Checking the Math

“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” ~ John Lennon

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” ~ Philip K. Dick

Forget John Lennon. Trust the other guy, the science fiction novelist who became a philosopher. And there is that question. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? That became Blade Runner of course. Philip K. Dick saw the likely if not certain future generated by alternatives chosen today. He was an acerbic futurist who faced reality. He thought everyone should. This is what you just did. Look, just look, this is what is coming. This is what has to come. Deal with it.

Philip K. Dick was right, most of the time, but predicting the future is tricky. Statisticians and scientists don’t predict some dystopian future or a coming paradise on earth. They present cold hard projections based on evidence of specific events, and on policy decisions made in response to those events, and on likely group behaviors in response to those policy decisions. This is not John and Yoko and their friends dreaming of world peace. This is math. This is complex statistical modeling. No one is making a values statement. But now, somehow, we’re totally screwed:

A key model of the coronavirus pandemic favored by the White House nearly doubled its prediction Monday for how many people will die from the virus in the U.S. by August – primarily because states are reopening too soon.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine is now projecting 134,000 coronavirus-related fatalities, up from a previous prediction of 72,000. Factoring in the scientists’ margin of error, the new prediction ranges from 95,000 to 243,000.

Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of IHME, told reporters on a call Monday the primary reason for the increase is many states’ “premature relaxation of social distancing.”

This is just a matter of policy decisions made in response to specific events. Nothing got better with this pandemic. Saying it was better, or seemed to be, and then phasing out all the mitigation done in the last six weeks to contain things, and now a quarter million people will die, more or less, statistically speaking. And of course this was bad news:

Monday’s update is the fourth since the model debuted in late March. It’s been relied on by the White House in recent months because it presents a more optimistic forecast on health system capacity, cases and deaths than other experts have predicted.

Even with its latest forecast, the University of Washington model is still far more optimistic than a model developed by Johns Hopkins for CDC predicting as many as 3,000 deaths per day by June.

But neither model is a rebuke to Trump. If the states do this set of things, then this other set of things, all the deaths, happen, kind of automatically:

In a statement on Monday evening, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health called the leaked models “preliminary analyses,” saying that they had been provided to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help in scenario planning, were not a final version and were not meant to be used or presented as forecasts.

Still, the statement added, “the information illustrates that there are some scenarios, including the premature relaxation of social distancing, that are likely to cause significant increases in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the United States.”

In short, don’t blame us. Here’s the data. Check our math if you’d like. The administration said they hadn’t gotten around to that, with the first report, quite yet:

The White House on Monday acknowledged the existence of the internal administration document but asserted that the grim modeling had not gone through interagency vetting and “is not reflective” of any projections from or analyzed by the White House coronavirus task force.

They’ll check the math later, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog is rather upset anyway:

Let me restate what’s being reported here: The president of the United States, who has been incessantly cheerleading for a reopening of the economy, is doing so even though his own administration’s model is informing him that this will significantly increase the number of people who are sickened and killed by the coronavirus. President Trump is not crossing his fingers and hoping that the re-openings take place with few bad consequences. President Trump is choosing to kill innocent American citizens.

Trump will not be impeached for this, or for anything else between now and the end of his term in January 2021. But knowingly and willfully causing the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans is an offense worthy of impeachment and removal from office.

At the very least, some Democrats should be saying this now. They should be demanding to see the forecasts. They should be calling Trump a murderer.

Well, Trump does have this data now, from the one source he has always trusted before, delivered on CDC letterhead, but his team seems to be asserting that this just cannot be true, although Kevin Drum seems to think that hardly matters now:

If I’ve done the arithmetic without too many mistakes – which is a little hard because my hands are shaking- this adds up to something in the ballpark of 200,000 deaths by the end of June… If anything, this looks as if CDC thinks June 1 isn’t a peak, but just a mile marker on our way up. But even if we go ahead and assume optimistically that 200,000 is the right estimate for the end of June, we’ll also have another 200,000+ as we decline after the peak. Call it half a million deaths total. And even that’s just for the first wave of COVID-19.


