COVID19 update, June 27, 2020: The Economist on how COVID-19 changed the office; reduced hospital fatality rates in the UK; initial infection rates may have been 80 times higher than reported

(1) The Economist has a video on how COVID-19 is changing the office building as we know it. Working from home used to be the exception — companies insisted that you show up in the office even for work that can be done from home very well

Now COVID-19 has forced companies to make a virtue of necessity — and it turns out this works pretty well. The video claims that 47% of all existing jobs in Switzerland can be done from home, with somewhat lower percentages for other developed economies, but much lower percentages for developing countries.

And guess what: considering how expensive office space in premium locations is (downtown Hong Kong, with about $250/mo/square meter, probably takes the case), companies can save a ton of money by letting WFH-feasible jobs be done from home and downsizing their office locations.

This will have a ripple effect: a WSJ journalist interviewed in the video claims that every Manhattan office job created employment for 5 people in the service industry (bars and restaurants, custodial,…) 

Of course, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, so it is quite possible that the lost jobs catering to downtown office worker may be partly or even wholly offset by other jobs created elsewhere — as people working from home will want to upgrade their housing arrangements, or will have more disposable income to spend on family amenities.

I would not say that COVID-19 will bring the end of the Dilbert cube farm as we know it: simply that it triggered a transformation that was waiting to happen, only delayed by managerial inertia.

(2) There are reports from various countries that hospital mortality rates have dropped considerably from the peak of the infection. The Daily Telegraph reports that mortality of COVID19 patients admitted to English hospitals has dropped fourfold, from 6% in April (the peak of the epidemic there) to 1.5% now. A number of explanations are proffered:

  • Doctors have gotten better at managing the disease and mitigating its severity
  • Hospitals have enough capacity now that milder cases can now be admitted that would have been sent home earlier: as these mild cases almost invariably recover, this drives down the statistics
  • The most vulnerable older people either have already died or recovered, or we have simply gotten better at shielding the elderly from infection. 
  • [not in the article] the better, sunnier weather reduces vitamin D deficiency

(2b) [Hat tip: Erik W.]

An epidemiological study from Penn State U. suggests that the initial COVID19 infection rate in the US may have been about 80 times the officially reported one. The paper can be read directly here:

Quoting from the abstract:

Detection of SARS-CoV-2 infections to date has relied heavily on RT-PCR testing. However, limited test availability, high false-negative rates, and the existence of asymptomatic or sub-clinical infections have resulted in an under-counting of the true prevalence of SARS-CoV-2. Here, we show how influenza-like illness (ILI) outpatient surveillance data can be used to estimate the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2. We found a surge of non-influenza ILI above the seasonal average in March 2020 and showed that this surge correlated with COVID-19 case counts across states. If 1/3 of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 in the US sought care, this ILI surge would have corresponded to more than 8.7 million new SARS-CoV-2 infections across the US during the three-week period from March 8 to March 28, 2020. Combining excess ILI counts with the date of onset of community transmission in the US, we also show that the early epidemic in the US was unlikely to have been doubling slower than every 4 days. Together these results suggest a conceptual model for the COVID-19 epidemic in the US characterized by rapid spread across the US with over 80% infected patients remaining undetected.

Note that a “Dunkelziffer” of 80:1 is in the 50:1  – 85:1 range the [much-maligned] original version of the Santa Clara serological study (Ioannides et al.) had.

(3) “Covid toes” may actually not be a COVID-19 symptom or sequel after all, but simply result from lack of physical activity , reports UPI.

The “symptom” mirrors that of a condition called Chilblains, or perniosis, a painful inflammation of the small blood vessels in the skin that occurs after repeated exposure to cold air, they said.

(4) [Hat tip: Jeff Duntemann] A retired anesthesiologist on masks:

To protect yourself, you need an N95 respirator mask that is properly fitted.  Then you need to re-sterilize it every four hours using UV light or properly dispose of it and start over with a new one.  That is too expensive for most people.

The outside world is the safest place you can be.  The state of Florida has zero cases of COVID-19 that can be traced to outside transmission.  During the day, solar UV kills all viruses very quickly, and there’s always enough air movement to disperse aerosols, making them non-infective.  It has become clear that virtually all cases have been spread in closed spaces with prolonged (>10 minute) exposure.  And as the studies I’ve cited show, other than N95s, masks are no help there.  For that matter, six-foot spacing doesn’t help, either, since the aerosols that transmit the virus aren’t adequately dispersed.