Friday, November 27, 2020

Around the Coronavirus Horn, As We Move Toward the End

Now that Thanksgiving is over, if you did not behave yourself with masks and, most important, social distancing, I hope at least you were fortunate.  The near-certainty that we can get a vaccine in us by Christmas 2021 should not fool us into thinking its effects will be retroactive, and we cannot let up now.

Per Wednesday’s New York Times, there are now six vaccines “approved for early or limited use,” with 55 being tested on humans.  Although none yet are “approved for full use,” that is outstanding news.  Per the Times, the current American daily infection rate, with as of Tuesday an all-time-high 174,270 7-day average, is leveling off.  However, the corresponding death rate, which lags new cases, is now 1,621, the highest it has been for over six months.  The national map, with the darkest red-purple counties with over 250 new cases every day per 100,000 population, looked, as of Wednesday, as follows:


All this points up the need to arrive alive for the vaccines when we can get them. 

We have plenty of other useful information.  Per Andrew Taylor in the October 8th USA Today, “COVID-19 relief pushes U.S. budget deficit to a record $3.1T.”  That’s T as in “trillion,” for a total of $3,100,000,000,000, or a one-year shortfall of $9,375 per American.  Still we have no overall choice, though not all of that was due to pandemic relief. 

Although internal quarantine requirements make the vast majority of travel unfeasible even if benign, it is still good to know, as this situation changes, that “Amid airline industry slump, new study shows flying may actually be safer than grocery shopping, indoor dining” (Daniella Genovese, Fox Business, October 29th).  Indeed, I have never perceived that airlines have been lax here. 

As always, “The Latest Vaccine News Doesn’t Tell the Full Story” (Spencer Bokat-Lindell, The New York Times, November 17th).  Further information is that clinical success for both frontrunners Pfizer and Moderna have well exceeded effectiveness expectations, and that both use “genetic vaccine technology, which has been in development for 30 years,” which both companies may have been almost forced to try with the pandemic’s circumstances.

For another wrap-up from probably the best source, we have USA Today’s November 18th “In coronavirus war, hang on, help is on the way with COVID-19 vaccine:  Anthony Fauci Q&A.”  This interview, which printed out to eight pages, hit on “the most important thing for people to do between now and when the cavalry arrives” (Fauci:  “Hang on and implement the public health measures,” which are “uniform wearing of masks; physical distance; avoiding congregate settings, particularly indoors; trying to do things, when the weather allows, outdoors more than indoors; and washing hands,” all of which are more important than being truly locked down); that we need “consistency of message”;  that, “if the first doses of vaccine are available for front-line workers in December and January” the rest of us can expect to get them sometime between April and July;  that it will be effective about one week after the second of the two required doses; and overall, as Fauci put it himself, “Please, folks, hang on to the extent that we can, because help is on the way with a vaccine,” and “this is not going to be an indefinite situation.  It will change, and it will end.”  Heartening if hardly easy.

Much of the same information was in Sarah Zhang’s “The End of the Pandemic is Now in Sight,” published by The Atlantic on the same day.  Other general insights were that what broke the pandemic’s back was that “the scientific uncertainty at the heart of COVID-19 vaccines is resolved,” that “the invention of vaccines against a virus identified only 10 months ago is an extraordinary scientific achievement” making them “the fastest vaccines ever developed, by a margin of years,” that “several more COVID-19 vaccines may soon cross the finish line,” that “no one on Earth, until last week, knew whether” this type of vaccine would actually work in humans, and that, maybe more than anything else, “we were lucky.”  In conclusion, “every infection we prevent now – through masking and social distancing – is an infection that can, eventually, be prevented forever through vaccines.”

We can speculate what employment changes will remain after the coronavirus is gone, but the chief economist and others at Glassdoor, “the job posting and employee review site,” have put together projections that “These 10 jobs could disappear or decline because of COVID-19” (Paul Davidson, USA Today, November 19th).  Openings for each decreased from 25% to 69% from October 2019 to October 2020, and these fields were chosen for expected future weakness as well, “for several years, if not longer.”  The positions are chef, executive assistant, receptionist, accounts payable specialist, HR generalist, product demonstrator, brand ambassador, professor, event coordinator, and architect.  Why the last one?  Because there could be a great drop in the number of new office buildings, which architects design.  There are insights into the other nine as well.  So, hang on, wear that mask, stay six feet away, and prepare for some big celebrations late next year – we will have them.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Good Things Happening with Fast Transportation, But Will We Allow Success?

