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The Thanksgiving Surge: How Fared Whatcom County?

Public health experts issued more than a few warnings about the danger of gatherings over Thanksgiving and although the surge in Covid-19 cases they expected nationwide took place, it was not as high as expected in some areas, such as Wisconsin. To these areas one could add Whatcom County. In addition, one could also add Benton county, which I use as a comparison because of its many similarities and, importantly, one relevant Covid-19 difference, political orientation, which likely has contributed to the latter having far more Covid-19 cases than the former.

In looking at the effect of Thanksgiving on Whatcom County and how it fared compared to Benton County, I used data from the “Github” archive provided by the Johns Hopkins Corona Virus Resource Center for two 17-day periods. The first 17-day period represents the run-up to Thanksgiving, November 7th to 24th and the second, the post-Thanksgiving period in which the surge, if any, would occur, November 24th to December 11th. If the Thanksgiving surge occurred one expects the latter period to show a higher increase in cases than the former period. If political orientation continues to play a role, one would expect the Thanksgiving surge to be higher in Benton County.

In the 17-day run-up to Thanksgiving, Whatcom County’s Covid-19 case count increased by 30.34%, from 1,694 on November 7th to 2,208 on November 24th, a difference of 514 cases. In the 17-day post-Thanksgiving period, its case count increased by 28.35%, from 2,208 on November 24th to 2,834 on December 11th, a difference of 626 cases. So, while there was a higher case count in the latter period, it was not as high as would have been the case under a scenario where they increased by 30.34% or higher, which would have led to 2,878 or more cases by December 11th. In this sense, Whatcom County can be added to the areas where the surge was not as bad as expected.

Benton County followed a path similar to Whatcom. In the 17-day run-up to Thanksgiving, its Covid-19 case count increased by 29.15%, from 5,808 to 7,501, a difference of 1,693 cases. In the 17-day Post-Thanksgiving period, its case count increased by 27.48%, from 7,501 to 9,562, a difference of 2,061 cases. As was the case in Whatcom County, there was a higher case count in the latter period, but it was not as high as would have been the case under a scenario where they increased by 29.15% or higher, which would have led to 9,688 or more cases by December 11th. In this sense, Benton County also can be added to the areas where the surge was not as bad as expected.

With an estimated 2020 population of 228,000, Whatcom County has approximately 22,000 more people than Benton County. However, Benton County has about 3.4 times more Covid-19 cases as of December 11th, 2020: 9,562 v. 2,834. As pointed out earlier, the “Republican” political orientation of Benton County and its disdain for basic protection measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing is a likely contributor to this difference. However, the fact that Benton County is now posting lower relative increases in Covid-19 cases is a sign that these attitudes may be changing, something that might be be due to the efforts of General James Mattis, USMC Ret, - who was born in Pullman (Whitman County) and raised in Richland (Benton County) - to “de-politicize” basic public health measures. Perhaps his efforts have also led to wider acceptance of these same measures in northeastern portions of Whatcom County, which share a political orientation in common with Benton County.

Comments by Readers

Nicholas Sotak

Dec 13, 2020

David, do you think shifting your window a week to the right on both side of Thanksgiving would give a better idea of what the holiday’s effect was? 

Presumably we wouldn’t see infections that happened on, or in the few travel days leading up to, the holiday materialize until at least several days after the holiday. Further, the carry-on effects from those new infections may not be captured until closer to two weeks (or more) post-holiday.  Maybe it wouldn’t make a difference in this case (presuming there wasn’t actually much of a holiday surge), but I’d be interested to know if you chose the window with this in mind.

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Ray Kamada

Dec 13, 2020

Regarding Covid, Whatcom’s done twice as well as the rest of Washington. And Washington’s done more than twice as well as the US. Meanwhile, to avoid lockdowns, some still argue for the chimera of herd immunity, which will never happen for reasons I’d need another thread to detail. Yet, we still omit  one big issue - the many tens of $ millions we lost when Canada closed the border, due to the US having an oomtude more covid infections per capita than Canada. E.g., Whatcom’s relatively low rate is still twice BC’s.

That is, our Port Authority spent $40 million upgrading Bellingham Airport, mostly to accomodate travelers from BC. Where’s our return on that investment? Poof! And how about the Costco relocation and upgrade? Poof! Not to mention Bellis Fair, Bellingham and the rest of our downtowns, along with hundreds of satellite businesses, all suffering from the pandemic, plus the border shutdown it  induced. Poof!

Local economists and political scientists at Western who read this blurb might consider scrounging some grant  money to do a proper case study. How much money did we really lose, locally, to promote death and protect  our precious freedom (from accountability)? 

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David A. Swanson

Dec 14, 2020

Hi Nicholas,

In terms of the pre and post-Thanksgiving time peirods, I kept  the folllowing factors in mind: (1) incubation period and changing guidelines on it per changing guidelines on quarantine periods; (2) having a sufficient number of days to make up a period so that we could actually see meaningful change, if there was any; (3) having the same number of days in  the pre and post periods; (4)  not comparing apples and oranges so to speak by keeping the two periods in the same (Fall) season;  (5) being awaqre of  peak travel days associcated with Thanksgiving (Per quotes found at “Elite Daily,” the  “Washington Post” and elsewhere about the busiest travel days ...” the busiest day according to flight demand is the day before Thanksgiving, Wednesday, Nov. 25, with the second busiest day being the Friday before Thanksgiving, Nov. 20. Return flights are a bit more spread out, but the Sunday following the holiday, Nov. 29, is looking to be the busiest post-holiday travel day,which lines up with last year’s data.”); and (6) given that the PSAs on following basic public health precautions by Mattis appeared to have started in June, I thought that if his efforts were succesful among those disdainful of mask-wearing and social distancing,  they would be observed by the start of the pre-Thanksgiving period - this was an important consideration in comparing  Benton County (once again)  to Whatcom County.   Given these factors, my interest in exploring the Thanksgiving surge and Christmas/New Year surges as two separate events and getting something about the former out before we moved into the latter period, the pre and post-Thanksgiving dates I selected seemed a reasonable choice.

