Despite health experts’ warnings, Covid-19 infections and deaths are plunging in the U.S.

Oct 8, 2021 | 12 comments

An unmasked football crowd in September.

By David Leonhardt

In the final weeks of this summer, with Covid-19 cases soaring and the rituals of autumn about to resume, many people assumed that the pandemic was on the verge of getting even worse.

Children were returning to classrooms five days a week. Broadway was reopening, and movie fans were heading to theaters again. In football stadiums across the country, fans were crowding together, usually unmasked, to cheer, sing and drink.

Given all of this — and the Delta variant — public discussion had a decidedly grim tone as the summer wound down. “It may only get worse,” read a Politico headline. “The new school year is already a disaster,” Business Insider reported.

The Washington Post cited an estimate that daily caseloads in the U.S. could reach 300,000 in August, higher than ever before. An expert quoted in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested the number could be higher yet. In The New York Times, an epidemiologist predicted that cases would rise in September because children were going back to school.

And what actually happened? Cases plunged.

The best measure of U.S. cases (a seven-day average, adjusted for holiday anomalies) peaked around 166,000 on Sept. 1 — the very day that seemed to augur a new surge. The number of new daily cases has since fallen almost 40 percent. Hospitalizations are down about 30 percent. Deaths, which typically change direction a few weeks after cases, have declined 13 percent since Sept. 20.

To be fair, forecasting a pandemic is inherently difficult. Virtually all of us, expert and not, have at times been surprised by Covid and incorrect about what was likely to happen next. It’s unavoidable.

But there is a pattern to some of the recent mistakes, and understanding it can help us avoid repeating them.
Clutch chokers

Let’s start by recalling a near-universal human trait: People are attracted to stories with heroes and villains. In these stories, the character flaws of the villains bring them down, allowing the decency of the heroes to triumph. The stories create a clear relationship between cause and effect. They make sense.

A security guard at a New York City event urges patrons to mask up.

Books, television shows and movies are full of such stories. But for the purposes of understanding Covid, another form of mass entertainment — sports — is more useful.

Unlike novels or movies, sporting events involve true uncertainty. They are not part of a fictional world, with an author’s predetermined ending. And as is the case with more important subjects, like a pandemic, sports are subject to a lot of predictions. For these reasons, social scientists, including Nobel laureates, sometimes study sports to learn lessons about the human mind.

If you turn on almost any sporting event, you will hear tales of heroes and villains. Sports broadcasters often use moralistic language — with concepts like “clutch” and “choke” — to explain outcomes. The broadcasters turn games into “referenda on character,” as Joe Sheehan, who writes an excellent baseball newsletter, has put it. The athletes with strong character win, and the weak lose.

But anybody who watches sports for long enough will notice that these morality plays do not age well. Many athletes or coaches whom broadcasters long described as chokers (Clayton Kershaw, Andy Reid, Phil Mickelson, Alex Rodriguez, John Elway, Jana Novotná, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dan Jansen and many more) eventually won championships with clutch performances.

They did not have character flaws that prevented them from winning. They had been unlucky, or they had run into better competition. Until they didn’t.

The real world often does not lend itself to moralistic fables.
Vaccines and humility

In the case of Covid, the fable we tell ourselves is that our day-to-day behavior dictates the course of the pandemic. When we are good — by staying socially distant and wearing our masks — cases are supposed to fall. When we are bad — by eating in restaurants, hanging out with friends and going to a theater or football game — cases are supposed to rise.

The idea is especially alluring to anybody making an effort to be careful and feeling frustrated that so many other Americans seem blasé. After all, the Covid fable does have an some truth to it. Social distancing and masking do reduce the spread of the virus. They just are not as powerful as people often imagine.

The main determinants of Covid’s spread (other than vaccines, which are extremely effective) remain mysterious. Some activities that seem dangerous, like in-person school or crowded outdoor gatherings, may not always be. As unsatisfying as it is, we do not know why cases have recently plunged. The decline is consistent with the fact that Covid surges often last for about two months before receding, but that’s merely a description of the data, not a causal explanation.

“We still are really in the cave ages in terms of understanding how viruses emerge, how they spread, how they start and stop, why they do what they do,” Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, has told me.

In coming weeks and months, it is possible that the virus will surge again, maybe because of a new variant or because vaccine immunity will wane. It is also possible that the population has built up enough immunity — from both vaccines and previous infections — that Delta will have been the last major wave.

We don’t know, and we do not have to pretend otherwise. We do not have to treat Covid as a facile referendum on virtue.

When caseloads are high, it makes sense to take precautions, even if we can’t be sure how much they matter. When caseloads are lower, it makes sense to take fewer, because almost every precaution has a cost. Other than that, the best we can do is get vaccinated and, as Osterholm says, stay humble.

Credit: New York Times Morning Letter


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