Despite the pandemic, we’ve had a going-places-quickly news flurry.  But will our overall problem stop these worthy efforts in their metaphorical tracks?

We start with space tourism, in “Virgin Galactic set to begin multimillion-dollar star trek from Spaceport America,” by Paul Best in the November 9th Fox Business.  The actual commercial facility for launching spacecraft, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, will be used for this company’s “first human test spaceflight,” though confusingly not the first time it has sent people up, within the next two weeks.  It “has already sold 600 tickets to people from 60 different countries at a cost of roughly $250,000 a pop,” and hopes to build up to 400 annual flights and $1 billion annual revenue.  Virgin Galactic does seem to have the capability to fulfill this fine business idea, catering to owners of the trillions of piling-up dollars, and gets points for helping people achieve long-time dreams.  However…

Next, “A Step Forward in the Promise of Ultrafast ‘Hyperloops,’” by Eric A. Taub in the November 8th New York Times, was a successful Virgin Hyperloop test of volunteers “wearing casual street clothes” reaching 107 miles per hour “in a pod levitated by magnets inside a vacuum tube” on the company’s Nevada test track.  One described it as “not that much different than accelerating in a sports car,” and indeed that speed is trivial for today’s vehicles.  In some ways safer, as without “lateral forces,” hyperloops are planned to go almost six times as fast.  We should be glad it worked with no stated problems, so, when the next, six-mile, course is finished, let’s see people go 200 or 300.  All could be clear for this second Virgin venture to achieve commercial viability, but…

An old expected future way of getting around, though not as far along as Galactic or Hyperloop, got notice in “Meet George Jetson?  Orlando Unveils Plans for First Flying-Car Hub in U.S.” (Neil Vigdor, The New York Times, November 11th).  The subairport of sorts, called a vertiport, would be located next to Orlando’s international one, be finished by 2025, and would accommodate “electric-powered aircraft” with about the speed and size of Cessnas, but also, presumably, highway capability.  The project, a joint venture of German aviation firm Lilium and an Orlando development company, has already attracted “more than $800,000 in potential tax rebates” from that city.  Here it’s hard to see how the planes would not fly, so we can forecast success, unless…

Although the moon landing and what led up to it was a great success, there are good reasons why the only agency doing space research and exploration, and moving on to industrialization and colonization, should not be run by the government.  A de facto replacement reached its own milestone last week, as described in “’One Heck of a Ride’:  SpaceX Launches Astronauts into Space,” by Andrea Shalal and Joey Roulette on November 15th by Reuters.  This Elon Musk company is now not only a future thing, as it took  “four astronauts on a flight to the International Space Station,” just what NASA has been unable to do for eight years.  We now have the capability within this country again, and can keep using it, except that…

What are my reservations?  For any of these four to succeed long-term, their developers, the United States people, and our federal and state governments must prove wrong what I wrote here two months ago:

For whatever reason, Americans no longer have what it takes to complete large technical projects.  It’s an exaggeration to say that over the past 20 years the only trappings of American life which have changed are software and telephones, but not much of one.  Until we understand and fix our will problem, nothing big and good will happen.

Here’s where the rubber may meet the road.  When a space tourist dies, whether through misbehavior or a technical problem, will that end Virgin Galactic?  As Taub pointed out, a truck hitting a Virgin Hyperloop fixture could prevent it from working – if that happens and passengers are injured or worse, will that company be banned or ostracized into termination?  For flying cars to become widespread, there will be pilots not as capable as the highly-trained ones Lilium will introduce – how many crashes can they have before heeding calls for requiring standards too high for the masses prevents the technology’s wide use?  Eighteen astronauts and cosmonauts have died in spaceflight missions – will the first SpaceX crew that achieves that cause a return to full NASA control?  Reactions to the single Uber driverless-car pedestrian death, which had a highly culpable victim, was probably the largest factor in the collapsing of efforts not only from that company but everywhere.   