Hi Ray,

Even the Swedes are acknowledging that their “herd dimmunity” approach has not worked (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-11-24/sweden-says-it-sees-no-signs-herd-immunity-is-stopping-the-virus ) 

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Ray Kamada

Dec 14, 2020

Yeah, Anders Tegnell, the head of Swedish Public Health is rapidly becoming persona non grata in Sweden. Ten times the case and death rates of their neighbor nations, yet their economy fared no better. That’s failure with a big F!

So, that opens the other thread. And that is, compared to simply masking up, vaccination, and/or mass, at-home, rapid testing and quarantining, as was recently implemented successfully in Slovakia (pop. 10.2 million), striving for natural herd immunity makes no sense for several reasons.

1) As in Sweden where more than 500 doctors and nurses have recently quit, due to sickness and burnout, the sheer number of covid cases quickly overwhelms hospital capacity. So, perhaps soon in parts of California and other states, ICUs will max out, staff shortages will run amuck, and people will start dying in their homes, in ambulances, and in hospital hallways. Then come the freezer trucks and mass grave sites, as happened in New York City last May, and we’ll lose count again.

2) The herd immunity enthusiasts seem to think covid outcomes are binary: either you die or you get well. And since few people actually die, let’s save the economy instead. WRONG! Three times as many patients become permanently disabled as die. Almost everyone who goes to the ICU and survives comes back diminished, because, rather than just a lung disease, covid is more a vascular disease that can attack any organ, e.g., your heart and your brain. So, ensuing mental illness, including hallucinations and psychosis, is a common feature of covid. Now imagine freeway driving. Thus, compared to short term savings, what’s the long-term, economic and societal cost  of having millions of disabled and diminished capacity people shuffling around? I’m not sure and neither is anyone else, but the answer isn’t simple.

3) The whole concept of natural herd immunuty is simplistic because we now know that  80% of infections are due to superspreaders at larger gatherings. Meanwhile, even if 70% of the populace gets infected, the pandemic won’t die out quickly because most prudent people will continue to mask and self-isolate. That means isolated pockets will keep getting infected, occasionally, long after nominal herd immunity levels have been reached. Moreover, it will never be entirely safe because, being a corona virus, immunuty is quite likely to be only temporary.

4) Even so, if people got  vaccinated en masse and got yearly booster shots, it would render this discussion entirely moot. But they won’t because many people are naturally suspicious, in a way that beckons superstitious faux remedies. Might not be PC to say that, but that’s the way it is. So, rather than wiping out the virus completely, we’ll have lingering pockets of occasional infections, such that covid will become another of those haphazard, hazards of life, like the flu, but worse, a lot worse.

Meanwhile, let’s just hope SARS-COV-2 doesn’t mutate into something even more dangerous.

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David A. Swanson

Dec 14, 2020

Hi Ray,

Per your insightful comments, it is of interest that the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be following its own “epidemiological transition. “ It first appeared as an “acute” population health condition early in 2020. Currently, it appears to be transitioning into a “chronic” population health condition. It will be important  to understand this transition along with its long-term demographic consequences, particularly in regard to composition and the components of change.

 Regarding the acute phase,  modeling and understanding even simple aspects of a pandemic was challenging because of the sparsity and quality of data, particularly in local areas. This was unfortunate because it is in local areas where many battles are being waged against locally occurring outbreaks. Tnis is why I explored standard, readily available and easily applied demographic methods and perspectives in the initial articles I did for NWC. The next steps in terms of research will be to conduct  ex post facto tests of accuracy and utility.

In regard to the second phase, the transition of COVID-19 into a “chronic” population health condition, one must bring to bear more advanced tools to conduct a  review of the current status of the pandemic and projected course in selected areas and move on to cover the characteristics of the disease and why it is a pandemic. After discussing some measurement issues ( See,e,g., https://doi.org/10.1017/ice.2020.1376     or   https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.30.20086181v1 ), 

it wouild be useful to describe morbidity/mortality data in selected areas. Following these descriptions, one could move on to define health disparities, describe the types of health disparities and examine the correlates of demographic attributes with them and examine the relevance of the disease on population composition and health-related behaviors. This could be followed by considering the likely implications of COVID-19 on the future demographic make-up of selected areas ivia observed relationships and trends including impacts on demographic composition and vital events (especially births and deaths.

Even if we would have had a competent executive administration in D.C. and a population less susceptible to mis-information, consipriracy theories, and irrational propaganda, this virus would have presented tough challenges. In the absence of such an administration and population, we ended up, to paraphrase a lyric in  John Mellencamp’s Walk Tall, with “the simple minded and the uninformed being easily led astray….,” which has served to bring into sharper focus the fact  that “somewhere out in the distance is the death of you and me.”

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