I suppose it’s possible that the CDC is completely off base. But probably not.


Words are failing me. Do they really believe this? And they’re keeping it a secret while Donald Trump says everything is okay and we should start reopening the economy?

That’s not quite what’s happening. They fear this is true. They want to verify this, or better, debunk this, but of course reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away, and it’s unlikely that this will go away. This organization’s statistical modeling has been too good for too long for that to be possible. So, the Trump team fears something else: the president. He’ll say everything is perfect, or at least he is. How are they going to explain a new quarter million dead bodies? The public might find that rather awful. But how are they going to explain a quarter million dead bodies and keep their boss from flying into yet another rage, and then firing off another thousand rage-tweets in the middle of the night, about how no one respects his awesomeness anymore.

The New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Eileen Sullivan see things this way:

The numbers underscore a sobering reality: While the United States has been hunkered down for the past seven weeks, the prognosis has not markedly improved. As states reopen – many without meeting White House guidelines that call for a steady decline in coronavirus cases or in the number of people testing positive over a 14-day period – the cost of the shift is likely to be tallied in funerals…

The projections amplify the primary fear of public health experts: that a reopening of the economy will put the nation right back where it was in mid-March, when cases were rising so rapidly in some parts of the country that patients were dying on gurneys in hospital hallways amid overloaded health systems.

But don’t think about that:

Under the White House’s reopening plan, called “Opening Up America Again,” states considering relaxing stay-at-home policies are supposed to show a “downward trajectory” either in the number of new infections or positive tests as a percent of total tests over 14 days, and a “robust testing program” for at-risk health care workers.

But some of the states moving the quickest are not honoring all of those guidelines. In fact, the Trump administration has steered clear of enacting a national policy to prevent its own projections from coming to pass.

That may be the real problem here. There are two messages. Read the guidelines. Play by the rules. And don’t be a jerk. Forget those rules. Those are guidelines for cowards and wimps, so be bold. Be a Man! Screw those damned guidelines, and by the way, follow the damned guidelines!

Or just go your own way:

In New York, where the number of overall cases is declining, a cautious-sounding Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Monday that the state would monitor four “core factors” to determine if a region is ready to reopen: the number of new infections; the capacity of the health care system; the testing capacity; and the capacity for “contact tracing” to identify people exposed to those who test positive.

“While we continue to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus, we can begin to focus on reopening, but we have to be careful and use the information we’ve learned so we don’t erase the strides we’ve already made,” Mr. Cuomo said. “Reopening is not going to happen statewide all at once.”

Fine, but he’s alone:

Nationally, 27 states had loosened social distancing restrictions in some way as of Monday, and others had announced changes that will take effect in the coming weeks, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. But only 20 of those states meet the caseload or testing criteria set out by the Trump administration.

The remaining seven – Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska and Wyoming – are still showing a rise in daily infections and positive tests, but have moved toward reopening anyway.

They will make those “preliminary” CDC death projections come true, and the Washington Post adds this detail:

States across the country are moving swiftly to reopen their economies despite failing to achieve benchmarks laid out by the White House for when social distancing restrictions could be eased to ensure the public’s safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

These governors’ biggest cheerleader is President Trump.

A slew of states – such as Texas, Indiana, Colorado and Florida – have pushed forward with relaxing social distancing guidelines even as the number of people testing positive in many states has increased in recent weeks and testing continues to lag behind. White House recommendations released last month encouraged states to wait to see a decline in cases over a two-week period, as well as having robust testing in place for front-line workers before entering “Phase One” of a gradual comeback.

But Trump and some of his aides have backed away from their own guidelines, opting instead to hail the broad economic reopening that health experts say has started too quickly.

