Sunday Reading – 05/17/2020

The following links are just news items and opinions that pass my desk throughout the week. I don’t necessarily support or advocate any of the items, they are just interesting reads.

Coronavirus Vaccine: Reasons to Be Optimistic – The first coronaviruses known to infect humans were discovered more than half a century ago – so why are there no vaccines against these viruses? Should we be optimistic that an effective vaccine will be developed now?

SARS-CoV-2, the recently discovered coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is similar enough to other coronaviruses, so scientists make predictions about how our immune system might deal with it. But its novelty warrants its own careful study. Similar to Sars and Mers that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome, the novel coronavirus has emerged from animals and can cause damage to the lungs and sometimes other organs.

Why don’t we have a vaccine against other human coronaviruses? The emergence of Sars and Mers, in 2002 and 2012 respectively, were either quashed relatively quickly or affected small numbers of people. Despite the interest from keen virologists, there was no economic incentive to develop a vaccine for these diseases as they posed a small threat at the time. Virologists with an interest in coronaviruses were struggling to secure funding for their research.

In contrast, COVID-19 has caused huge disruption around the world. As a result, at least 90 vaccines are under development, with some already in human trials. Read More > Real Clear Science   

When will California schools reopen? State will ask districts to decide – California superintendent of public instruction Tony Thurmond said Wednesday that the state’s nearly 1,000 school districts will decide when it’s best to reopen their campuses for classroom instruction.

Thurmond, speaking during a Facebook Live session, said his department will provide guidance on how to reopen, based on recommendations from a task force studying the imposing logistical challenges. He offered few specifics Wednesday, asking students and parents to stay tuned in the weeks ahead.

“We are not anticipating a common opening across school districts, or a mandate for when districts open,” Thurmond said. “We recognize some districts may choose to open early. That’s a great way to address equity needs and the needs of our community. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Student anxiety, depression increasing during school closures, survey finds – School closures were intended to keep students safe during the pandemic, but for many, it’s ushered in a different set of dangers: anxiety, depression and other serious mental health conditions.

School counselors, psychologists and social workers have been trying to help students virtually since campuses closed, listening to their struggles and offering advice on how to navigate the complex difficulties they’re facing. But what students need most right now — in-person support — is impossible to deliver, they said.

“I’ve been at this a long time, and I’m scratching my head at how daunting this is,” said Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors. “In the Great Recession we were dealing with job loss, but now we’re facing job loss as well as widespread trauma.”

Increasing numbers of students say they feel overwhelmed, and not just about the health of their family and friends due to the coronavirus. Their parents might be newly unemployed, they might be falling behind academically, they can’t see their friends, or they might be trapped at home in an abusive family situation. Read More > at EDsource

Let People Drink Outside – As the COVID-19 shutdowns extend into the warm summer months and people become increasingly restless under social distancing guidelines, bars and restaurants remain one of the hardest hit sectors of the economy. At the same time, cities are exploring ways to encourage the use of public outdoor spaces, which emerging evidence suggests can be enjoyed with minimal risks of transmitting the virus.

One simple policy could address both issues: Let people drink outside.

The United States has a notoriously conflicted relationship with alcohol, with our enthusiasm for drinking in tension with temperance attitudes and the patchwork of state-level regulations that succeeded Prohibition. For most of the country’s history, although there were laws against inebriation, the mere act of drinking in public spaces was not a crime. That began to change in the 1970s, when subjective laws penalizing drunkenness were replaced by more objective bans on public drinking. With few exceptions, it became illegal for American bars and restaurants to sell drinks to go and for adults to consume them outside of homes or private businesses.

Although limited reopenings are already beginning, bars and restaurants will still face tight constraints on their ability to profitably operate. Many will have to significantly cut their capacity and reduce their hours; bar service may not be permitted at all, with patrons required to sit at tables. And no matter what local rules permit, consumers may be too fearful of the virus to spend time indoors surrounded by strangers.

