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Normal Life by April?

As of yesterday, over 80 million vaccines have been administered, and about 53 million have received at least the first dose. That’s about 21% of the adult U.S. population. By my calculations, we need between 80 and 100 million to reach herd immunity (see my discussion from February 1st below). It now looks like we’ll get there by the end of March.

So what will that look like? I believe that we’ll see an asymptotic recovery. In other words, we’ll see steady declines over the next month, then a long tail of low level new cases, perhaps for a long time. But I believe that by April, COVID will no longer be the main driver in society as it has been over the past year. As I said in December – “After springtime, we’ll still see breakouts in certain communities based on vaccine acceptance, but it will be even more geographically localized than it is now, and these clusters will burn out quickly.” We’ll see testing decline over the next month or two. Testing is widely available now, so is demand driven rather than supply restricted, and as cases fall, so will testing, but not as fast as cases. We have a fair bit of “structural” testing in society now, where certain segments of the population are tested regularly.

So the big question is: “when will life return to normal”. Well, there are two aspects to this – the government response, and the population’s behavior. As far as the general population is concerned, we are already returning to normal. The IHME models social mobility based on geo-cell phone data. Looking at this, I’m finding that people are quite responsive to the daily new case and hospitalization data. For the entire U.S., social mobility reached a recent low of 66% below normal on January 1st. This makes sense, as the big numbers of wave 3 were all over the news at that time. As of February 16, social mobility rose to 72% of normal. That’s a 9% increase in social mobility as the news changed. But it varies by location. Let’s look at the 4 largest states (all data from IHME).

California is our largest state, with nearly 40 million people. They reached a recent low of 51% of normal social mobility, but are now at 63%. That’s an increase of 24%, quite significant. Texas reached a recent low of 74% at the beginning of the year, but now are still only at 78%, for an increase of only 5%. Of course, social mobility took a big hit there during the storm, and social mobility was already fairly high over the past 6 months. Florida was at 74% (same as Texas) on January 1st, and has risen slowly to 80% by February 16, for an increase of 8%. And finally, NY, similar to California – the recent low was 54% on February 1st, then moved quickly up to 65% in 2 weeks’ time, for an increase of over 20%. What I conclude from this is that people are generally responsive to the daily case count news. I expect that mobility will increase steadily as the case counts drop.

As far as the political response, I think we’ll continue to see a patchwork. We now have a number of states that have substantially removed all restrictions, the most recent being Texas. Critics say this is too soon, but if it is, it’s just by a couple of weeks. As you would expect, we’ll see private activity restored first, with public sector activities lagging. For example, I expect movie theatres to open far before government funded performing arts venues. And of course, there is the public school debacle, which is still playing out slowly in many locations. I don’t expect the public school system to get back to pre-COVID levels of enrollment for years, as many families have found alternative sources of education, causing enrollment to drop nearly everywhere. We’ll see similar pressure on higher education, after a year of “value for tuition” stress. Large swaths of the private sector are already functioning at pre-COVID levels, and I think that the hardest hit sectors (travel, entertainment, and physical retail) will recover faster than most pundits believe. People are itching for social contact, and memories with respect to negative events tend to be short. However, some things will remain in place indefinitely I believe – I’ll not be shaking hands with anyone again for a long time…

As I mentioned in my last report, the most credible data set (The COVID Tracking Project) is closing shop on March 8th. I’ll get one more detailed report in on that date, but after that I’ll either close up shop, or issue national level reports only. It will be more enjoyable tracing this pandemic on the way down than it was on the way up.

National Analysis

Here is the important picture. A remarkably rapid drop, and a stunning 74% drop from the January 11th peak.

We had a little bump in the active case count over the past week. This is largely from the massive winter storm and power outage, which caused a delay in reporting from the week prior. It caused the decline 2 weeks ago to appear faster than reality, and the week after to appear to increase. We can see this most clearly looking at Texas:

The precipitous decline the week of 2/15/2021 looked almost too good to be true, and it was. The following week shows the catch up reporting, and subsequent decline shows that we’re now past it.

Below is the national daily death count. The brown line is my daily death model, in which I have a high degree of confidence. Daily deaths lag active cases by about 3 weeks, but by 2 weeks from now we’ll be down to just over 1,000 deaths per day.

Here is the graph of daily deaths per 1,000 known active cases, still remarkably stable, and a good predicter of daily deaths over the next 3 weeks.

Individual States

All of the states I track are well past peak, with some receding faster than others, and some dropping precipitously. Here is Arizona, down 88% from the peak.

South Carolina is down 71% from the peak, and well below wave 2 levels.

Here is Florida – down 69% from the peak on January 8th. Now down materially below July levels.

California is now down 90% from the peak, and below wave 2 levels. A remarkable drop.

Georgia is down 70% from the peak, and now below July levels.

Same caveats with Texas as always – see my discussion of Texas above. Now down 69% from the peak, and below July 2020 levels.

Here are VA and NC. 75% drop from peak in NC, and 74% in VA.

Washington data has always been a mess. I won’t bore you with the details, as I have in previous reports, but here is what it looks like.

Here are NY and NJ – I don’t know why we see a small rise in these two states over the past week, but it can’t last long with the pace of vaccinations. NY is slightly behind the rest of the country in vaccine deployment, but not enough to explain this.

Here is Massachusetts. Down 76% from the peak on January 12th, and now below wave 1 levels.

…And here is Michigan, down an amazing 84% from peak.

Here is PA, down 76% from the peak on December 16.

Here is Colorado, down 81% from the peak on November 21st.

Here is Illinois, down 86% from peak and now below May 2020 levels.

Here is Wisconsin, down 90% from the peak, and now below wave 2 levels.

Here is Alabama, down 77% from peak, and substantially below July 2020 levels.

And Tennessee… down 86% from peak, and below summer 2020 levels.

Here is Ohio – down 85% from the peak on December 14th.

Here is Indiana, down 88% from peak.

So that’s it for today. I’ll be able to do one more detailed report on March 7th or 8th.

–Shane Chalke, FSA

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