Eduvation Blog

Fake News, Fake Emergencies, Fictional Numbers, and the Flu

Good morning!

Today, I’ll try to succinctly summarize the current state of the pandemic and the reactionary protests, address the claim that COVID19 is a fake crisis, and revisit that massive motorcycle rally in South Dakota.

Also: student descriptions of life in quarantine at USC are appalling. A college president has died of COVID19 in Georgia. A uWaterloo prof has repeatedly called COVID a “fake emergency.” We have a new case at Carleton, and 5 at Western.

Put it all together, and the outlook isn’t good for keeping students in residence very long…

Lockdowns & Pushback

As countries in the northern hemisphere send students back to school, reopen offices and start to retreat indoors, COVID19 infections are naturally starting to rise. In some cases, the abrupt resurgence of a second-wave pandemic has sparked renewed lockdowns, and an astonishing amount of public resistance…

Reimposing Lockdowns

We’re approaching 29 million recorded cases of COVID19 worldwide, and India alone has reported more than 90,000 new cases of COVID19 for 4 days in a row, setting a world record. (What’s worse, a new research paperestimates that for every case confirmed in May, India missed 82-130 other infections!) 4 months after it emerged from lockdown, Israel is heading back for another 3 weeks, with its per capita infection rate among the highest in the world. Britain is imposing a 6-person cap on assembly as its curve begins to rise – and >185,000 swabs are still waiting to be tested. Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, imposed new lockdowns starting today. BC has imposed new restrictions on bars and ordered nightclubs and banquet halls closed entirely. Michigan State U is urging the entire East Lansing campus to self-quarantine immediately.

Pandemic Fatigue Boils Over

Covidiots have been out in force, protesting “violations of their civil liberties” in Melbourne, Auckland, Berlin,Edinburgh, Birmingham, Vancouver, Toronto, Montréal, and altogether too many other places to count. As thousands marched in a “Freedom Rally” outside the gates of McGill U, they carried “Trump 2020” and “QAnon” flags, and placards bearing slogans like “Better to die free than to live without freedom!” Even COVID tracing apps are attracting ire: Hootsuite data from >100 million social platforms and websites shows that, throughout August, most users expressed anger about the shortcomings of apps or (conversely) the poor adoption of the apps, particularly in Australia and Canada. AdWeek

(Ir)Responsible in Alberta

(My family came from Alberta, so I’m allowed to call it the “Texas of Canada.” But it’s a much more nuanced place than that.) As of Friday, there have been 32 COVID19 cases “while infectious” reported at 29 schools.  Last week, Westjet ejected a family of 4 from a Calgary-Toronto flight, and ultimately cancelled it entirely, over mask “non-compliance.” But at least when asked, 89% of Calgarians tell pollsters they wear face coverings in public spaces. (There is such a thing as social desirability bias, of course…)

Oblivious Students Party

Around the world, PHOs are expressing dismay at the rising infection rates among young people, and college administrators are frustrated by innumerable incidents of reckless partying, on- and off-campus. One Duke Usenior offered an unhelpful solution to his fellow Blue Devils frustrated by shuttered bars: “Get drunk and walk around.” Recently Ohio State suspended >200 students, Purdue suspended 36, Syracuse suspended 23, and NYU suspended >20.  Boston’s Northeastern dismissed 11 students. Nova Scotia’s uSte Anne has expelled a student who tested positive and put others in jeopardy. In Britain, police issued the maximum fine (almost $17,000 Cdn) to a university student in Nottingham who hosted a house party for >50 people. In Spain, police are fining those at basement parties and unlicensed bars and brothels, and the government has launched a campaign to discourage illegal raves. Sadly, here in London ON the local media is capturing videoof way too many young people crowding outside bars on the Richmond Row strip, too.

“Colleges and universities have, as a category, become hot spots for virus transmission, much as hospitals, nursing homes and meatpacking plants were earlier in the year.” – New York Times


Campus Experience

An astounding number of American colleges and universities were determined to bring students back to campus this fall, for in-person classes and in particular to occupy those expensive dorm rooms that represent essential revenue. In the past week alone, US colleges have reported >36,000 COVID19 cases, bringing their total to at least 88,000. The consequences continue to be bleak…

“Optimistic” with 1,899 Cases

With the most COVID19 cases of any institution in North America, uAlabama’s Dean of Community Health Sciences is “cautiously optimistic” 3 weeks into the fall term. At 125 new COVID19 cases a day, the situation is actually improved from the previous week’s average of 164. Quarantine beds were at 40% of capacity, but have dropped to below 25%. Administrators credit the improvement to the closure of bars throughout Tuscaloosa for the latter half of August.

