• Mass Transit May Be a Factor in the Disparate COVID-19 Infection Rate Among Black Americans

    The D Train at rush hour in the Before Times.Kevin Drum

    As we all know, Black Americans get infected with the coronavirus at far higher rates than the white population. Part of the reason is that Black people tend to have high levels of preexisting conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, which make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Another part of the reason is that Black neighborhoods tend to have fewer medical resources than white neighborhoods—and thanks to historical patterns of systemic racism, this remains true even when you compare neighborhoods with comparable income levels. In studies of otherwise similar Black and white neighborhoods, Black neighborhoods still don’t have either the quantity or quality of medical care that’s common in white neighborhoods.

    But is there more? A new study says yes. The authors say that if you control for education, occupation, and commuting patterns, the racial disparities in COVID-19 infections largely disappear for Latino and Asian populations. However, among Black and Indigenous populations, big differences remain. What’s the missing factor?

    Surprisingly, for these two groups the racial disparity does not seem to be due to differences in income, poverty rates, education, occupational mix, or even access to healthcare insurance, which has been hypothesized by many observers to be a key source of the disparity. A significant portion of the disparity can, however, be sourced to the use of public transit, which also explains a large fraction of the difference in mortality between Los Angeles and New York City.

    ¹³One might wonder if the public transit variable is simply functioning as a proxy for New York City. Only four counties in the US show a majority of workers getting to work by public transit, and they are all part of New York City. Dropping these from the data barely changes the result. It is still possible that public transit is a proxy for effective local density, a variable emphasized by Desmet and Wacziarg (2020).

    Even more than usual, I’d caution everyone to take this result as tentative. It’s a population study, and population studies have inherent limitations. What’s more, there are several variables the authors had to estimate, and the data at hand limits the accuracy of those estimates. (For a deeper dive into the data, see my colleagues Sinduja Rangarajan and Eddie Rios’ analysis.)

    Instead, this should be taken as a pointer: It seems likely that mass transit is a factor, and that means mass transit deserves further study. It should also be taken as a success story for science and genuine curiosity. When we take a look at things like COVID-19 infections, it’s important not to jump to vague conclusions based on preexisting beliefs. We need to test those beliefs, because when we do we might discover factors that we can do something about right away, even in the absence of broad social reforms that might take a lifetime to achieve. If mass transit is really a crucial variable, I’m still not sure what the immediate answer is. But at least we can start looking.

  • Novak Djokovic Has COVID-19

    Great tennis player, but maybe not the best guy to get COVID-19 advice from.Marko Dimic/Xinhua/ZUMA

    Novak Djokovic, the #1 tennis player in the world, has tested positive for COVID-19 after playing in a tournament in Croatia. Does this mean it’s still unsafe to hold tennis tournaments? Maybe, but then again:

    During the tour, Djokovic and his guests had done all sorts of things that were normal before a global pandemic and completely cringe-inducing in the middle of one. They embraced at the net after matches. They played pickup basketball. They partied in a Belgrade nightclub, where videos show them limbo dancing, occasionally without shirts on and never wearing a mask.

    Nick Kyrgios, the Australian hothead who’s constantly getting grief for his antics on court, responded quickly:

    I think the bottom line here is that if normal precautions are taken and you don’t act like an idiot, tennis tournaments are probably pretty safe. But I guess we’ll find out in five weeks when New York hosts the world’s biggest tennis tournament.

    POSTSCRIPT: I do, however, have a gripe about the Journal’s suggestion that Djokovic endangered himself by not wearing a mask. I see this all the time and it’s not true. Djokovic endangered everyone else by not wearing a mask.

    Now, if the article had stated that Djokovic endangered himself by going to nightclubs where other people weren’t wearing masks—which is pretty likely, right?—that would have been completely correct.

  • Raw Data: COVID-19 Hospitalizations in Seven States

    I don’t have any special reason for posting this. Just curiosity. As you know, there are upsides and downsides to tracking COVID-19 cases. The upside is that they’re an early warning indicator. The downside is that their accuracy depends a lot on the level of testing.

    The mirror image is true of tracking mortality rates. The upside is they’re very accurate. The downside is they trail cases by three or four weeks, so by the time you see an upswing you already have weeks of new cases working their way through the population.

    Somewhere in between you have hospitalizations. They trail case counts, but only by a week or two, and they’re fairly accurate, though not as accurate as death tolls. So I thought I’d take a look.

    Unfortunately, some of the states we might be most interested in, like Texas and California, apparently don’t report hospitalizations in a form acceptable to The COVID-19 Project. But I picked six states sort of at random and then added Texas based on data from their health agency. Here’s what they look like:

    Oklahoma has seen a huge recent surge and Texas has nearly doubled its hospitalizations since June 1. None of the other states has seen an increase of more than 50 percent during that period. Now, 50 percent is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not a massive spike. On the other hand, it’s also true that over the past week every single state has seen a noticeable increase in hospitalizations.

    So this is a different look, but the conclusion is pretty much the same as always: it sure looks like COVID-19 is on the comeback, especially outside the Northeast and Midwest. Hang tight, and keep wearing those masks.

    UPDATE: I’ve added Texas to the chart.

  • Wear Your Mask!

    Are masks really as good as I think they are? Yes they are, and this isn’t based on any single study. It’s based on a long train of evidence, summarized here by Jeremy Howard, a research scientist at the University of San Francisco. If you’re skeptical about masks, I urge you to click the link and read the whole thread. In the meantime, here’s a short excerpt:

  • Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: June 21 Update

    Here’s the coronavirus death toll through June 21. Mexico reported a huge jump on Sunday. Other countries seemed to mostly take the weekend off, reporting very few deaths. Sweden hasn’t reported any new deaths for the past four days.

    UPDATE: From a Swedish reader: “Just for your understanding, Sweden didn’t report any deaths Friday-Sunday due to Midsummer. Today at 2 o’clock they reported 69 deaths and more from the weekend will sadly come tomorrow.” Midsummer!

    The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here. The Public Health Agency of Sweden is here.

  • Just Extend the Damn Benefits

    Jason DeParle tells the story of Melody Bedico, a single mother in Seattle who worked as a clerk at an airport hotel until the hotel closed:

    Though she immediately applied for unemployment insurance, Ms. Bedico got no help for two months. Multiple calls a day to the Washington state unemployment office went unanswered. Someone once put her on hold for two hours, then cut her off. (She cried.) When food ran short, Ms. Bedico limited herself to two meals a day to feed her 12-year-old daughter. She fell three months behind on her mortgage.

    “My whole body really ached with stress, from my head to my toes,” she said.

    Then $7,600 suddenly arrived for eight weeks of back benefits, including a $600 weekly bonus. Counting a stimulus payment, Ms. Bedico’s income, $15,500 for three months, is nearly 60 percent more than she would have earned at the hotel.

    “I was so happy — I really needed that money,” she said.

    Unless Congress extends it, this assistance will end in five weeks even though no one thinks employment will be anywhere close to normal by then. So how about if we just extend it and stop all the inane arguing about whether it keeps people from going back to work. The unemployment rate is 13 percent. 13 percent! That’s what’s keeping people from going back to work. Just extend the damn benefits because it’s the only thing that a decent society would do.