Thursday, March 12, 2020

Exponentials, extrapolation, and prudence

It's been a remarkable week.  There seems to be a consensus among US universities, based in part on CDC guidelines, and in part on the logistically and legally terrifying possibility of having to deal with dormitories full of quarantined undergraduates, that the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year will be conducted via online methods.  This will be rough, but could well be a watershed moment for distance education techniques.  The companies that make the major software platforms (e.g. zoom, canvas) and their web storage are facing a remarkable trial by fire when the nation's large universities all come back from break and hundreds of thousands of students all try to use these tools at once.

At the same time that all this is going on, many doctoral programs around the country (including ours) that had not already done their graduate recruiting visitations were canceling open houses and trying to put together virtual experiences to do the job.  

There is a lot to unpack here, but it's worth asking:  Are people over-reacting?  I don't think so, and over-reacting would be better than the alternative, anyway.  Different estimates give a range of values, but it would appear that the age-averaged mortality rate of covid-19 is somewhere between 0.7% and 3%.  (The current number in the US is something like 2.9%, but that's probably an overestimate due to appallingly too little testing; in the non-Wuhan parts of China it's like 0.6%, but in Italy it's over 3%.)  The disease seems comparable in transmission to the annual influenza, which in the US is estimated to infect 35-40M people every year, and with a mortality rate of around 0.1% leads to something like 35-40K deaths per year.  Given this, it's not unreasonable to think that, unchecked, there could be between 250K and 1.2M deaths from this in the US alone.  A key issue in Italy stems from the hospitalization rate of around 10-15%.  If the cases come too rapidly in time, there just aren't enough hospital beds.  This is why flattening the curve is so important.

It annoys me to see some people whom I generally respect scientifically seem to throw their numerical literacy out the window on this.  We shouldn't freak out and panic, but we should understand the underlying math and assumptions and take this appropriately seriously.

Update:  Notes from a meeting at UCSF (web archive version of link) hosted by, among others, Joe DeRisi.  I first met Joe when we became Packard Fellows back in 2003.  He's a brilliant and very nice guy, who with colleagues created the viral phylogeny chip that identified SARS as a previously unknown coronavirus and pinpointed its closest relatives.


Anonymous said...

This article makes the same case:
with the additional insight that the official statistics vastly underestimate the
number of people that truly have the coronavirus.

E.g. in Wuhan (60 million people region Hubei) when the number of official cases hit
400, the actual number was 2500 and it was exponentially (~40% per day) increasing.

thm said...

What's going on with graduate students, especially those who are working in labs? Can't really take a UHV chamber home. I suppose experiments are much better at running themselves nowadays even compared to when I was in grad school.

Douglas Natelson said...

thm, right now the guidance is that grad research is ok to continue provided it's the usual small numbers of people, though everyone is being pushed hard to use common sense. As I've told our faculty and students: If you don't feel well, please stay home, and be understanding that that's what everyone is doing. Work remotely if that's possible for you. Be smart. The issue is less the direct risk to the students (in that the vast majority of them are in low risk categories) and more the concern about slowing any spread.

DanM said...

All the research labs here have been shut, effective more or less immediately. I'd be surprised if that doesn't happen at Rice too. Be ready for that.

Prof. Sholl said...

Multiple US universities are shutting down all research labs. As with the suspension of classes/switch to online teaching, the transition from this being a vague idea to your university implementing is likely to happen very fast. If you operate or work in an experimental lab, it would be prudent to spend time *today* making plans for safely shutting down your lab and not being able to be there for an extended period. Having a few days to plan for this can make a big difference, so start now.

Anonymous said...

At Cornell, lab work has been totally shut down. Exceptions are granted to those needing to maintain cell cultures, live animals, volatile and expensive reagents, and cryogenic systems but even then only one person can go into lab at a time.

Douglas Natelson said...

Thanks all. As you might imagine, I'm a little busy right now, but I appreciate the constructive comments as a conduit of information.

Anonymous said...
I Newton did his semianl by social distancing. It is possible when no admin is there and faculty micromanagers around, there may be a I Newton in the making. Good luck with intuition.