Coronavirus

Did COVID-19 Lockdowns Reach Back in Time to Affect Behavior Before They Were Imposed?

Trends in Massachusetts highlight the importance of voluntary changes in behavior.

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"By going into lockdown," New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer matter-of-factly reports, "Massachusetts drove its reproductive number down from 2.2 at the beginning of March to 1 by the end of the month; it's now at .74." Zimmer is talking about the number of people the average carrier infects, and if the Massachusetts lockdown really did cut that number by two-thirds, it would be strong evidence that such policies are highly effective at reducing virus transmission. The truth, however, is rather more complicated.

Zimmer links to a chart that shows the reproductive number in Massachusetts falling precipitously in March. But that downward trend began more than three weeks before Gov. Charlie Baker issued his business closure and stay-at-home orders. By the time Massachusetts officially locked down on March 24, the number had fallen from 2.2 to 1.2. That decline continued during the lockdown, falling to a low of 0.8 by May 18, when the stay-at-home order expired and Baker began allowing businesses to reopen. It is therefore possible that closing "nonessential" businesses and telling people to stay home except for government-approved purposes reinforced the preexisting trend. But the lockdown had no obvious impact on the slope of the curve.

The reproductive number continued to fall sharply until the end of March, when it  dropped below one, which indicates a waning epidemic. The drop then slowed, and the number fluctuated, going up and down a bit but always staying below one. Since the lockdown was lifted, the picture has stayed pretty much the same. The estimate for yesterday was 0.8, which is a bit surprising if you believe the lockdown was crucial in keeping the number low. Although it has been more than a month since Baker started reopening the state's economy, virus transmission has not been notably affected. Newly confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and daily deaths are all trending downward.

If you are a fan of lockdowns, you can look at these numbers and conclude that the policy has been a smashing success in Massachusetts, as Zimmer seems to believe. But if you are at all skeptical of the marginal impact that lockdowns had at a time when Americans were already moving around less and striving to minimize social interactions (as shown by cellphone and foot traffic data as well as estimates of the reproductive number), you have to wonder how Baker's orders reached back in time to affect behavior that happened before they took effect. Trends in other states pose a similar puzzle.

Even if we give Baker's lockdown full credit for positive trends in Massachusetts after March 24, it clearly is not responsible for reducing the reproductive number by 45 percent before then, even though Zimmer implies otherwise. And since the subsequent drop of 33 percent was smaller, it is logically impossible even to give the lockdown most of the credit for reducing transmission.

If voluntary changes in behavior account for the decline in transmission before the lockdown, it seems reasonable to assume that they played an important role after March 24 as well. How important is the crux of the dispute between Americans who think lockdowns were absolutely necessary to curtail the epidemic and Americans who question that belief.

The rest of Zimmer's article, which focuses on the outsized role that superspreaders have played in the pandemic, lends support to the latter camp. "Most infected people don't pass on the coronavirus to someone else," he observes. "But a small number pass it on to many others in so-called superspreading events."

Research in Hong Kong, for example, found that "just 20 percent of cases, all of them involving social gatherings, accounted for an astonishing 80 percent of transmissions." Another 10 percent of carriers "accounted for the remaining 20 percent of transmissions," meaning that 70 percent of people infected by the virus did not pass it on to anyone. Because the reproductive number is an average, it obscures the significance of superspreaders, which is nevertheless important in weighing COVID-19 control policies.

One hypothesis about superspreaders, Zimmer notes, is that some people tend to harbor more of the virus than others, making them more likely to pass it on. But environmental factors are also important. When a lot of people are packed together in an indoor space with poor ventilation, any carriers who happen to be there are much more likely to transmit the virus, especially if they are singing, talking loudly, coughing, or sneezing.

"A busy bar, for example, is full of people talking loudly," Zimmer writes "Any one of them could spew out viruses without ever coughing. And without good ventilation, the viruses can linger in the air for hours."

What are the policy implications? "Knowing that Covid-19 is a superspreading pandemic could be a good thing," Zimmer notes. "Since most transmission happens only in a small number of similar situations, it may be possible to come up with smart strategies to stop them from happening. It may be possible to avoid crippling, across-the-board lockdowns by targeting the superspreading events." He quotes British epidemiologist Adam Kucharski: "By curbing the activities in quite a small proportion of our life, we could actually reduce most of the risk."

In other words, even if Zimmer is right to assume that locking down Massachusetts drove down virus transmission, that does not mean similar results could not have been achieved through less costly, more carefully targeted policies. If "it may be possible to avoid crippling, across-the-board lockdowns by targeting the superspreading events," that seems like an option that politicians should have considered before closing down the economy.

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  1. Did COVID-19 Lockdowns Reach Back in Time to Affect Behavior Before They Were Imposed?

    No, because the laws of physics prevent such things.

    1. Which law of physics, exactly, would that be?

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      2. Shut up idiot.

        1. He’s right. The laws of physics really don’t care which way time is running, and we still don’t know why we only observe time running in one direction.

