A Question of Which COVID-19 Slope

Governor Raimondo’s daily press briefing seems to have backed off the increasingly restrictive tone she had been taking, today, but she still said this:

“We are not in a downward slope — that I can assure you,” Raimondo said, though she expressed optimism that Rhode Island has successfully reduced how bad the outbreak will be at its peak. She plans to share additional data related to the state’s forecasts and modeling on Thursday.

It’s nice that we’ll finally get some insight into the governor’s decision-making process, although one has to wonder why it’s been withheld for so long. Is she holding off until she’s confident the worst has passed before she informs the public so that we won’t have the opportunity to decide for ourselves whether her current and forthcoming restrictions are too much?

But about that “downward slope”… we should ask what downward slope she means.  If she means to answer the question, “Was today the peak?,” then obviously we’re not seeing a decrease.  But in terms of “flattening the curve” — which is to say, slowing the infection rate — we obviously are on a downward slope.

The following chart shows a 14-day infection rate, meaning how many new people have reportedly been infected for each person who was infected two weeks ago.



We should keep in mind that the actual number of cases isn’t actually receding until the infection rate is less than one, and we’re not there yet.  On the other hand, the state has dramatically increased testing over this month, so every number before last week should almost certainly be higher for a true picture of the trend over time.

Moving to another possible slope, one bit of data that is conspicuously left out of the information that the state is providing is the number of active cases, or even what time span the state is using to assume that somebody is no longer infected.  Not everybody who has tested positive will come back to be checked again, and the state probably isn’t calling up every one of them on a regular basis to ask how they’re feeling.

Based on the slowing growth of daily new cases and the longer-term trend of the 14-day infection rate, a rough calculation suggests we’ll hit the peak of active cases sometime next week, with an end to new cases about a month from today.  The accuracy of these guesses will obviously depend significantly on how the governor changes restrictions on activity, which brings us back to the questions that citizens in a free society should have some role in answering.

What rate of ongoing infections are we willing to live with?  And are there steps we can take to protect the people who are especially vulnerable to the disease that will increase our willingness to risk even higher rates of ongoing infections among everybody else?  After all, a large majority of deaths have been among nursing home residents.  As discussed in this space before, a frozen economy has real consequences for life and well-being, and all the money being paid out for unemployment would go a long way to pay for security measures at nursing homes and provide extra pay for professionals who have to restrict their own activity to watch over the vulnerable.

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