We do not need to go back to the days of 96 people dying, as happened while building Hoover Dam.  Yet with huge, ambitious, and frankly dangerous projects, we must accept that sometimes things will go severely wrong.  That means understanding and continuing work when small numbers of accidents occur.  How many is acceptable?  I cannot answer that, but the right figure is more than zero.  Our future prosperity has value, and the prospect of greeting 2050 with few life improvements beyond even better electronic devices is depressing also.  We must decide – the choice is up to us.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Pandemic: How Dark Now and How Bright Next Year?

The American Covid-19 situation was more than ready to take over the headlines from the same country’s presidential election.  Lost in the stories of slow week-ago vote counting was an alarming infection uptick, which has got even worse since then, shown in yesterday’s New York Times map, with counties having at least 56 new daily cases per 100,000 population in bright red:

The same publication’s cases-against-time chart showed Wednesday’s 7-day average of new daily incidences at 128,096, an all-time high, and a sharply rising recent trend – that number a month before was 52,864, reflecting a 142% rise.  Covid-19 deaths during that time have increased from 714 to 1,067, or 49%.  Per the November 11th New York Times, “U.S. Hospitalizations Top 61,000, a Record,” which are reaching maximum occupancy in some areas.

For the world, average daily case and death counts also continue to set marks, with cases over that time up from 337,002 to 572,894 or 70%, and deaths, from 5,678 to 8,342, up 69%.  Most countries in Europe, but only Jordan outside it, are doing worse than the United States’ overall rate of 39 per 100,000.

How will this pandemic be resolved?  In John M. Barry’s October 19th “What Fans of ‘Herd Immunity’ Don’t Tell You,” also in the Times, we learned that this potential solution, defined here as “the point at which enough people have become immune to the virus that its spread becomes unlikely,” now isn’t one at all.  One problem is harm done to infectees, including that “a significant number, including those with no symptoms, suffer damage to their heart and lungs,” and that “one recent study of 100 recovered adults found that 78 of them showed signs of heart damage.”  Since herd immunity entirely through previous illness would require from 43 percent to 70 percent of people to have been sick with it, up from mid-October’s 10%, that would call for at least one million American deaths.  Overall, herd immunity as a policy objective, with no widely available vaccine, is irresponsible, brutal, and even murderous. 

The near future, though, is another matter.  Monday’s largest news story was “Pfizer’s Early Data Shows Vaccine Is More Than 90% Effective,” by Katie Thomas, David Gelles, and Carl Zimmer in that day’s New York Times and with vast coverage elsewhere.  The official drug maker announcement, paraphrased by the authors, held “that an early analysis of its coronavirus vaccine trial suggested the vaccine was robustly effective in preventing Covid-19,” and that “an analysis found that the vaccine was more than 90 percent effective in preventing the disease among trial volunteers who had no evidence of prior coronavirus infection,” which if confirmed “would put (this product) on par with highly effective childhood vaccines for diseases such as measles.”  Pfizer expected to ask the FDA for emergency-use authorization later this month.  This report was taken seriously enough to be credited with much or more of the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s 1.2 percent or 834-point gain that day.  The article, along with ample background material, also mentioned that ten other vaccines, three American, are also in “late-stage trials.”