          1. That’s both wrong and ridiculous.

            1. It may be ridiculous but it is not wrong. The Time Arrow is one of the fundamental paradoxes of modern physics.

              1. The Second Law of Thermodynamics disagrees.

          2. Sean Carroll is an excellent teacher of physics and I highly recommend his Biggest Ideas in the Universe series. Anyway, he has a pretty good explanation of why travelling back in time and changing things is verboten.

            http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2009/05/14/rules-for-time-travelers/

            #6 is most pertinent here.

        2. It’s odd that you desire Chipper’s cock so much. I thought you preferred younger, more illicit meat?

        1. No. Entropy is the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, but that depends on the arrow of time; it doesn’t create it.

          1. Mathematical entropy, not thermodynamic.

            1. He doesn’t actually know much about this subject despite pretending he does.

          2. What about Armaments Ch2?

            First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.

            That seems to require that time proceedeth in line with the counting else the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch shalst blow up in one’s hand

            1. And he goes full sqrsly.

          3. No. Entropy can not decrease is the 2nd Law.

            Imagine a world where that were not true – cups smashed by a fall to the floor could reassemble themselves without external assistance. Balloons could magically reinflate themselves.

            The Second Law fixes the time arrow, not the reverse.

    2. So says the Science Pope.

  2. I’m starting to get the vague feeling that maybe just a teensy bit of this Covid thing was a gigantic pile of bullshit.

  3. If you look at the individual mobility rates for my home state of Missouri, they bottomed out 3 days before the stay at home order went into effect. But they were trending that direction for a few weeks prior to that.

  4. you have to wonder how Baker’s orders reached back in time to affect behavior that happened before they took effect.

    Just because the NYT is obsessed about ‘lockdown effective date’ does not mean govtl orders did not precede that. For MA, a simple look at the wiki timeframe shows some of those:
    Mar 10 – state of emergency declared;
    Mar 13 – Boston Marathon (which is run on a holiday in MA) postponed, gatherings of 250+ prohibited, Catholic church announces suspension of Mass, Boston announced schools would be closed starting Mar17
    Mar 15 – All schools closed, all gatherings of 25+ banned, no more eating at restaurants
    Mar 16 – construction projects in boston ordered to shut, subway (T) starts running on a weekend schedule rather than weekday,
    Mar 19 – Natl Guard activated
    Mar 20 – first death

    If you can’t see govt actions here, are you just fucking blind?

    What is it with journalists who are fucking obsessed all the fucking time with what the NYT writes? Who else gives a fuck about either supporting or undermining their narrative? Stop pretending they are the entire agenda setter for everything that must happen in the US. Are you just looking for them to pay attention to you?

    1. This is of course the order to shelter and not just any order. Sure, executive order “Final Recession of the Temporary Ban on Motor Vehicle Travel” from 2015 might have had an impact. But, the statement is that the shelter order was not the most impactful.

      Certainly, not holing a marathon would not have decreased the spread because the marathon wasn’t an ongoing event before the 13th. Similarly, we cannot say that Maine not holding the Boston Marathon didn’t decrease the infection rate.

      A better criticism would be to look at the methodology of how the graphs were created. Estimating when someone became infectious and not infectious is very error prone and crucial the calculations. They also didn’t correct for increased positive cases because of increased testing.

      1. Boston Marathon is a huge event in that area. Postponing it did not go unnoticed. It meant half a million or so people had to change their plans to WATCH it live along the street. And yes – it is highly reasonable that people also changed their OTHER behavior from that announcement rather than viewing that announcement in some meaningless bubble.

        1. So, the high infection rate before Marth 13th was because of all the people running in the Boston Marathon on April 20th? That makes no sense.

        2. Jfree is right as far as I’m concerned. When I started noticing things like schools closing and sporting events getting canceled, I knew shit was starting to get real and I ought to be changing my behavior appropriately. This was way before any shelter in place order.

          1. And you still haven’t figured out that you’re wrong.

            1. How arrogantly presumptive of you.

              1. And yet you’re still wrong.

          2. Yes, people and organizations were responding VOLUNTARILY and lockdowns were not needed. We agree.

      2. the statement is that the shelter order was not the most impactful.

        Actually Sullum’s argument is that EVERYTHING before the lockdown implementation was ‘voluntary’. Which is utter horseshit and creates an ‘agenda’ that is as bogus as the NYT – either one favors lockdown or one favors absolutely fucking nothing at all because ‘voluntary’ takes care of everything

        1. The opening paragraph ends with:
          “Zimmer is talking about the number of people the average carrier infects, and if the Massachusetts lockdown really did cut that number by two-thirds, it would be strong evidence that such policies are highly effective at reducing virus transmission. The truth, however, is rather more complicated.”

          The concluding paragraph starts with:
          “In other words, even if Zimmer is right to assume that locking down Massachusetts drove down virus transmission, that does not mean similar results could not have been achieved through less costly, more carefully targeted policies.”

          Sullum is rebutting Zimmer’s statement that the lockdowns were the primary reason for low infection rates. That rebuttal does not require all of the effects to be from something other than the lockdown.

