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The Shape of Things to Come

Three graphics that tell us something about where COVID-19 is heading.
March 27, 2020
The Shape of Things to Come

1. Virus Data

A reader who is a data scientist has been playing around with the numbers to see if there are any interesting trends that aren’t being reported widely. And last night he sent me this graph:Let’s talk about what we’re looking at here.

On the x-axis we have tests performed per capita. On the y-axis we have positive cases per capita. And he’s plotted the trends for states that have reported numbers of tests performed. If a state isn’t here, it’s because they’re doing negligible testing.

If things are going well, then you’ll be in the bottom-right quadrant of the graph: You’re doing a lot of testing and getting very few positives. That means you’ve got the contagion under control.

If things are going terribly, you’ll be in the top-left quadrant: You aren’t doing enough testing to know the real state of play, but clearly a lot of people are sick. You just can’t see the iceberg.

If you’re in the bottom-left, it means you don’t really yet have a handle on where things are.

And if you’re in the top-right, it means things are bad.

So look at the graph again: Obviously, New York and New Jersey are the big outliers. But also note that the Northeast region in general: Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts. Hot spots radiate outward.

The thing that jumped out at me here was Louisiana. So we’ve had a hotspot in the Pacific Northwest which seems to be coming under control. We’ve got the Northeast out of control. What we did not have yet was hard evidence of something very bad going on in the South.

Louisiana’s numbers are that signal and the spot that we should be watching closely over the next two weeks. Because if Louisiana turns into a hotspot, then you run the real risk of blooms in Florida and Texas.

And as a supporting chart, take a look at this ranking of the states by tests performed as a total of population:I’ll get to why this chart is important in a minute.

So let’s turn to  this Axios piece. They’ve put together an interactive chart that’s so good I won’t put a picture of it here because I want you to click on the link and go see it for real.

This data set looks at metro areas (not counting NYC) by total number of cases and percentage increase in the last four days. And sure enough, what you see here is what our last graphic suggested: Real trouble in New Orleans, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Detroit, Dallas, and Houston. All of them have seen over 100 percent increases in just the last four days.

There have been people who have tried to argue that COVID-19 is really a New York City problem. It’s true that NYC is the epicenter in America. But that’s because it’s the densest, biggest city. The outbreak is so widespread that it was already in all 50 states. And while it got to NYC early, because it’s such a big travel hub, it also migrated out to other cities, which are simply a week or so behind NYC.

Hopefully the fact that no other metro area is as dense as NYC will prevent the spread from being as catastrophic. But you have to understand that this wave hasn’t yet crested. It’s still gathering strength.

If you want to get really worried, look at the rate of increase in the heartland: In the last four days, St. Louis has had a 200 percent increase in total number of confirmed cases. Indianapolis has had a 230 percent increase.

Now, jump back up to that blue chart ranking states by total testing percentages. What you see is that Indiana and Missouri are near the very bottom of the scale—they’ve performer fewer tests per capital than 80 percent of the states. And yet their big cities are showing some of the highest growth rates.

What does that tell you?

Nothing good.

(Many thanks to reader T.D. for putting together those charts.)

2. Rocket Science

I got an email yesterday from a reader saying that the failure of the U.S. government to prepare a stockpile of COVID-19 tests couldn’t reasonably be laid at Trump’s feet because it’s the CDC’s fault and Trump is merely the president.

To be very clear: the CDC is part of the executive branch. It answers to the president. If the coronavirus was not top of mind for the president by mid-January and if the president was not, at that point, laser-focused on testing, then we are talking about a failure of enormous magnitude on his part.

And I want everyone to understand that having coronavirus top-of-mind by mid-January did not require any special insight or lucky guessing.