Debates over when and how to open businesses are ongoing. Strict social distancing has helped suppress the virus, but it’s also psychologically taxing and economically destructive. Writing in The Atlantic, the Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus makes the case for a pragmatic approach focused on discouraging the highest risk behaviors. “Enclosed and crowded settings, especially with prolonged and close contact, have the highest risk of transmission, while casual interaction in outdoor settings seems to be much lower risk,” she writes. “A sustainable anti-coronavirus strategy would still advise against house parties. But it could also involve redesigning outdoor and indoor spaces to reduce crowding, increase ventilation, and promote physical distancing, thereby allowing people to live their lives while mitigating—but not eliminating—risk.” Read More > at Reason

Zoom fatigue is something the deaf community knows very well – Zoom meetings. FaceTime calls. Birthday parties, coffee chats, game nights, and happy hours over video chat.

As work and life events go remote, people are increasingly sharing the feeling of “Zoom fatigue.” Little do they know they’re experiencing a sliver of what the deaf and hard of hearing undergo every day.

It’s called “concentration fatigue,” a concept audiologists and researchers have expanded on.

“It’s not necessarily persistent fatigue but surely a measurable increase in listening effort,” Mario Svirsky, professor of hearing science at NYU Langone Health medical center, told Quartz. “A little noise in the background can bring you over a tipping point where communication becomes much more difficult and you have to do a lot of work. You may participate in a meeting focusing on everything for the full two hours and, at the end, you are wiped out.”

…Others point out the stress in understanding what is said with choppy audio, time delays, or pixelated video. The deaf community encounters this difficulty in nearly every setting, like they’re piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Read More > at Quartz

Bottoming out? U.S. consumer sentiment improves in May as households buoyed by massive federal aid – After a two-month freefall, U.S. consumer sentiment improved slightly in early May as some states began to reopen their economies and the spread of the coronavirus slowed, a closely followed survey showed.

The preliminary reading of the consumer-sentiment survey in May edged up to 73.7 from 71.8 in April, the University of Michigan said Friday. Economists had forecast a small decline.

Americans were less confident about their own finances, but a massive infusion of federal aid in the form of stimulus checks, extra unemployment benefits, and contributions to the salaries paid by small businesses helped lift their spirits. Read More > at MarketWatch

As Economy Reopens, a Push to Rethink Regulations – During the coronavirus crisis, businesses have felt the heavy hand of the state, facing restrictions regarding the capacity at which they can operate or even whether they can open.

But regulations have also been loosened in some areas, notably medicine. Nearly every state has waived medical licensing requirements, making it easier for retired or out-of-state physicians to provide treatment, or allowing them to practice telehealth without a prior established relationship with the patient. Twenty-one states have waived or suspended practice agreement regulations for nurse practitioners, which require them to have doctors supervise care and prescriptions.

A number of lawmakers are hoping to extend this approach to a much wider range of commerce, reducing the number of regulations that might stand in the way of businesses fully reopening and prospering. “We’re going to have to clear a path to entrepreneurship and business growth,” says Todd Huston, speaker of the Indiana House.

Shielding businesses from civil liability due to the spread of COVID-19 is a top priority for congressional Republicans. On Monday, the idea was endorsed by 21 Republican state attorneys general. That same day, the Oklahoma Senate passed a bill to shield businesses from COVID-related lawsuits. Similar legislation has been introduced in Kansas. Read More > at Governing

The Mental Health Crisis Already Existed. Pandemic Panic Just Made It Worse – The Washington Post ran a story last week headlined, “The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental health crisis.” It cited a Kaiser Family Foundation survey finding nearly half of Americans say the pandemic is harming their mental health.

The Post went on to point out that the federal hotline for those in emotional distress has seen calls jump 1,000 percent last month from the same month last year, and roughly 20,000 texted the hotline operated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Other crisis hotlines across the country have reported an overwhelming surge in calls from Americans growing ever more anxious under the great uncertainty society’s response to coronavirus presents. Financial devastation and extreme isolation compounded by constantly moving goalposts for even a semblance of return to normalcy have created the perfect storm for a different epidemic not seen in the nation’s hospitals.