That’s a deliberate change in emphasis. Forget the dead bodies. Americans will have their country back, just as it was, down to the last barbershop in Boise. No guidelines! Think about that! But don’t think too hard about any of this:

This underscores how an eagerness by Trump and several state governors to begin restarting normal activities after a weeks-long economic slowdown has clashed with a stubbornly high national caseload that has defied the president’s predictions of a swift and safe reopening. It also marks another round of confusing guidance from Trump, who released the guidelines with fanfare during a briefing and now shows no problem with states that ignore them.

And thus no one knows what’s going on:

To date, 1.2 million people have been infected by the coronavirus and more than 68,000 have died in the United States. Both figures are widely believed to undercount the actual totals.

The White House continues to support its guidelines but wants local officials to take the lead in deciding how quickly to ease restrictions, according to a senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. While individual states’ decisions to move more quickly than recommended under the White House guidelines are regularly discussed during coronavirus task force meetings, those decisions are not seen as defiant toward the Trump administration, the official said.

And that leads to this:

Trump rarely discusses his own guidelines, instead encouraging states to move quickly to reverse the economic calamity that took hold as governors imposed stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the virus. Trump has expressed support for protesters pushing their states to end the orders and tweeted about a need to “LIBERATE” several states – including places that White House guidelines indicate should remain in a state of lockdown.

Politically, governors have come to learn they are more likely to be criticized by Trump for maintaining stay-at-home orders that comply with White House guidelines than they are for opening up their economies before meeting the Trump administration’s own criteria for doing so.

And that gets tricky:

Trump has singled out Virginia for its reluctance to quickly ease social distancing measures, telling Fox News that it was one of the states that “aren’t going fast enough.”

Even though the number of coronavirus cases in Virginia continues to rise, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced Monday that he would probably begin easing the state’s restrictions on May 15 – including by allowing some gatherings of more than 10 people if social distancing protocols are met.

“As you can see, our cases continue to rise,” he said, before adding that the state’s percentage of positive tests – another key measure in the White House guidelines – had begun to decline.

Should he align his state with the rest of the country as it opened up everything again? Should he follow the White House guidelines instead? He had no idea. He was faking this, but he got off easy:

Trump’s light criticism of Georgia’s decision to begin opening up businesses including barbershops and bowling alleys before meeting White House benchmarks was short-lived.

While the president said on April 23, he was “not happy” with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) for the defying the guidelines, it took him only a week to deny his own remarks.

“I didn’t say that,” Trump said Friday when his quote about Kemp was read back to him.

Yes, he did, but Brian Kemp let it go. What’s the point in arguing with a man who says he never said exactly what he just said? But the rest of the government might just be that useless now:

As Trump leads the nation’s push for a quick economic reopening, some administration officials have continued to call on states to follow the White House’s detailed guidelines.

Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, has repeatedly warned governors against moving too quickly to lift restrictions, saying he was concerned that states that flout the White House guidelines could spark a resurgence of the virus.

“The guidelines are very, very explicit, and very clear,” he said last week on NBC’s “Today” show. “There’s a lot of leeway because we give the governors the opportunity to be very flexible, but you have to have the core principles of the guidelines. You can’t just leap over things and get into a situation where you’re really tempting a rebound.”

Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, has also called on states and localities to follow the administration’s guidelines but has stopped short of contradicting Trump’s push for governors to move as quickly as possible to return to normal.

“We made it very clear that the guidelines are based on very strong evidence and data,” she said Sunday on Fox News. “We’ve made it clear what the gating criteria is.”

Several governors have ignored those criteria.

And that means death:

Some public officials have been unnerved at the speed with which the reopening has happened and the apparent disregard for guidelines set by medical experts.

“The state policymakers believe that the economic climate is more important than those guidelines,” said Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke (D). “I don’t see any other explanation.”

But as states have defied that criteria to begin restarting business activity – from retail stores in Colorado to restaurants in Florida to elective surgeries in Ohio – they have been cheered on by Trump and his allies.

