Sunday is under-count day

One of the things that often gets mentioned by coronavirus public information projects [1][2] is that certain days of the week are “under-reporting” days. Weekends tend to take the crown in this – public health reporting systems lag on weekends.

I can see this in the data from our county, Collin County in Texas. Plotting the average number of cases reported each day of the week (with the uncertainty provided by the error on the mean, or the standard deviation divided by the square-root of the number of data points), reveals the “weekend lag”.

The average number of cases reported per day of the week in Collin County. The uncertainty band (grey) is given by the error on the mean – dividing the standard deviation of cases by the square-root of the total number of data points in a bin.

The weekend is always a lull for us. The work week days are all generally compatible with each other within their uncertainties, but the weekends are indeed a suppressed outlier.

The lesson from the data: don’t take hope from the weekend.


A Run in the Heat (C+86)

When I step outside, it’s 81F and humid. 10am on a Sunday morning in July in Texas is brutal. It doesn’t matter to me. I need some variety in my workout routine, and I need to go outside and run.

I set out west. I avoid people on the narrow sidewalks. The sweat comes faster than normal. When I use my left elbow to press a crosswalk button (always use the left elbow), a streak of sunblock mixed with sweat comes off my arm.

I stick to the shade, where there is any to be found. My run takes me farther west and a little north. I intend to swing south after a mile-and-a-half, through a different subdivision and along a creek. The air is cooler by the creeks, but you have to get there first to enjoy the relief.

I cross the street to avoid walkers. I swing out on the grass to give a runner room to pass on a narrow part of the path.

It’s getting hotter. Even with water, it’s starting to hurt to be outside, in the heat, running.

As I swing east and go under one of the busy roads that cuts through this part of town, I enjoy a brief few seconds of complete shade below the overpass. The creek is running just to my right and down a bank. It’s cool and dark and my mind is wandering.

When I emerge on the other side, I am in a city park and running along the west side of a large field. I scan for people along the path, but there is no one. The path rings the field, and on the other side of the field there are walkers.

Then I hear it. There is music. I catch only a fleeting cluster of notes on the wind. My mind flashes an image, of Alan Alda in a green army medical uniform, casting a mischievous grin. Is that the theme to MASH I hear on the wind?

I strain to listen for more. I catch snatches of the tune. It’s a trumpet. It’s being played live. I look around to see where the music is coming from. I spot a cluster (IT’S A FUCKING PANDEMIC!) of people on the other side of the field. I keep looking. The music is not coming from them.

Then I see it. A person, maybe a male, standing along by the treeline across the meadow. Walkers are on the path, while the trumpeter stands off the pavement on its far side.

I catch more of the tune. It’s definitely the theme to MASH … or, to be more precise, it’s the melody to the song “Suicide is Painless.”

I remember when I first learned this fact – that the almost playful tune that opens and closes every episode of MASH (and appeared first in the movie) is named “Suicide is Painless,” with lyrics to boot. I learned it from Mr. Devlin, one of my high school English teachers. I learned a lot from Mr. Devlin. What I absorbed from his classes is all mixed up with what I picked up in simple casual conversation with him between classes or during study periods or during High School Quiz Bowl practice. He once pointed out that MASH was about survival through humor, adapting to horrible situations (the front lines of the Korean War, in this case) through laughter and distraction. The icing on this cake: the title of the theme song.

It’s the perfect song for this age. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. I’m actively avoiding people other than Jodi. I keep my distance from people to save them from me, and me from them.

But those people in the park are clustering.

We adapt to this new normal by learning to lie to ourselves. We pretend that we can go back to normal, but that’s not true. There is a thin line between everything being okay and everything falling apart. At any moment we can be shelled by the virus. It can rob us of our breath. It can steal our loved ones.