Well Being Trust, a national public health group, released another study this week projecting upwards of 75,000 additional people will succumb to suicide and substance abuse due to coronavirus anxiety and shutdowns. This total is nearly as many who have died from the virus so far.

The national suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255. More resources are here.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 American adults experience a mental illness every year, 1 in 25 experience a serious mental illness every year, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 10 to 34.

…According to a study on the Great Recession in 2007, every one percentage point increase in unemployment correlated with a 1.6 percent increase in the suicide rate. Another study from the British Medical Journal examining suicide amid the Great Recession in both Europe and American countries reported that by 2009, there was a 37 percent increase in unemployment with 5,000 more suicides above what was expected.

“The research is pretty clear. A really good way to improve mental health during a recession is to put people back to work,” Efferson said. Read More > in The Federalist

There are online groups for substance abuse recovery. Find resources herehere and hereHere’s what to do if someone you know is suicidal.

It Likes the Way You Walk – I tried moving my legs and torso in the most contorted way possible. Every time, the software guessed that it was me. Your gait is like a fingerprint, unique and impossible to falsify.

I was being shown the new gait-recognition technology developed by Watrix, a Beijing startup founded by a computer scientist at Tsinghua and a few of his brightest students. Rather implausibly, one student explained that the technology could be used in a “smart” home to detect who has entered a room in order to adjust the temperature automatically. As I smiled, she admitted that the product’s real uses were for law enforcement and security.

As protesters in Hong Kong have demonstrated, facial recognition is not foolproof. You can use a mask or walk with your back to the cameras; even makeup can pose problems. Distance is a factor. At present, of course, Chinese facial-recognition technology has been rendered obsolete by the onset of the coronavirus epidemic. Public authorities have mandated the use of face masks. Suddenly, even the facial-recognition traffic lights installed in Shanghai to shame jaywalkers are no longer functioning…

Gait recognition does not suffer from any of these limitations. Simply put, it no longer requires any level of cooperation from those being surveilled. The computer scientist at Watrix quotes Shakespeare: “I know her by her gait.” Could there be a better proof that gait is superior to all alternatives? Read More > at City Journal

Credit card companies are tracking shoppers like never before: Inside the next phase of surveillance capitalism – We’ve become accustomed to the grim fact that nearly every major advertiser, website, and personal device maker collects and monitors users’ data to some extent. Some do it for their own purposes. Others do it in the service of various algorithmic spymasters, such as Facebook or Google, which analyze vast arrays of personal information—from social media likes to GPS locations—to serve up relevant ads.

But to understand shopping behavior with certainty, you need credit card data. Over the past decade, consumer purchases have quietly become one of the most sought-after and lucrative data sets, used by Wall Street and Madison Avenue alike to infer shoppers’ tastes, budgets, and plans. “Transaction data is the holy grail for marketers today,” says Michael Moreau, cofounder of Habu, a Boston-based startup that helps advertisers marshal their data.

These transactions have given rise to a complex data-selling ecosystem. At the heart of it are credit card processing networks, including Visa, American Express, and Mastercard, the latter of which took in $4.1 billion in 2019—a quarter of its annual revenue—from leveraging its warehouse of transaction data for services that include marketing analytics as well as reward programs and fraud detection. And then there are the banks, retailers, payment processors, and software companies that empower online transactions. Few disclose their methods; some actively obfuscate their work; all vow that personal data is anonymized and aggregated, and therefore secure.