          Sullum then suggests that we could have done something smarter than stay at home orders. That might include canceling gatherings of 100,000+ people and stuffing people into boxes underground.

          1. He’s acknowledging the possibility that it (govt measures short of lockdown) could have happened but not the reality that those DID happen. And not just in MA afaik.

            And he in fact does state that what did happen before lockdown was ‘voluntary changes in behavior’. Which undermines his very acknowledgement of the possibility of those govt measures short of lockdown producing any change in behavior.

            It’s a bullshit game that always seems to be the underlying agenda in his articles.

            ‘Lockdown’ was the culmination of a series of govt actions. Not some bolt out of the blue. Unlike Wuhan where it kind of was a bolt out of the blue because they waited too long.

            idk why govts took that particular step when they did because except for NY area and maybe New Orleans, they all locked down well before the medical system ‘broke’. And in hindsight (Rt not being available then – and not really available now either since it is something being modeled rather than collected thru trace/test), it appears that those earlier measures were working. But Sullum’s game doesn’t remotely help figure what went wrong because he’s playing the ‘it must have been a bolt out of the blue’ game.

            1. This is difficult for you isn’t it sweetie?

    2. So you’ve replaced the NYT credentialed authority figure with Wikipedia. Did you check the Wikipedia citations? I mean go look at the citation sources, not just see if there are citations.

      1. You are perfectly free to challenge the events timeline. I don’t live in MA so don’t have an independent memory/source.

        But Sullum is repeating what is a perpetually sleazy and lazy and misleading habit by him

        1. More ad hominem attacks, so may as well mention your sleazy reputation. Enjoy it, you’ve earned it.

      2. I place more credibility in a die roll than in any NYT “credentialed” figure. They have no authority, no journalistic standards, and no concern for the truth.

    3. The thesis was that the *lockdown orders* weren’t actually that effective. From the looks of the graph, merely declaring the state of emergency was probably sufficient, as that’s about where the transmission rate started to take a nosedive.

      And yes, people’s behavior in response to the declaration of a state of emergency was entirely voluntary, albeit informed by that declaration.

      1. I doubt the simple declaration of emergency did much here re the general public. You can certainly make a case for that – though Sullum doesn’t even do that. But I don’t think the general public here had the slightest clue WHAT to do differently then. Other than maybe the generic ‘wash your hands’. There is not a high or even moderate level of public health knowledge among the public here. Certainly the only people who started wearing masks that early were Asians – and they got a lot of suspicious stares and grief (and even some cases of physical assault) for that.

        Otherwise, imo behaviors changed when ‘ways to spend one’s time’ and ‘places to go’ started shutting down or closing off. When the daily to-do’s of our existence were changed and we were forced to adapt. Which of course doesn’t require a full everything shuts down order – but it is still coercive.

    4. The SPECIFIC question was about the shelter in place order.

  5. I am seriously psyched to see that most people are going to ignore bans and finally spread this flu such that we all get some kind of immunity. Because I don’t care if 0.5% of the population dies, and also I really don’t care for the whining.

    1. Because I don’t care if 0.5% of the population dies, and also I really don’t care for the whining.

      Sevo, is that you?

      1. Slaves are way more than 0.5% of the population. Also you shouldn’t start shit; you’ll just get destroyed.

  6. If “it may be possible to avoid crippling, across-the-board lockdowns by targeting the superspreading events,” that seems like an option that politicians should have considered before closing down the economy.

    “What if they *did* consider it?”

    /Judge Nap

  7. If you expect the government to do the right thing, be prepared to be disappointed.

  8. “…that seems like an option that politicians should have considered before closing down the economy.”
    A little late now.

  9. It is well known that virus transmission slows as the temperature goes up. Don’t attribute to humans what is more easily explained by understanding nature.

  10. There is only one responsible take on this from a non-collectivist position:
    covid19 isn’t a big deal.
    Thats it.
    Stop pushing the bullshit that it’s something special and worthy of being treated differently than any other virus.
    Stop conceding the fucking field

    1. I know, right? Those people in high-risk categories should just accept the inevitable and go die already so that Nardz can go get his haircut.

      If you want to argue against unjust state coercion in a persuasive manner, you might start by not being a total dickhead about it.

      1. A serious question: are you lefties really going to spend the rest of your lives covering up your faces and shitting your pants at the thought of normal human contact, or is this is all just a bullshit political charade for you that you’ll end the instant a democrat is president once again? I need to know.

        1. To be fair to jeff…. nobody willingly provides normal human contact with him.

        2. or is this is all just a bullshit political charade for you . . .

          You know; you really do.

      2. Your people in a high risk category is still 1%.

        Put the fucking cookie down.

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  12. state of emergency 3/10 in Mass

    Restaurants were closed on the 16th

    Boston schools closed 3/17

    prior to the lockdown, actual positive tests were in the low hundreds

  13. New York Times science? That is now a lot like Chinese capitalism. A lot.

    1. Or Chinese Democracy.

  14. This clearly shows Biden’s time travel leadership.

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