Trust Science and Don't Panic, California

By Stephen, 20 March, 2020

Much of California is sheltering at home. With CV19 in an exponential growth curve, this is the difference between jumping off a cliff and not jumping off a cliff. Please follow the guidelines — and also note, we chose not to jump off the cliff. We did the right thing, and most of us get to exchange a bit of cabin fever and economic woes instead of real fever and panic.

To put some broad numbers on it: Without the shutdown, an average Californian would have about a one in a thousand chance of getting CV19 in the next few days — a pretty wild guess but not baseless.* So doing nothing unusual you'd have less than a 1% chance of catching it this month at this rate — except that if everyone else wasn't shutting down, the rate would double and double again every few days, your odds would explode, the hospitals would overflow, and California would be a war zone with casualty rates more like World War II not just Vietnam by May. But we didn't do that, so it's ok to calm down. We shut down a smidge earlier than Wuhan, ten times earlier than Italy.

I think it's also good to trust science in the other direction. If you have a Prius and have tried to finagle an extra thousandth of a mile per gallon out of it, congratulations if you're having fun. There's value in some people doing that, coming up with new ideas. As far as I can see, the regulations seem to have involved listening to epidemiologists. Some people around you might be in more danger or caring for a loved one and they do not want to take a one in a million chance of killing their parent, so respect that, respect them, give space. But if that is not you, I think it's also worth noting that the regulations, if basically obeyed, should bring down rates, stopping the exponential growth. People like me cutting back infections 99% vs taking extremely extreme measures to cut it to 99.9% is not, for California, such a big difference — all the fear about exponential growth is covered if we do follow the existing guidelines. In my circles there are sometimes demands to make herculean efforts to cut out the last tiny risk; a choice you can make, but not a fair one to demand of everyone and not backed by science. I'm still eating raw salad and going outside aiming for a 6' separation when reasonable. People reading the science about viruses lasting on cardboard are not wrong, wash your hands, can't hurt, good for you: but if you are low risk realize that this information is spreading on facebook and is a detailed improvement, not being spread aggressively by health institutions, not a reason to panic.

It's tricky to get the balance right, and none of us really know exactly what to do: a lot of people are likely to die here in the next ten days, some people will catch it, but not like Italy, and we've taken actions that will flatten out the explosion ten long days from now. I think that long-run political sanity means balancing fears, and especially noticing when we do something right.

China made the decision to suffer badly in order to really wipe rates down. I'm not sure that isn't a better choice than the US. But exponential growth works the other way too, once you've reduced your personal risk 99% the last cut is really for you, if others aren't draconian too we won't drive CV19 to extinction. We'll have to be living our lives a bit differently for a long time. Don't burn people out by warning them against risks that aren't big risks. Listen to the epidemiologists and don't demand compliance with more than they suggest.

Thank you Bay Area counties, and Governor Newsom, for not waiting for casualties to mount. San Francisco and my county of Alameda are the only places I've heard of that shut down before people started dying, which is (sadly) brave of politicians. We didn't jump off the cliff with Italy.

If you're somewhere that hasn't shut down despite people dying, or you are ignoring the shut down orders, people will die from it, change fast.

* I've seen estimates that for every person who dies, expect 2000 infections — we don't really know. About 20 deaths from 40 million population — of course some regions are much worse — 40,000 cases in 40,000,000. And it doubles every few days without mitigation: 1 in one thousand you have it, 1 in one thousand you get it in the next doubling, double that in a few days, 64 times that in just 6 doublings in less than a month.

Bring your own towel — don't share!

PS: Washington, New York, Florida: Trust science and do panic, loudly, where your governors can hear you.

PS: My other blog on the virus: Playing Chicken with Science: A few numbers.