The reality is far more complicated. In one sense, cardholders are safer from identity theft than ever before. At the same time, they’re now shopping in a panopticon, with companies tracking and analyzing their purchases in near real time. It’s never been tougher to know who’s out there watching and selling this data—to say nothing of who’s buying. Read More > at Fast Company

From Newfound Optimism to Potential ‘Disaster’: Inside the Conversation Around College Football’s Return – This week marks the two-month anniversary of the coronavirus stalling the sports world, and yet here we sit. The football season—even practice—remains in limbo. Most coaching staffs are still operating remotely, athletic directors are bracing for a financial catastrophe and school presidents preside over empty campuses. Taken as a whole, the nation continues to give off conflicting signals about what is to come. The California State University system, which has 23 campuses and includes Mountain West Conference members Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State, announced Tuesday that it does not plan to have in-person classes in the fall semester. The rest of the nation’s most populous state could also be on a conservative return-to-school timetable, which would assuredly impact football.

Yet in many other locales, there is a dim light glowing at the end of this very dark tunnel. Over the last week, Sports Illustrated brought together the 11 most important voices in deciding the fate of college football in 2020: the 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. They expressed more optimism in a fall football season than ever before. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Aresco, “and I am growing more optimistic daily that we are going to have a season and that we might even be able to start on time in the fall under certain conditions.”

Their optimism stems from medical experts’ expectations for more widespread and sophisticated testing; pro leagues like the NFL moving forward with plans to play; and three-fourths of their universities announcing intentions to have at least some in-person classes this fall. As states begin reopening, some commissioners, working with their school presidents, predict that players will return to voluntary on-campus work in June. “I would say I’m a little more optimistic today than I was two weeks ago,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby says. “Some of that is having been on the calls with the White House. One of the things we heard is that it’s expected that testing nationally is going to double every month from now on.” Read More > in Sports Illustrated

Arizona Will Allow Pro Sports to Resume This Month – Let the games begin in Arizona.

During a press conference on Tuesday night, Arizona governor Doug Ducey said professional sports can resume without fans in his state starting this weekend.

“This does not mean a return to normal,” Ducey said, per the Arizona Republic‘s Anne Ryman. “This is a green light to proceed. It’s not a green light to speed.”

That means, once they are ready, the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA,  NHL and Major League Soccer can all resume practicing and playing games. Ducey said he had spoken with “leaders of some of these leagues” but did not reveal exactly who he had spoken to. Read More > at InsideHook 

Who sent coronavirus-positive patients into nursing homes? – The great influenza of 1918-19, for example, tended to kill otherwise healthy people in the prime of life, ages 20 to 40. The COVID-19 virus tends to kill people age 70 and above, especially those with comorbidities.

Yet, even though that was apparent early on, America’s governors have done a poor job of protecting those most at risk — residents of nursing homes, elderly people with physical frailties and, often, cognitive impairment.

The result: One-third of reported coronavirus deaths in the United States, according to the New York Times’s reporting, are of nursing home residents or workers. And nursing homes accounted for a majority of deaths in heavily hit states, such as New Jersey (52%), Massachusetts (59%), Pennsylvania (66%), and Connecticut (55%), and for 80% of deaths in otherwise lightly hit Minnesota.

That percentage is much lower (20%) in America’s COVID-19 epicenter, New York, but the Empire State still leads the nation with 5,403 nursing home deaths — about 1 out of every 14 COVID-19 deaths in the entire country.

Why so many? On March 25, the state health commissioner ordered nursing homes to accept patients with the virus. It’s unclear why he made this fatal decision. Maybe he wanted to keep hospital beds available. Or maybe he feared that sick people would be dumped onto the street.

When asked about this policy in late April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo professed ignorance. Two weeks later, on Saturday, after 46 days in effect, he reversed it.

New York wasn’t the only state that insisted on placing infected patients in nursing homes. New Jersey’s policy was similar, explicitly barring homes from requiring testing before admitting patients. California had the same policy but dropped it after 10 days.

Other states, recognizing the dangers of infecting the vulnerable, required or encouraged nursing homes to set up separate units or staffs to handle patients testing positive. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely criticized in the national media for avoiding a total lockdown, zeroed in on nursing homes, encouraging repeated testing and temperature-taking of residents and staff and isolating anyone testing positive. Florida, a state with 2 million more people than New York, had just 714 nursing home deaths, 13% of the number in New York. Read More > in the Washington Examiner

The economic devastation wrought by the pandemic could ultimately kill more people than the virus itself – The economic devastation the pandemic wreaks on the ultra-poor could ultimately kill more people than the virus itself.

