Even In New York We’re Dropping the Ball

A customer wearing a face mask exits a Walgreens pharmacy in South Beach on April 14, 2020 in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
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July 4, 2020 5:04 p.m.

I mentioned yesterday that New York’s COVID numbers were moving in the wrong direction – albeit from extremely low levels and within the range that could simply be statistical noise. Today they’re a bit better. Let’s hope they keep in that direction. But New York, which currently is doing vastly better than any other state in the country, makes a different point. Even here, where daily cases are in the hundreds and the percentage of positive tests hovers around 1% it is not remotely good enough.

Germany currently has about the same number of cases per day as New York City, despite having roughly ten times the population. Italy and France have some variation. But they’re in the same ballpark relative to population.

To put this yet another way, if we adjusted Germany’s number of cases yesterday (283) to approximate the US population that would be 1,132 cases vs the actual number of cases in the United States yesterday which was 57,562. (The differential is likely much greater when we figure that the percentage of positive tests is vastly higher in the US.) If we took that Germany number from yesterday and scaled it in the reverse direction to approximate the population in New York State we’d get about 70 cases. Yesterday New York had 918 cases and today it was 726. So even New York, which is doing about the best of any part of the US, is still clocking cases at roughly ten times the rate as Germany and most of Europe. Of course the percentage of positive tests being returned in these countries is vastly lower than in New York, which again is the lowest in the US.

Just for the sake of running out the numbers, Germany had 238 cases. If Florida has the same population as Germany it’s currently daily case count would be between 40,000 and 45,000 cases. So 238 vs 42,500. That’s how bad we’re doing.

Remember that outbreak in Beijing about a month ago which some feared presaged a second wave in China? China was able to stamp it out with a total of just over three hundred cases most of which were discovered over a two to three week period. To put that in perspective that’s the number of cases in New York City on a good day. In other words, an outbreak that sparked a massive response in Beijing wouldn’t even have registered in what is now one of the most COVID-clean big cities in the US.

You can run these numbers in an infinite numbers of comparisons. They all return the same value: we’re failing horribly. There aren’t a few countries showing it’s possible. Virtually every other country anything like us is doing vastly better.

This isn’t just a competition to see which country can get the lowest possible incidence of the disease past a level of diminishing returns. The returns remain very significant. At the prevalence currently in New York you’re never too far away from a string of bad luck that can catapult you back into the bad zone. Just as important a lot more normal life becomes possible when you get the numbers down to near eradication levels. Schools, shopping, indoor dining all start to become possible and fairly safe because each interaction has dramatically less risk. (Again, remember we’re talking here about 1/10th the number of infectious people even compared to New York. That makes a big difference.)

Obviously a disease like COVID is never really going to be eradicated anywhere as long as it’s raging in other parts of the globe. Even with travel bans there are still lots of people moving around. But at super low levels you can probably stamp out clusters pretty successfully when they arise.

Even in the areas where we’re doing pretty well we’ve still gotten complacent. We’re failing. It’s not a matter of permanent lockdowns. It’s just a matter of having a strategy, following the evidence, being dedicated and getting popular buy-in. In other parts of the world they’re having health and economy. We have neither.

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