We have met the COVID-19 enemy

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New York recently released findings from a study of 220,000 COVID-19 cases from September to November. Of the 46,000 cases traced to the source of infection, three quarters were attributed to household or social gatherings, such as birthday parties or holiday celebrations. That’s right—not bars, schools or grocery stores. Your house and mine.

That’s a policy dilemma for state officials. Gov. Andrew Cuomo can implore us to cancel the holiday parties and Christmas dinner with Gram and Uncle Ray. But he can’t enforce it. Threatening to shut down schools and bars and restaurants is a form of messaging: “Hey, this is important. Stop the socializing!”

Do we trust the data? We know many of the calls of contract tracers were for naught: Only one in five could (or would) identify the source of their infection. The wily coronavirus’ “superpower” is its ability to reproduce without making the host sick, at least for several days. Some who are infected never have symptoms. 

My friends, neighbors and colleagues do not wish to infect me with COVID-19. Most people who experience COVID-like symptoms will take steps to “stop the spread.” But in the absence of symptoms, most of us assume that we’re healthy. Unfortunately, if we are asymptomatic for three or four days, then have to wait another two or three days for test results, it can be hard to determine where we caught the bug.

Even if we have info on only a fifth of the cases, however, the conclusion is inescapable. We have only ourselves to blame if COVID-19 continues to spread. 

Thanksgiving gatherings would appear to be responsible for the recent spike in cases. With the virus raging in many western states, New York was able to report that only 3.5 percent tests turned out positive. Then came Thanksgiving: The share of positive tests rose to 5.4 percent by the week ended Dec. 19. The Finger Lakes and Mohawk Valley regions share the dubious honor of having the highest rates in the state, both at 8.1 percent.

The raw numbers seem drawn from a film script, not real life. Total positives more than doubled in 20 counties. Some of these are rural counties that had largely escaped COVID-19 until now. Franklin County’s total was 35 during Thanksgiving week, then rose to 113 last week, a growth rate of 280 percent. Statewide, the weekly number of new cases grew 30,000 and Monroe County added 1,800. However, Erie County’s case totals actually fell after several weeks of dramatic growth.

There’s a new data set that permits a modest test of Thanksgiving effect. Cuebiq’s Contact Index Dashboard “measures the link between social distancing and mobility” by keeping a tally when “two or more devices come within 50 feet of each other within a five-minute time period.” The number of contacts for a given seven-day period in 2020 can be compared to the same seven-day period in 2019. As expected, the 2020 index is negative for most counties for most time periods.

Using Cuebiq’s tool, I compared the year-over-year change in the index for the week ended Nov. 28 (which included Thanksgiving) to the week ended Nov. 21. Reviewing New York totals and the state’s largest counties, Cuebiq reports nearly the same reduction in contacts for both weeks. Statewide, the index of contacts was 55 to 56 percent lower in 2020 than in 2019. The largest week-over-week change for major counties was reported for Manhattan: The index of contacts fell more during Thanksgiving week (-73 percent) than in the prior week (-66 percent).

The index supports the divergent path of COVID infection in Erie and Monroe counties, however: Device contacts in Monroe County increased during Thanksgiving week from -41 percent for the week of November 21 to -35 percent for Thanksgiving week. By contrast, Erie contacts fell between weeks: The index was -49 percent for the week before Thanksgiving, falling further to -54 percent during Thanksgiving week. It would be premature to draw strong conclusions from an untested source of information, however.

As usual with COVID-19, simple explanations are confounded. Were Thanksgiving the only factor, we might expect to see the growth rates across the counties to be more consistent. Yet there’s a randomness in these data that defies easy analysis.

I was initially focused on the growth rate in Monroe County and the Finger Lakes. Might we have an unusual concentration of extended families, making big family gatherings irresistible? With respect to Monroe County, my speculation found no support in the data. 

The share of multigenerational families can be inferred from Census figures. The Census reports the share of households that include grandparent, parents and children, 2.4 percent in Monroe County versus 3.8 percent statewide. The leaders here are all downstate—6.7 percent in the Bronx, 5.9 percent in Queens and 5.3 percent in Staten Island. Monroe’s experience is typical for an upstate county.

Perhaps our families are more closely knit because they move less. Wrong again: Only 16 percent of Monroe County residents live in the same home they occupied in 1989, ranking the county 57th (of 62) in the state. This, it seems, is largely a rural phenomenon. Hamilton, Wyoming, Herkimer and Genesee counties ranked first, third, fourth and fifth, respectively, all near 25 percent. The outlier is Long Island’s Nassau County, which ranked No. 2, also 25 percent.

My thesis also ran aground on in-migration: Just under 2 percent of the population moved to the county from another state within the previous year, 10th highest in the state. Top of the list are Jefferson and Tompkins counties, nearly tied at 6.7 percent and 6.6 percent. Fort Drum in Jefferson and Cornell University and Ithaca College in Tompkins surely drive these numbers. Monroe’s ranking can also be attributed to our large higher ed sector.

Thus, I found nothing measurable that explains the experience of Monroe County and the Finger Lakes. And, unfortunately, many parts of the state have a COVID problem that rivals ours.

What we do we really know about how COVID spreads? Epidemiologists agree that airborne transmission is the principal source of contagion. That’s why masks matter. 

New York’s small army of contact tracers has also revealed something important: We catch the virus from our friends and family, a message abundantly confirmed by our Thanksgiving experience. 

Do Gram and Uncle Ray a favor and leave them alone for Christmas. Loneliness is terrible, but rarely deadly.

Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor. All coronavirus articles are collected here.

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