The United Nations predicts that a global recession will reverse a three-decade trend in rising living standards and plunge as many as 420 million people into extreme poverty, defined as earning less than $2 a day.

As for the 734 million people already there, the economic tsunami will make it harder for them to ever climb out.

Hunger is already rising in the poorest parts of the world, where lockdowns and social distancing measures have erased incomes and put even basic food items out of reach.

In Guatemala, villagers are begging for food along highways by waving pieces of white cloth at passing drivers. In Colombia, the hungriest hang red flags from their homes in hope of donations.

Recent phone surveys in places as disparate as Senegal and rural China suggest that large swaths of society have lost their livelihoods and, as a result, are eating less.

The U.N. predicts the coronavirus could push an additional 130 million people to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. World Vision, an international Christian aid organization, warns that 30 million children are at risk of dying. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Do Facemasks Work? – The question of whether or not wearing a facemask “works” is incredibly complicated. It may not seem so at first, but let me list some of the specific questions contained in that broad question. We need to consider different kinds of masks – cloth, surgical, N95. We need to consider who is wearing the mask – someone known to be infected, someone who is well, and in what setting, out in public or in the presence of those known to be sick. We also need to operationally define “work.” We can measure reduction in the spread of the virus, in droplets, in aerosolized particles, and also in different conditions (breathing, coughing) and at different distances. We can measure deposition of virus on surfaces. We can also measure transmission of actual disease, both the chance of spreading and of catching specific illnesses. And of course, all of these questions need to be addressed with each specific infection, and so prior research may not apply perfectly to COVID-19. And further we need to compare the efficacy of wearing a mask to the real-work effectiveness of intending to use a mask.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that we do not have all the answers to these questions specifically for COVID-19. What we have are slices of research with different results and therefore you can look at the preliminary evidence we do have and come to different conclusions. The CDC and the WHO, in fact, have done this. Here is the CDC recommendation:

CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

CDC also advises the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.  Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure….

And here is the WHO:

If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with COVID-19.

My summary of all this is that, first, we don’t have definitive evidence to know exactly what the effect of mask wearing is in every setting. But we can make some reasonable extrapolations from the data we have. First, for hospital workers, they really should be using the N95 masks, and surgical masks if the former are not available. For the public the cloth masks may be of some benefit, both in spreading and receiving the virus. However, the benefit is likely to be modest. It should not be considered full protection, but just a way to reduce the chance of spread a little bit.

But I think perhaps the biggest factor in terms of the general public use of face masks is the intention to treat consideration – how are people actually using their face masks. The data shows that the modest decrease in risk of spread is only there if people use their masks consistently and properly. When they don’t, what little protection there is vanishes.

So wear the mask properly, but act as if the mask does not work. Read More > at NEUROlogica

California Proposes $25 Billion Economic Recovery Fund – Two unprecedented proposals to help Californians weather the fiscal storm unleashed by the coronavirus crisis are expected to be unveiled on May 12 by Democrats in the state Senate — one to help struggling renters, the other to create a $25-billion economic recovery fund by issuing long-term vouchers to those willing to prepay their future state income taxes.

Taken together, the ideas suggest lawmakers are willing to launch never-before-tried experiments to avoid the unpaid debts and deep cuts to government services that resulted from the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

“We need some short-term assistance,” said Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) in an interview with The Times on May 11. “But we’ve got to be thinking long term on how to do this in a very strategic way.” Read More > at Governing

German intelligence says China’s Xi pressured WHO to delay global warnings about COVID-19 in January – German media revealed that China’s president Xi Jinping in January pressured the director of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to hold off on issuing a global warning about the coronavirus outbreak.