Within hours the follow-on pieces came out.  That same day, Carl Zimmer and Katie Thomas published “Pfizer’s Covid Vaccine:  11 Things You Need to Know,” also in the Times, which addressed basic questions of knowledge and safety, along with the not-yet-answerable “Who will get the new vaccine first?” and “When will the general public be able to get it?,” along with “Can we stop wearing masks now?,” to which the authors started their response with “please don’t.”  Quickly the coverage became more incisive, with Arthur Allen’s November 10th Times “Five Questions to Ask About Pfizer’s Covid-19 Vaccine,” including answers informing us that it needed to be stored at about minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit and required two doses, and a conclusion that “still, this is good news.”  Aaron E. Carroll and Nicholas Bagley tried to head off premature slacking off with the same day and publication’s “Don’t Get Too Excited About the Coronavirus Vaccine,” the title seemingly not intended to curb optimism;  per the authors, “a death avoided this winter is a life saved,” “the goal is now no longer to learn to live indefinitely with the virus,” (with the Pfizer announcement, which they described as “unmitigated good news,”) “the case for skipping Thanksgiving becomes much stronger,” and “mask mandates, gathering restrictions and business closures are (now) more tolerable.”  In the last piece, issued November 10th by The Atlantic in newsletters, “Now is a very weird time for a vaccine rollout,” editor Caroline Mimbs Nyce posed questions to well-versed staff writer Sarah Zhang about the effect of our unusually rough transition between presidential administrations.  Zhang concluded that Donald Trump was, right now “just a really loud voice” who could not impede vaccine distribution, even if he continues to refuse to concede the election.

What does all this mean for us?  We need to follow Carroll and Bagley’s advice and, if anything, be more diligent about mask wearing and social distancing.  As for typical indoor multifamily holiday gatherings, we should skip them, as my wife and I elected to do.  We’re best off hoping for smooth sailing and justified FDA approval for Pfizer, but should realize that even if those things do not materialize, there are others close behind.  We need to plan to get the vaccine as soon as we can and be patient about being notified.  We can loosely anticipate traveling and visiting relatives during the fourth quarter of 2021, or, with luck, in the third.  And, more than anything else, let’s keep the faith, hang in there, and know that those waiting for normal life in the early 1940s had to hold off much longer.  We should be optimistic.  As went a World War I-era song, “Horsey, keep your tail up.”

Friday, November 6, 2020

AJSN: Latent Demand for US Jobs Dropped Almost 2 Million in October, Other Employment Numbers Also Show Improvement – But Underclass Forming, and Coronavirus Cases Up 44%


Kudos once again to the economists who, collectively, estimated we would gain 580,000 net new nonfarm positions last month.  Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, it was 638,000, only 10% away.

At first look, most of the remaining report was also favorable.  The marquee adjusted unemployment result was down a full percent to 6.9%, with unadjusted following at 6.6%, off 1.1%.  The total jobless count fell 1.5 million to 11,100,000, with those on temporary layoff improving 1.4 million to 3.2 million, and the two indicators of how common it is for Americans to be working or close to it, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, up 0.8% and 0.3% respectively to 57.4% and 61.7%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the indicator showing how many new positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were easy to get, improved over 1.9 million to reach the following:

All but about 40,000 of the recovery came from those unemployed and those not having looked for work in the past 12 months.  The count of those claiming no interest in a job dropped 131,000, people calling themselves discouraged added up to 38,000 more, and the “Other” category, inflated since pandemic’s beginning, tacked on 22,000.  The share of the AJSN coming from those officially jobless fell again and is now at 45.5%.  Yet the AJSN is still 6 million higher than a year ago.

So what is the bad news?  Three significant metrics got worse.  Those unemployed 27 weeks or longer was up 1.2 million, 50%, to 3.6 million.  The count of those working part-time for economic reasons or looking but not finding a full-time opportunity while keeping something shorter, which improved greatly last month, lost a chunk of that with its 400,000 worsening to 6.7 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll wages gained 4 cents per hour and are now $29.50, poor since it is up 4.6% over the past year or well over the inflation rate, so reflects people at the bottom of the pay scale not returning.  These three statistics together imply that we are now building a lower class getting the worst of the mostly pandemic-related employment drop and further suffering from unemployment benefits running out along with the lack of any other payment program. 

The other negative outcome was increasing Covid-19 infections.  From September 16th to October 16th, their 7-day daily average soared from 39,064 to 56,340.  Deaths were down 18%, though, from 853 to 697.  In conjunction with the generally good jobs numbers, the infection rate, a better yardstick of pandemic-defense practices as mortality reflects treatment improvements, suggests we are letting the economy run at excessive expense of Americans’ health and lives. 

Jobs and money can change, but deaths, back up to 836 per averaged day as of November 5th, are permanent.  I hope this trend ends soon, and so does the turtle, whose forward movement this time was stopped by illness.