“I remain cautiously optimistic that we can continue to reverse these trends, and with the full commitment from our students, there’s a viable path for us to complete the semester on campus.” – Ricky Friend, Dean of Community Health Sciences, uAlabama


Welcome to Quarantine U

At U South Carolina, more than a thousand students have been relocated to designated isolation dorms since arriving back on campus in mid-August – halls that have been scheduled for demolition for years, in which roommates are paired at random. Although USC has several sites on campus for COVID19 testing, case workers are overwhelmed and students report delays of a day or more. On Sep 4, with >1,400 active cases, on-campus testing was halted when a key lab staffer fell ill, and it still hasn’t returned to capacity. Students describe the quarantine facility as musty, dusty, and stifling hot, with unreliable wifi and “nasty” food. (Almost certainly not the first-year student experience USC intended!)  Vice

College President Dies of COVID19

Mark Ivester, the 57-year-old president of North Georgia Technical College, died this weekend “after losing his battle with COVID19.” A college spokesperson said “he was always so cautious and wore a mask as much as possible.” Ivester had been hospitalized since Aug 16.  New York Times

uWaterloo Prof in Denial

Lest you think COVID-deniers are found exclusively among the ill-educated, uWaterloo Chemistry professor Michael Palmer really should know better. In the syllabus for his biochemical pharmacology course, he wrote that in-class exams are not mandatory “because of the COVID fake emergency.” In a June email sent to the entire faculty, Palmer wrote “the real cheating going on is this fake Covid epidemic… If you look at real data, it turns out that it is no worse than a flu. The faked-up scare is used to defraud the economy and rob the people of their freedom.” In response to both, the Dean of Science has emphasized that Palmer’s opinions are not shared by the university.  CBC

COVID19 vs Flu

Politicians, conspiracy theorists and anti-maskers have been repeating the myth that COVID19 is little worse than seasonal influenza, based on a misunderstanding of the statistics estimating the flu’s death toll. Really, it’s apples and oranges…

COVID19 is Twice as Deadly

The death rate per 100,000 Canadians has been 23 for COVID19 (as of June), and is typically 9-13 for the flu. Lockdowns and masks have reduced the death toll for COVID19, while the flu vaccine has helped reduce that, on top of social distancing. The case fatality rates are about 0.1% for the flu, and about 1.6% for COVID19 (16x worse.) The stats vary by region of course: Quebec’s mortality rate is 62 per 100,000 people, compared to just 9-13 for the flu. (In the US it’s 3x that, 35.75 per 100,000.)

Actually, it’s 10x as Deadly

Deaths from seasonal influenza are often ascribed to other causes, so PHOs use complex statistical models to estimate the mortality rate, which comes out as much as 10x higher than observed causes of death. COVID19 deaths, on the other hand, have been understated, due to insufficient testing. See this explanation from McGill, this from Scientific American, or this from JAMA Internal Medicine. Actual recorded US weekly deaths (which don’t use the statistical model) peaked at 15,455 for COVID19, vs a peak of 1,625 for influenza at the peak of the 2018 epidemic. (The CDC now reports a peak of 17,048 US deaths in a single week.) Compared to the worstweek of the past 7 flu seasons, COVID19 has been killing up to 44x more Americans.  Scientific American

“In four years of emergency medicine residency and over three and a half years as an attending physician, I had almost never seen anyone die of the flu… Most of the physicians I surveyed couldn’t remember a single one over their careers… The coronavirus is not anything like the flu: It is much, much worse.” – Jeremy Faust, in Scientific American


Years from now, Maybe

As months turn into years, COVID19 may continue to mutate to become less deadly, mankind may deploy an effective vaccine, or the general public may achieve herd immunity. If the virus doesn’t entirely disappear (which is unlikely, since all sorts of animals could provide it shelter) it will eventually become endemic and will likely return seasonally much like the flu. Decades from now, we might well lump COVID19 in with the various strains of influenza we consider “seasonal flu.” But for the next couple of years, you simply cannot compare COVID19 to the flu!

Not as Bad as the Worst Flu
That being said, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 was a whole different thing. The deadliest pandemic in world history, it infected an estimated 500 million people and killed 20-50 million, including some 50,000 in Canada and 675,000 Americans. So long as we don’t let the covidiots win, and we maintain precautions, it seems unlikely that COVID19 will be quite as devastating. So far its death toll in Canada is 9,163… But then, the US is on track for 240,000 COVID19 deaths before year-end, so if that curve accelerates or even persists throughout 2021, they might get close.

