A deep exploration of the science and data of the coronavirus

Teachers work outside Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy on Jan. 4, 2021. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Teachers work outside Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy on Jan. 4, 2021. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

How do you have a rational discussion when someone says he is “following the science” when it is so obvious he is ignorant of the science.

Case in point: The argument that Chicago teachers are “following the science” when they refuse to return to their jobs in the classroom because they are so “at risk.”

Truth is, the actual science says from a holistic perspective, children are better off in school than not. As NPR reported:

Despite widespread concerns, two new international studies show no consistent relationship between in-person K-12 schooling and the spread of the coronavirus. And a third study from the United States shows no elevated risk to childcare workers who stayed on the job.

Combined with anecdotal reports from a number of U.S. states where schools are open, as well as a crowdsourced dashboard of around 2,000 U.S. schools, some medical experts are saying it’s time to shift the discussion from the risks of opening K-12 schools to the risks of keeping them closed.

It’s not just the science about school opening that’s misused for partisan (i.e. far left) purposes. More broadly speaking, also challengeable is the science that supports arguments for lockdowns of the sort advocated by the like of Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker.

Courtesy of reader Richard Davis, here is a video that closely analyzes the data, finding that many of the accepted claims are, if not wrong, at least challengeable. The video was made by Ivor Cummins, a self-described “decoder of science.” I cannot vouch for the accuracy of all of his conclusions, but it is useful because it deeply explores the data and presents an alternative explanation for the standard assumptions.

I won’t argue that this is “settled science,” as so many people who don’t understand science argue. It’s new science, marked by thousands of studies of novel coronavirus. The studies will keep coming, long after the pandemic has been corralled.

That the science still is so, well, flexible should undercut the threadbare political accusations that (fill in a name) is to blame for “millions of deaths” because they didn’t “follow the science.” We can better respect each other if well respect the science.

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  • Hi there! I'm a married Democrat with two kids, and I agree with some of the things you have said. But if this article is about following the science, why bring in politics. I was instantly turned off when you dropped the word "partisan." Before that, I was nodding my head along with you. I liked your NPR quote, we need more facts like that. Not bringing up Pritzker or Trump, or anything else that leads away from the facts. Facts are facts, studies might not be facts but they are the closest thing we have to facts, right now.
    I want my kids back in school, just like everyone else. I've watched as Catholic schools around our public school have done well with keeping the kids, mostly, virus-free.
    I think the thing that worries me is the "If?" What if there is an outbreak? Then, all this hard work, and isolation was for nothing. I do agree though that at some point we need to take that risk.
    You stated your case well, but you might gain more readers by keeping politics completely out of it. I think at this point most Americans are sick of politics, no matter what side you stand on.
    Politics can't save us, but knowledge and facts are a good start.

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    I went to Ivor Cummins’s website, and started to listen to a podcast with someone named Reid Sheftall, who Cummins, in awe, tells us, scored 1580 on the SATs (so did I, I just don’t go around bragging about it). The first thing Sheftall says is that the IFR, infectious fatality rate, of SARS-CoV-2 is 0.1%, and makes a big deal about how he was right about this, and everyone else was wrong. At this point, I assume this video must have been made some time ago, because the IFR is well established to be considerably higher than that. In fact, the overall mortality rate for the U.S. now has exceeded 0.1%. More than one in a thousand Americans have died from the virus. Not one in a thousand infected people, but one in a thousand people, total. The rate is much higher than that for many states, not to mention metropolitan areas like NYC, and even several other countries. So obviously the IFR is considerably higher. In fact, a number of antibody studies conducted by several major Euro countries during the summer concluded it was around 0.4 – 1.0%.

    Sheftall then points out that only about one in a million school age children have died from the virus, from which he concludes that we shouldn’t shut down schools. Certainly there are good arguments for keeping schools open, I think we should make every effort to do so, but the argument for closing them isn’t based on kids dying. It’s based on kids infecting older people in the community.

    Sheftall also plays fast and loose with the data. He says that more school age children die from the flu than from C19. That is correct. About three times as many died from the flu in 2019-2020 than from C19 this past year, 2020. But more than 8 million children in that age group were infected, which is more than five times the number of age 5-17 children who have tested positive for the virus. No doubt the number of infected children is much higher, but so is the number of children with flu. Sheftall alludes to this when he says 70-80 million Americans developed the flu in 2017=2018. I don’t know where he got that number from; the CDC says it’s about half that. But the bottom line is that Sheftall is missing the point when he claims that seasonal flu is deadlier than C19 for children. If as many children were infected with C19 as are with the flu—and they would be, if the social restrictions we have put into place weren’t there--the mortality cases would be much higher. The available data we have indicate that the IFR for C19 is substantially higher than for seasonal flu, at every age. And just to reiterate, the fact that the numbers are still very low isn’t the point. The point is that children may spread the virus to older people, who are more at risk. We can certainly debate whether, or to what degree, schools should be impacted, but we need to keep the facts straight.

    Sheftall then criticizes the PCR test, noting that it doesn’t detect, necessarily, functional, infectious virus, but viral fragments—meaning that many people who test positive may not be infectious, or according to him, never were infected. While this is certainly possible, any attempts to use these considerations to dismiss the value of the tests runs up against the overwhelming evidence that hospitalizations and deaths very closely track with positive cases. E.g., currently, about 1.5% of positive cases result in deaths, with an average lag period of about three weeks. This relationship has been in force since last July.

    Sheftall then shows a graph that, he claims, that people are not infectious before they show symptoms, from which he concludes asymptomatic people are not infectious. This is flat-out false. A Nature Med paper way back in April showed that infectiousness peaks before symptoms emerge, then declines rapidly with a week or so (as an aside, this is one, though not the only, major piece of evidence refuting the claim that transfer of patients from hospitals to nursing homes resulted in many infections and deaths of NH patients. It didn’t. That is one myth that no one is willing to rebut). So presymptomatic people can infect others, and in fact are more likely to, as well as asymptomatic people.

    Predictably, Sheftall, then launches into a discussion of how lockdowns don’t work. Yes, we can find lots of examples when they didn’t reduce the spread, which doesn’t prove that they didn’t work, because there are other factors involved, that can’t be controlled. The same flaws are present in arguments that masks don’t work. There is lots of evidence of lockdowns that did work, most clearly in the U.S. Why was the first wave, in late March and early April, over so quickly, and with little evidence of exponential spread (so little that it suckered Nobel Prize winner Michael Levitt in formulating a theory that the virus would peter out by itself; that theory has been very effectively debunked by the current surge). Then in May, the U.S. began opening up again, and by the middle of June, a second wave began.

    Now we’re in a third wave, the worst one yet. Does this prove that lockdowns don’t work? No, if they didn’t work, we would expect a constant exponential growth, week after week. In fact, daily new cases hit a plateau the week before Christmas. They have surged somewhat recently, at least some of it due to holiday travel and gatherings, but the rate of increase is far below what it was earlier, in November. This despite the fact that most people, while saying they wear masks, don’t do so at home, where much of the virus spreads.

    There is much more evidence that lockdowns work, from other countries. E.g., earlier in 2020, France reduced its R0, transmission number by something like two-thirds through its lockdown.

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