According to a January 21 conversation between the two, which cited intelligence from Germany’s federal intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Xi urged the WHO chief to “delay a global warning” about the pandemic and hold back information on human-to-human transmission of the virus, which the BND estimated resulted in a delay of 4 to 6 weeks.

The WHO released a statement calling the allegations “unfounded and untrue”. The Chinese foreign ministry said Beijing had responded in a “timely” manner and was “open and transparent” about alerting nations around the world about the outbreak.

Tedros, a former minister of health and foreign affairs from Ethiopia, China’s chief client-state, was appointed head of the WHO with the explicit backing of Beijing. Read More > at NEWEUROPE

Lost Your Job but Still Have a 401(k)? Here’s What to Do With It – Many newly unemployed Americans may have to dip into retirement funds to cover expenses. Even if you don’t, you have some decisions to make.

Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs as the coronavirus ravages the economy, bringing the unemployment rate to a Great Depression-level 14.7 percent — and many are looking for emergency lifelines to meet living expenses.

Retirement accounts will be a tempting option. Last year, about 63 million households had defined contribution plan accounts, and 46.4 million households owned I.R.A.s, according to the Investment Company Institute.

The CARES Act signed into law in March provides flexible hardship withdrawal options for 401(k) and individual retirement accounts. But people who have lost their jobs and don’t need to tap their retirement account early still have a decision to make: Leave the savings in the former employer’s plan, or roll them over to an I.R.A. In the event that a former employer goes out of business and terminates the plan, your choice is a rollover or taking a direct distribution. The best choice will depend on a number of factors. Read More > in The New York Times

Judd Gregg: The next pandemic — trial lawyers – Like moths drawn to a flame, the trial bar in America is gearing up to cash in on this virus.

The trial attorneys are developing new and creative ways to sue employers who may have employees who developed the coronavirus.

It is new and fertile ground for the lawyers’ limitless avarice.

Their strategy is to generate lawsuits, preferably class actions, the defense of which is so staggering that those sued will simply have to settle. Of course, a large percentage of the settlement goes to the trial lawyers.

Like kids on Christmas Eve, the trial bar sees sugarplums of great worth headed their way.

This newfound vein of gold arises out of the misery of this virus.

Businesses that must employ people in settings where the virus may propagate, even when sensible protective actions have been taken, are the source of this opportunity.

Congress is now considering possible ways to mute this likely explosion of predatory lawsuits. Read More > in The Hill

Government by executive order: state emergency law gives governor broad power in pandemic – It was another Wednesday in California’s long lockdown spring, and late in the day Gov. Gavin Newsom signed off on Executive Order N-54-20.

The four pages of text began with seven “whereas” clauses laying out the reasons and purpose for what followed: a dozen densely worded paragraphs, suspending timelines and waiving requirements embedded in obscure corners of state regulations, from the Vehicle Code to the Public Resources Code.

The April 22 order was one of more than three dozen such orders Newsom has churned out since March 3, when he declared a state of emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic that has since killed 2,546 residents and sickened tens of thousands more.

With the Legislature not in Sacramento since mid-March, Newsom has effectively been a one-man government, and the executive orders have largely been the vehicle he has used. The Assembly returned on May 4 and the Senate is due back Monday which will likely bring governance back to something resembling what it was before the pandemic with more input from legislators.

But the state of emergency Newsom declared March 4 will still be in place, the key fact that has given him such wide latitude.

As the orders have mounted and the grip of the lockdown tightened, some state residents have begun to push back. Lawsuits filed in San Diego and elsewhere are challenging the stay-home orders on constitutional grounds contending they violate speech, assembly and religious freedom rights among others.

A smattering of businesses that are not considered essential have opened in defiance of the orders. Organized protests have drawn hundreds in cities across the state.