Back to regular influenza though: the worst flu pandemics recently were in 2017-18 (which killed 61,000 Americans), and 2018-19 (with 34,000 US deaths). So again, COVID19 is poised to be 4x more deadly, or even 7x more deadly, than influenza at its worst.  Boston Globe STAT

Superspreader Cycle Rally


In my introductory remarks last Wednesday, I just had to mention the breaking news that 4 economists associated with San Diego State U had calculated that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally may have been responsible for an astounding 266,796 cases of COVID19. Several readers wrote me in disbelief, but that really is what they calculated (although as the Scientific American article I linked observed, the study has not yet been peer-reviewed). Here’s a bit more detail, since the story continues to generate controversy in the news…

Calculating 250,000 and $12B

The Sturgis Rally took place Aug 7-16 in a small town in South Dakota, attracting nearly 500,000 people for a 10-day event that included plenty of crowded bars, streets, drag races, and a live concert by Smashmouth. And very few participants wore masks. The economists analyzed anonymized cellphone data to calculate how many visitors to Sturgis then returned to other locations, and their impact on COVID19 case counts there in the following month, compared to a synthetic control. By Sep 2, “counties that contributed the highest inflows of rally attendees experienced a 7.0 to 12.5% increase in COVID19 cases” compared to other counties. The math suggests the rally contributed to 267,000 cases, and “public health costs of approximately $12.2 billion.” It is pretty astounding to think that a single event could have been responsible for 19% of the total US cases counted that month. IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Feeding Confirmation Bias

I am definitely no economist, so I can’t really assess their work (although obviously as a market researcher I have some concerns about the level of abstraction involved).  A former fact-checker writes in Wired that the article caused “a confirmation-bias-feeding social-media sharing frenzy.” South Dakota officials “quickly rejected” the findings, and the Governor told Fox News the economists just “made up some numbers and published them.” It was an econometric study, without any contact tracing or viral genetic analysis that could provide definitive proof. And case counts are wildly inconsistent and inaccurate, potentially undercounting by 5-10 times the actual rate. Cases in South Dakota and Minnesota did spike in the weeks following the rally, but case counts in most of the high-flow counties identified in the study did not. An epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins U says the estimate of 267,000 cases may not be plausible, but is “not completely insane.” Wired

Beware the Butterfly Effects

Jennifer Beam Dowd, an epidemiologist, demographer, and deputy director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at Oxford, writes in Slate that “there are lots of reasons to be skeptical of these findings.” Small, random influencers (“butterfly effects”) can compound into huge variation, when outcomes are serially correlated. Many rally attendees may not have headed straight home afterwards. Moreover, there may be many other differences between “counties full of bike rally fans” and those with none that could contribute to different caseloads. And the economists never try to develop a model to explain transmission, such as X% arrive infected, infect Y others, and so on. While the authors observe that 266,796 cases of COVID19 would be 19% of the cases in the entire US for the month (Aug 2 – Sep 2), in actual fact the infections would have to have taken place entirely in the last two weeks, so the Sturgis rally would be responsible for 45% of all US cases during that time. The authors should not have broadcast “the highly specific 266,796 figure with confidence, though I imagine that ‘somewhere between zero and 450,000 infections’ would not have been as headline-grabbing.”  Slate

“Political parties, government agencies, the media, and most other institutions are perfectly willing to meet the market demand for confident answers, whether they’re warranted or not… But science as a trade means resisting this temptation, being comfortable with ignorance, and doing patient and sometimes painfully incremental work.” – Megan Molteni, in Wired


So no question, the “working paper” garnered worldwide headlines with some debatable scientific accuracy. I still think it was worth mentioning, since it became such a hot topic in the media, and I stand by my original wording that it “may” have been responsible for an “astounding” 250,000 cases. (I only wish I had said “incredible,” to give myself complete deniability!)

CdnPSE Cases

Carleton U reports that a student in residence has tested positive for COVID19 and is in self-isolation. It is not an instance of community transfer, and “instances were to be expected in the current context.” The residences are operating at 30% capacity.  Carleton

U Sainte-Anne has expelled a student who failed to self-isolate and then tested positive for COVID19 on Sep 1. A disciplinary committee determined last week that the student failed to respect the province’s public health orders, provided false information to the school, and violated the school’s code of conduct. Ironically, the student must complete their 14-day isolation period before they can be sent home.  Global

Western U has had 5 students who live off-campus test positive for COVID19, constituting a new community outbreak for London ON. The students have not yet attended classes or activities on campus, but have had “a number of interactions at downtown bars and restaurants, and with students in neighbouring housing units.” MLHU

Other Updates

UBC is making face masks mandatory in shared indoor spaces, starting Wednesday. (Throughout the pandemic I have noticed that UBC has generally been most reluctant to impose policies on its staff and particularly its faculty, such as closing campus buildings or banning international travel.)  Vancouver Sun

Mohawk College residences are operating at 32% of normal capacity, with single students in each double room, social spaces closed, and no visitors permitted. If students wish to mingle, “they’ll have to do it online.” The facilities are operated by Campus Living Centres.  Hamilton News


I hope that wasn’t too heavy a start to the week… may it get better from here!







Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please answer the question below to confirm that you are not a spambot * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

All contents copyright © 2014 Eduvation Inc. All rights reserved.