We change our routines. We mourn the life that was. We keep our distance. We crack jokes about the virus, or the pathetic response of the federal or state government. We drink our quarantinis. All of this while a thousand people a day in the U.S. die. In combat, 33,000 Americans died from 1950-1953 during the Korean war – about 30 people each day of the conflict. Since March of this year, 146,000 Americans at minimum have been killed by the virus. The shelling gets closer. The wounded keep coming in.

Nature may have committed an act of murder against humanity by unleashing this virus. But the U.S. political folly that has followed – incompetence nested inside indifference – was an act of suicide. We might laugh and joke through it all, but it’s not funny.

And it’s not painless.

Hot Spot (C+85)

Redfield was then asked for a definition of “hot spots.” He said it would include places where more than 5 percent of coronavirus tests come back positive. Looking county by county, he said “the majority of the nation” is not a hot spot.

“CDC director concedes schools in ‘hot spots’ face tougher call on reopening”. The Washington Post. July 25, 2020.

If you look at the numbers in Collin County – the number of new coronavirus cases per day – you might be convinced that something good is happening. Back on about day 128 after the county started reporting COVID-19 data, we hit the single-day high of new cases. We had just over 200 new cases of COVID-19 in a single day. This came around the average peak daily new cases.

Since day 128, we’ve dropped a little in the new cases count; at worst, we’ve remained generally level. You might be tempted to think things are better.

In reality, it’s not that simple. The case counts are dropping because the amount of testing for COVID-19 has declined. Just as case counts gently dropped off, so did the total number of COVID-19 tests. But something stayed constant: the rate of positive tests.

Collin County did not report test positivity rates until about 50 days after they started collecting and reporting local data on the pandemic. Of course the rates were high at the beginning; tests were available primarily to people showing signs of illness. When testing became more widespread, we began to better sample the “true positive” rate. During that era or more widespread testing, the positivity rate was around 16%.

While the CDC’s advice may have recently been compromised by the President, some clear and honest truths still slip out. Redfield understands a “hot spot” to be a place with a >5% positivity rate. Like all the counties across the DFW metroplex, we are a hot spot.

Views from a Blue Dot: Comet Neowise

On Saturday, we took a break from the pandemic to go outside and look for a comet. We live in a Dallas suburb, but one which has grown a lot in 10 years. The skies are not quite as dark as they used to be, but we thought it might be possible to spot and view Comet Neowise.

We set out just before 9pm to a local city park. Jodi had the binoculars I got from my grandfather when he passed away; I had the new DSLR camera Jodi got me for Christmas last year. The sky was still showing the last glow of sunset, and city lights coming on across North Texas was being gently scattered back down to Earth, creating a faint but irreducible haze in the sky. We found a good spot to try to see the comet. Jodi located it with an iOS skywatching app, and we waited for more darkness to settle.

While waiting, we took stock of the night sky. Planets and stars peeked out of the twilight Arcturus glowed orange overhead. Jupiter lit the sky closer to the southern horizon, with the four Galilean Moons clearly visible under even modest magnification. Our real prize was to be found just below the cup of the Big Dipper. As the sky conditions settled to just about the best possible, we started spotting the stars of the Big Dipper more closely and hunting for the comet.

We knew to start from Merak, the star that makes up the front lower edge of the dipper’s cup. Go straight down from Merak, and the comet would lie somewhere along that line. Indeed, once we employed the binoculars, the bright core of the comet and the fainter long arcing wisp of its tail were clear. This was incredibly thrilling; I’ve never had a chance to see a comet first-hand before.

I got the camera setup and aimed in the general area where the comet should appear. In particular, we noted that Neowise was framed by a triangular arrangement of background stars. Spotting those was hard on the camera, but after a few long exposures at high ISO (>1600), it was clear where to center the shot to best pickup the comet.

Comet Neowise

After a bunch of photos, we packed up and went home. It was 10pm, way past our bedtime. It had been worth it. With all madness raging down here on Earth, it’s nice to see a cosmic tourist taking a drive through the inner solar system. Neowise will not to return for several thousand years. When it comes back, I wonder if humanity will still be here to see it?