local park or go to the beach. The most potent weapons in the public arsenal against the pandemic all require buy-in from the public, and this muddled and erratic messaging has already undermined the trust on which such buy-in is transacted. As Chris Hayes has suggested, the only real hope for states like Arizona, where ICUs are quickly approaching capacity, is universal mask wearing — but it’s almost impossible to imagine the state actually honoring a policy like that, at this point, were it even implemented. The messaging problem has not been as big a problem as the failure of federal leadership and guidance, of course. But it compounds it, depriving Americans of the tools they’d need to navigate the pandemic landscape on their own, having resolved that they should disregard messaging from the White House. For all the love showered on Anthony Fauci through the spring, the failure to push mask-wearing when it might have really mattered may ultimately prove the most catastrophic misstep of the whole American response.

The cost of all this failure is becoming terrifyingly clear, even as the country has begun a rapid and humiliating project of normalization.

I need to come up with some catchphrase about nuance and put it on a t-shirt!  The lack of nuance will be the death of us!

And because I love a good silhouette and the way the lighting comes through the flag, here’s a speedboat in Topsail Island Sound on July 3.

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