Newsom has been able to govern this way through two main channels. The first is the longstanding authority of policing powers that states have, allowing them to act to improve the health and safety of residents. The second is a powerful and little-known state law called the Emergency Services Act. Read More > in The San Diego Union-Tribune

Working from home: Average productivity loss of remote work is 1% – A report from research firm Valoir found that the abrupt move to working from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has had only had a 1 percent reduction on work productivity. And more than 40 percent of workers would prefer to work remotely full time in the future.

What is the real productivity impact of remote work? To better understand the impact of remote work,  research and advisory services firm Valoir conducted a broad survey of people working from home and published their findings in a May 2020 report. The report’s findings also included 20 in-depth interviews with respondents. Valoir provides research and advisory services with a focus on people apps (CRM and HCM), user adoption, and productivity.

Here are the key findings:

  1. Remote work has had only a small negative impact on productivity – an average reduction of 1 percent. Those working from home with children reported a slightly larger decrease in productivity of 2 percent. The largest decrease in productivity was reported by those working alone (without other adults or children in the home), who saw an average decrease in productivity of 3 percent.
  2. The average work day is 9.75 hours, with an average start time of 8:15 am and an average end time of 6 pm. Most people are working during normal work hours, with fewer than 10 percent starting before 7 am or extending their workday beyond 7 pm.
  3. The biggest distraction from working at home is social media. Nearly one third of respondents – even many of those with children – reported social media was their biggest distraction, devoting nearly two hours to it. Read More > at ZDNet

Over Half of US Counties Have Had No COVID-19 Deaths – With many state and local governments starting to relax stay-at-home orders, it’s instructive to examine just how concentrated the spread of COVID-19 has been in the U.S.

Although all U.S. states have reported cases of COVID-19, the distribution of the cases and deaths has remained heavily concentrated in a small number of states, and among a small number of counties within all states.

For instance, as of May 4, just 10 states account for 70% of all U.S. cases and 77% of all deaths. Together, New York and New Jersey alone account for 38% of all cases and 48% of total COVID-19 deaths.

Just five states—New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, and California—account for 54% of all of the confirmed cases in the U.S. and 61% of all coronavirus deaths.

These state-level figures do not, however, adequately describe the concentrated nature of the spread of COVID-19.

…the 30 counties with the most COVID-19 cases account for 50% of all the cases in the U.S. (and 57% of all deaths). That is, just 1% of the counties in the U.S. are responsible for half of the country’s coronavirus cases and more than half of the deaths.

Of those 30 counties, 24 are in the Northeast corridor between Philadelphia and Boston, the passageway served by a commuter railway system that runs through Manhattan. Overall, just 11% of the counties in the U.S. contain nearly 95% of all the COVID-19 deaths.

…52% of all U.S. counties have had zero COVID-19 deaths as of May 4. Read More > in The Daily Signal

Take the Shutdown Skeptics Seriously – This is not a straightforward battle between a pro-human and a pro-economy camp.

Should states ease pandemic restrictions or extend lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders into the summer? That question confronts leaders across the United States. President Trump says that “we have to get our country open.” And many governors are moving quickly in that direction.

…In a CNN news analysis, Daniel Burke offers this characterization of America’s choice: “Should we reopen the economy to help the majority or protect the lives of the vulnerable?”

Denunciations of that sort cast the lockdown debate as a straightforward battle between a pro-human and a pro-economy camp. But the actual trade-offs are not straightforward. Set aside “flattening the curve,” which will continue to make sense. Are ongoing, onerous shutdowns warranted beyond what is necessary to avoid overwhelming ambulances, hospitals, and morgues?

The answer depends in part on an unknown: how close the country is to containing the virus.

If we knew that a broadly effective COVID-19 treatment was imminent, or that a working vaccine was months away, minimizing infections through social distancing until that moment would be the right course. At the other extreme, if we will never have an effective treatment or vaccine and most everyone will get infected eventually, then the costs of social distancing are untenable. We don’t know where we sit on that spectrum. So we cannot know what the best way forward is even if we place the highest possible value on preserving life and protecting the vulnerable.