Is that cheering for death? Perhaps so:

In the absence of a national policy to slow the virus, state officials have been left to answer a wrenching question: How many deaths are acceptable?

And that’s what makes this a dystopian tale:

Three family members have been charged in the killing of a security guard who told a customer at a Michigan Family Dollar store to wear a state-mandated face mask, officials said on Monday.

Calvin Munerlyn, 43, died at a Flint hospital after he was shot in the head Friday, said Michigan State Police Lt. David Kaiser.

Ramonyea Travon Bishop, 23, Larry Edward Teague, 44, and Sharmel Lashe Teague, 45, have been charged with first-degree premeditated murder, along with other charges, the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement on Monday.

Sharmel and Larry Teague are married, and Bishop is Sharmel’s son, according to the prosecutor’s office.

“From all indications, Mr. Munerlyn was simply doing his job in upholding the Governor’s Executive Order related to the COVID-19 pandemic for the safety of store employees and customers,” Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said in the statement.

Munerlyn got into a verbal altercation with Sharmel Teague after telling Teague’s daughter she needed a mask, according to the prosecutor’s office. Surveillance video confirms the incident, Leyton said.

Well, if the man at the top says that rules don’t matter, all sorts of people will die, and others will help them along:

A 53-year-old anti-lockdown protester in Colorado has been arrested on suspicion of having pipe bombs and bomb-making materials at his home, the U.S. Attorney’s Office says.

FBI agents found four pipe bombs at the Loveland home of Bradley Bunn on Friday, a statement from the office says. They also allegedly found two 1-pound containers of gunpowder in his vehicle.

Bunn has been active in protests against coronavirus lockdown orders at the Colorado Capitol in Denver, where he has been spotted carrying firearms, KCNC reported.

Bunn also had been helping organize an armed protest against Colorado’s lockdown order, ABC News reported…

The FBI and ATF began investigating Bunn after he made social media posts urging people to bring assault rifles to a Friday rally at the state capitol, according to the network.

Bunn faces charges of possessing destructive devices, the U.S. Attorney’s office says. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

Dystopian chaos is coming – Blade Runner stuff – but one can embrace that:

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Monday that the country needs to reopen, despite separate key coronavirus models forecasting that thousands may die daily in the United States from Covid-19 and that more than 100,000 may die in total.

“Of course, everybody wants to save every life they can – but the question is, towards what end, ultimately?”

Christie, a Republican tapped to lead President Donald Trump’s presidential transition team in 2016, told CNN’s Dana Bash on The Daily DC Podcast. “Are there ways that we can… thread the middle here to allow that there are going to be deaths, and there are going to be deaths no matter what?”

He may have been sending a message to Trump – embrace the new death projections – say that’s a good thing – or say that really doesn’t matter:

When Bash pressed Christie on whether people would be able to accept reopening in light of news of a Trump administration model projecting a rise up to about 3,000 daily US deaths from coronavirus by June 1, Christie responded, “They’re gonna have to.”

This is a matter of just who should die so you can buy pork chops now and then, and then he sent a direct message to Trump:

Christie, asked Monday what his messaging would be to the American public if he sat in the Oval Office, said, “The message is that the American people have gone through significant death before.” He pointed to the first and second World Wars as examples of how “we’ve gone through it and we’ve survived it. We sacrificed those lives.”

Millions of young men died to rid the world of Hitler and Tojo. This is the same sort of thing, with slightly different demographics, to save the now-shuttered Starbucks on every corner:

“We sent our young men during World War Two over to Europe, out to the Pacific, knowing, knowing that many of them would not come home alive,” he said, adding: “And we decided to make that sacrifice because what we were standing up for was the American way of life. In the very same way now, we have to stand up for the American way of life.” The former governor lamented the “economic devastation” as “equally sad.”