As evidence, read this Texas Monthly piece about how a regional grocery chain, H-E-B, started getting ready for the pandemic:

Justen Noakes, director of emergency preparedness, H-E-B: Just a little bit of history: we have been working on our pandemic and influenza plan for quite a while now, since 2005, when we had the threat of H5N1 overseas in China. That’s when we first developed what our plan looked like, [as well as] some of our requirements and business implications. In 2009, we actually used that plan in response to H1N1, when the swine flu came to fruition in Cibolo, and refined it, made it more of an influenza plan. We’ve continued to revise it, and it’s been a part of our preparedness plan at H-E-B ever since.Craig Boyan, president, H-E-B: Justen leads our emergency preparedness with a group of folks, and that is a full-time, year-round position. We are constantly in a year-round state of preparedness for different emergencies. We keep emergency supplies at almost every warehouse and have water and other supplies staged and ready to go and kept in storage to make sure that we are ready to [react quickly] when a crisis emerges, whether it be a hurricane or a pandemic. We take being a strong emergency responder in Texas, to take care of Texas communities, very seriously.

On January 15, Wuhan’s Municipal Health Commission announced that the novel coronavirus was spreading via human-to-human transmission. 

Justen Noakes: So when did we start looking at the coronavirus? Probably the second week in January, when it started popping up in China as an issue. We’ve got interests in the global sourcing world, and we started getting reports on how it was impacting things in China, so we started watching it closely at that point. We decided to take a harder look at how to implement the plan we developed in 2009 into a tabletop exercise. On February 2, we dusted it off and compared the plan we had versus what we were seeing in China, and started working on step one pretty heavily.

Craig Boyan: Starting in January, we’ve been in close contact with several retailers and suppliers around the world. As this has started to emerge, we’ve been in close contact with retailers in China, starting with what happened in Wuhan in the early couple of months, and what kind of lessons they learned. Over the last couple of months, [we’ve been] in close contact with some of our Italian retailers and suppliers, understanding how things have evolved in Italy and now in Spain, talking to those countries that are ahead of us in the curve. We’ve been in daily contact, understanding the pace and the change and the need for product, and how things have progressed in each of those countries.

Justen Noakes: We modeled what had been taking place in China from a transmission perspective, as well as impact. As the number of illnesses and the number of deaths were increasing, obviously the Chinese government was taking some steps to protect their citizens, so we basically mirrored what that might look like. We also took an approach to what we saw during H1N1 in 2009, and later got on top of it. Our example was if we were to get an outbreak, specifically in the Houston area, how would we manage that, and how would we respond with our current resources, as well as what resource opportunities would we have.

A regional grocery chain in Texas was on top of this situation.

The president of the United States was not.

3. David Arquette

I had always thought that David Arquette’s misbegotten turn into wrestling was a the mistake of a dilettante. Turns out, it was the mistake of a fanboy. The Ringer has the story:

On November 16, 2018, the day that he almost died in the wrestling ring, David Arquette showed up for work in a Bruiser Brody T-shirt. The fourth-generation actor turned pro wrestler was tempting fate in a way. Brody, a former sportswriter born Frank Goodish, was the most feared brawler of the 1980s and a pioneer in the violent world of hardcore wrestling. He was also killed backstage at a show.

Arquette had been lined up to wrestle in his first death match. Having accepted the booking two days earlier, Arquette had little time to prepare for it, not that it mattered anyway. Wrestlers can’t train for death matches—the most insane and bloody match in wrestling. Still, he watched a documentary on death match specialist “Sick” Nick Mondo and surfed YouTube clips of his opponent, Nick Gage.

“I had a worried feeling,” says Arquette’s wife, Christina McLarty Arquette. “I could tell David was really nervous when he left the house.” And yet he arrived at the Hi Hat, a venue in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, projecting confidence with Brody’s wild-eyed mug on his shirt as an avatar of sorts.

The match started slowly before descending into standard death match chaos. Arquette was speared through a table, had a bottle cracked over his head, and was gauged with a pizza cutter. Blood poured from his forehead. Gage, who’d served a five-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to second-degree robbery in 2011, showed no mercy. After smashing fluorescent light tubes over Arquette, he dug a shard of glass into Arquette’s forehead. That’s when the match took a dangerous turn. Arquette went for a double-leg takedown, surprising Gage, and both wrestlers tumbled to the mat. On the way down, Arquette cut himself on another shard of glass, opening a massive hole in his neck. He rolled out of the ring clutching his collar, struggling to keep the blood from gushing out.

“I was so freaked out. I thought it hit my jugular and that I was dying,” Arquette says today. “But once I knew I wasn’t dying immediately, I went back in and tried to finish it.” Arquette would escape with five stiches, but the wounds cut much deeper.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.