An irresponsible silence about King County’s spike in COVID transmission
8/14/20: Update below
Soon after the beginning of protests related to the death of George Floyd the rate of transmission of COVID in King County shot up to a level not seen since the earliest days of the pandemic. In early June, the Institute for Disease Modeling (IDM), which helps the state Department of Health (DOH) calculate the rate of transmission, noted the increase and said the protests might be a contributing factor. Then, suddenly, the issue was dropped. No explanation has ever been given for the spike.
The failure to explain that spike indicates either a lack of seriousness about fighting COVID, driven by the politics of the protest, or a level of ignorance about disease transmission that undermines the claim that state policy and strict economic restrictions are driven by “science.” Whether it is a lack of ethics or a lack of knowledge, the failure to honestly address the increased transmission rate is irresponsible and must be fixed.
In late May through mid-June, the measure of the spread of COVID from each person, jumped about 50 percent over the course of two weeks. Known as the reproductive number and expressed as “Re” or “R0,” the number, calculated by the state and the IDM, indicates how many additional people are infected by each person with COVID. An Re of 1.5 means each person with COVID infects an average of 1.5 other people. The goal is to get the reproductive number below 1 so the number of people with COVID gradually declines.
While King County’s Re was climbing rapidly in early June, it was declining for Eastern Washington. What caused the difference in trends?
The IDM’s Situation Report on June 18 offers a suggestion. Using data through June 10, the report notes that because the Re calculation is based on data from the past, they could not determine so soon after the protests if they had an impact on transmission. They promised that, “Future testing data may give us insight into onward transmission from the protests and the associated effect on overall transmission rates in the county.” Upcoming reports, they said, would tell the tale.
When the next situation report was published, the numbers had, in fact, gotten worse in King County. The Re had increased from 1.2 for June 10, to 1.32 for data through June 15. A week later it was even worse, reaching 1.54 for data through June 23. Just as feared, the Re continued to increase, consistent with protest-related transmission. So, what did the subsequent situation reports say about this issue?
Nothing. The issue was simply dropped.
I emailed IDM and the Washington State Department of Health to ask what they thought caused the sudden increase. IDM pointed me to the situation reports. DOH did not reply.
This is remarkable, especially since a later report demonstrates just how dramatic the spike in Western Washington was. The August 7 Situation Report from IDM includes this graph of Re, noting a very sharp increase in Re to levels not seen since the early days of the COVID outbreak. I added the red line to show the approximate date of George Floyd’s death that sparked the protests. The sharp increase correlates with that timing.
Meanwhile, the rate of transmission in Eastern Washington actually declined during that same period, indicating the increased reproductive rate in Western Washington was a local phenomenon.
IDM claims the situation reports do not attempt to determine the cause of changes in the reproductive number. They write, “This report describes patterns of COVID transmission across Washington state, but it does not examine factors that may cause differences to occur. The relationships between specific causal factors and policies are topics of ongoing research and is not addressed herein.” This, however, is false. In the August 7 Situation Report, which includes that cautionary language, they claim the governor’s mask order of June 23 is working. They write, “the timing of changes, particularly in eastern WA, suggests that masking and related physical distancing behaviors are having a positive effect across the state.” Far from not being addressed, they specifically speculate as to the success of the mask order. It is also worth noting that their own chart shows Re was falling before the governor’s mask order, undermining the correlation between the two. Not only do they contradict their own cautionary statement, the claim they do make doesn’t fit the data.
Of course, there are many potential causes of transmission. However, given the high cost of the COVID lockdowns, health officials and politicians have a responsibility to be candid about behavior that may increase health risks and prolong the lockdowns. Simply dropping the issue, or claiming the protests were not the cause, without providing a credible alternative explanation, is irresponsible for several reasons.
First, if protests increase transmission of the disease, failing to say so is dangerous and could increase the number of people killed by the illness. If, on the other hand, the protests didn’t increase transmission, it helps guide our response, indicating that social distancing is less important, but masks are fairly effective.
Second, when politicians and disease modelers plead ignorance about the cause of such a major increase in transmission, they cannot then turn around and demand strict new restrictions, claiming they are based on “science.” If IDM and state Department of Health cannot explain such a dramatic increase in the rate of transmission, it indicates the science is highly uncertain and questionable as a basis for costly restrictions on our economy and personal freedom.
Finally, if it became clear that the pandemic, which has killed more than 1,500 people in Washington state and caused massive economic harm, is being used for political purposes, this destroys the ability to enact effective policy and contributes to cynicism about government in general. Those who smugly lecture about wearing masks while ignoring political allies who caused a spike in transmission destroy the moral standing necessary to fight a health crisis that requires a serious and mature approach.
Someone asked if the age profile of COVID cases matched the ages of the protestors. IDM includes this figure in its July 28 Situation Report. It shows the cases occurring after the June spike in Re are centered aroud people in their 20s. This seems to fit the profile of those in the protests.