That’s a matter of opinion, but the projections are in now and on file. These are cold hard projections based on evidence of specific events, and on policy decisions made in response to those events, and on likely group behaviors in response to those policy decisions, and a whole lot of people are going to die, and for what? That’s the only question now.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Checking the Math

  1. Rick says:

    Hate to say it, but Chris Christie has the guts to make the conservative case, and it’s a strong one: Yes, people will die, but so what? People die all the time! There’s no cure for death, so let’s stop trying to cure it and just get on with living our lives!

    I see his point, although I still side with the liberals: We value human life and try to save as much of it as we can, since we believe that you don’t just sit back and not try to improve the human experience; we are all in this together, and should try to make things better!

    It all goes back to the Renaissance, when liberals said we can fix all this, while conservatives asked, what’s the point? Don’t try to improve on God’s creation, since he seems to know what he’s doing.

    Remember Anderson Cooper’s recent interview with Carolyn Goodman, the independent mayor of Las Vegas?

    She was trying to make the same argument, although not as succinctly as Christie did: Yes, people will die as we open up the economy, but you don’t shut down the world just because people die! People are going to die, no matter how hard you try to prevent it, so in the meantime, if people start running out of money, they run out of food, then people can’t pay their bills, and they starve, and then you’re in real trouble!

    Be that as it may…

    So Trump, the president, tells the states to carefully follow the rules and do things right, but Trump, the candidate, encourages states to crawl out there on that limb, then saw the limb off behind them. Who can blame him for not choosing the correct course of action between two, when he picks both of them?

    I see this as kind of the “Dumbo’s Magic Feather” approach:

    All people need is something to give themselves confidence in themselves! And the way to do that is to do whatever you want to do, but just make sure everyone thinks you’re trying to do it right — even if you’re not. After all, who can blame you if you screw it up, as long as you gave it your best effort, then let the chips fall where they’re gonna fall?

    As long as you fool everyone into believing you’re reopening the economy with the utmost of care, nobody’s gonna notice that you’re lying about the “utmost of care” part.

    Afterward, you can always talk yourselves out of it by claiming that “nobody could have foreseen that all those states would all go tumble down to the ground, with dead bodies spread everywhere like that! But I’ll say this, we did a miraculous job, didn’t we? I mean if it weren’t for us, and with no help from those useless Democrats, the death toll would have been much worse!”

    Mark my words, I expect Trump will say something like that.

    But where this analogy falls apart is, in the Dumbo story, the elephant really can fly without the feather, while in real life — in that reality that, if you stop believing it, it doesn’t go away — in real life, if Dumbo jumps out of that tree? He dies.

    Okay, magic may be fun, but no, in real life, elephants can’t fly by just flapping their ears.

    If we look back several centuries to when we emerged from the dark ages, we can see there were people who saw ways to make our lives better — by inventing forks and spoons and printing presses, engines to drive our trains and cars and ships, machines to make clothes and to allow us to fly to the moon, and even concocting medicines to help us fight off disease.

    Improving our chances of survival doesn’t take belief in magic, it just takes intelligence and hard work and patience and good judgement, all of which are necessary building blocks for civilization, without which many of us — maybe you, maybe me, maybe both of us — would not be alive today.

    So I’m not saying the conservative just-let-em-die approach, held by Carolyn Goodman and Chris Christie, aren’t legitimate points of view, I just prefer the liberal Democrats’ let’s-make-things-better-if-we-can point of view way more.

    So in fact, this is a clash of different civilizations, between those of us who want to keep the virus from killing so many of us, no matter how much wealth we lose along the way, and those of us who want to exercise their right to just live their lives, no matter how many others of us have to die to make that happen.

    Where do we all meet?

    I realize that no matter when it is that we all conclude it’s safe to “reopen” our world, some people will end up dead as a result. Tragically, whatever time we choose should be based upon the question, how few of us can we sacrifice in order to come to that safe landing?


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