That uncertainty means, at the very least, that Americans should carefully consider the potential costs of prolonged shutdowns lest they cause more deaths or harm to the vulnerable than they spare.

Ongoing closures and supply-chain interruptions in wealthier countries could have catastrophic ripple effects, Michael T. Klare warns in The Nation, highlighting the possibility that global starvation could soar. “Even where supply chains remain intact, many poor countries lack the funds to pay for imported food,” he explained. “This has long been a problem for the least-developed countries, which often depend on international food aid … It is becoming even more severe as the number of people without jobs multiplies and donor countries balk at higher aid expenditures.” His article wasn’t a brief for reopening the economy, but it implied a need to guard against shutdowns that cause more deaths via starvation than are saved by slowing infections.

“A prolonged depression will stunt lives as surely as any viral epidemic, and its toll will not be confined to the elderly,” Heather Mac Donald argues at Spectator USA. “The shuttering of auto manufacturing plants led to an 85 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths in the surrounding counties over seven years, according to a recent study.” Deficit spending may be necessary to keep people afloat, she continued, but the wealth that permits it could quickly evaporate. “The enormously complex web of trade, once killed, cannot be brought back to life by government stimulus. And who is going to pay for all that deficit spending as businesses close and tax revenues disappear?” Read More > in The Atlantic

The fallen state of experts – If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you’re not paying attention to the experts. Epidemiologists tell us that if we do not hide in our houses with the door securely locked, hundreds of thousands will surely perish. Economists tell us that if we do not return immediately to work, civilisation will collapse. Good luck figuring out which expert has the better advice. Is it any wonder a harried Michael Gove blurted out, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

…whereas today’s epidemiologists and economists have rigorous scientific training, mathematical models, advanced statistics, and careful evidence all going for them. True. But today’s scientists are still people. And that means they respond to incentives just like everyone else. The issue is not lying and cheating. Sure, some modern experts are quack-conjurers who lie and cheat. Let’s not mistake a white lab coat for a golden halo. But that’s not the main thing. Even when the experts are trying to be sober, scientific, and scrupulously neutral, they will feel certain pressures.

Think if it were you. You’re an epidemiologist and the prime minister calls to ask you how many will die if we don’t have a lockdown. What do you tell him? You can’t just look up the number. The pandemic is only now taking off and your knowledge of it is correspondingly sketchy. It’s hard to say. Every number is a guess. If you give the prime minister a low number, there will be no lockdown. What if he accepts your low number and we have no lockdown? Maybe everything will be fine. But maybe there will be many more deaths than you predicted. You will get blamed. People will shame you as a bad scientist. And, because you are a good and decent person, you will feel guilty. Blame, shame, and guilt. This is a bad outcome.

If you give him a high number, there will be lockdown. No one will ever be able to say that your estimate was too high, because your estimate assumed no lockdown. Even if a lot of people die during the lockdown you can say, “See? Think how much worse it would have been without the lockdown.” Thus, if you give the prime minister a high number, you will get credit for saving lives. You will be able to take pride in your sterling reputation as a scientist. And you won’t have to feel guilty about lost lives. Praise, pride, and innocence. This is a good outcome. The logic of the situation is clear. You have every incentive to predict doom and gloom if no lockdown is ordered.

We need experts and expertise. I want the help of doctors when making decisions about my health, of educators when making decisions about my children’s schooling, and so on. And when the pandemic swept in, our politicians needed to consult the experts. Time will tell whether we needed the relatively strong lockdown we got, whether the Swedish model was better (maybe, maybe not), and so on. I would not pretend to judge at this relatively early moment. Whatever the best path might have been, we should beware experts with lousy incentives. If experts are people who respond to their incentives just like non-experts, then we may need to rethink how we use experts in the political system. Read More > at The Critic

About Kevin

Mayor - City of Oakley, Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-POSCO INDUSTRIES, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Commissioner - Contra Costa Transportation Authority, Board Member - Tri Delta Transit, Transplan, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority and RD 2137, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction
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