One of my colleagues at the University of Michigan suggested that I was the “most upbeat person she knew on the COVID-19 pandemic.” I appreciated but was surprised by this comment. While I try to be evenhanded and base all of my blog posts on available data, politics and opinion have so remarkably penetrated the discussion of COVID-19 that it is hard to keep a perspective about events as they are happening. Therefore, I guess that trying to be guarded in your comments about this illness seems like optimism these days!
I have always felt this pandemic would be an 18-month slog, with progressive ongoing infections occurring continuously during that time. While there has been good news on decreasing death rates, nothing else that has happened really has changed the trajectory of the disease in a permanent way. Social distancing helps to delay some of the cluster outbreaks, but it is a temporizing measure. Tonight, I give a list of six COVID-19 related issues where I am particularly pessimistic. Many of them relate to recent news announcements
1) College sports. The Ivy League cancels all fall sports and Stanford (the preeminent Sears Cup contender) permanently ends 11 varsity teams. The concept of watching collegiate athletics in person this year seems to be slipping away.
2) Travel Industry. United Airlines potentially furloughs half of its employees. I was one of the University’s most frequent travelers, spending more days on airplanes than in my car. I haven’t moved from my home since early March. The experience of many of my colleagues is similar. Even if I wanted to go on a trip, most of my business travel has been canceled along with all national and international meetings. I can’t see when this will change, even after the infection passes. It makes me very concerned about the survival of the travel industry.
3) COVID-19 vaccines. Delays mark Moderna’s vaccine trials. Novavax receives $1.3 billion to sell the government COVID-19 vaccine. Almost all of the vaccines that the US is supporting are novel technologies that have never been proven effective in human beings. In addition, the funding is often going to companies who have never created and licensed an effective human vaccine. Also, the government has been unwilling to support more rudimentary, proven technology (killed virus vaccines as are being developed in China) in part because they don’t want large amounts of SARS-CoV-2 virus to be produced for the vaccine. These factors all make me believe that a successful COVID-19 vaccine, even at the 50% efficacy threshold put forth by the FDA, will take much longer to develop and be proven safe.
4) Investigative reporting. There have been few true insights from investigative journalism in this epidemic. Those that have come out, such as the problems with the early COVID-19 testing program in the CDC and identifying crooks and cronies selling fake N95 masks have come from ProPublica and other not-for-profit sites, while commercial journalism seems more focused on pushing opinions. We should do all we can to support sites like ProPublica since it may be the only way we can get the insights we need to function as a free society.
5) Return to stay at home orders. Aside from people who ignored the orders in the first place, there is a degree of fatigue in the population that would make it difficult to reinstitute these orders except in the direst situation (where it would have to approach martial law to be enforced). The current disease activity, despite the upswing, is nowhere near that level. I also wish people would please stop the political banter around public health measures. It only makes these discussions more difficult. We need to focus on a few simple things that are truly effective like wearing masks, which most people will support.
6) Contact Tracing. NYC is able to get useful contact tracing data from about 1/3 of infected individuals. This seems pretty bad and the level of contact identification isn’t adequate to limit viral speed. But even worse is the fact that many infected individuals are asymptomatic and undiagnosed. These people have no chance of being identified for contacts. Contact tracing is not approach to limiting the spread of this pandemic!