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The weather effect

Maybe a little bit of hope. We’ll see.

Communities living in warmer places appear to have a comparative advantage to slow the transmission of coronavirus infections, according to an early analysis by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The researchers found that most coronavirus transmissions had occurred in regions with low temperatures, between 37.4 and 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 3 and 17 degrees Celsius).

While countries with equatorial climates and those in the Southern Hemisphere, currently in the middle of summer, have reported coronavirus cases, regions with average temperatures above 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit (or 18 degrees Celsius) account for fewer than 6% of global cases so far.

“Wherever the temperatures were colder, the number of the cases started increasing quickly,” said Qasim Bukhari, a computational scientist at MIT who is a co-author of the study. “You see this in Europe, even though the health care there is among the world’s best.”

The temperature dependency is also clear within the United States, Bukhari said. Southern states, like Arizona, Florida and Texas, have seen slower outbreak growth compared with states like Washington, New York and Colorado. Coronavirus cases in California have grown at a rate that falls somewhere in between.

The seasonal pattern is similar to what epidemiologists have observed with other viruses. Dr. Deborah Birx, the global AIDS coordinator in the United States and also a member of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, said during a recent briefing that the flu, in the Northern Hemisphere, generally follows a November to April trend.

The four types of coronavirus that cause the common cold every year also wane in warmer weather.

Birx also noted that the pattern was similar with the SARS epidemic in 2003. But she stressed that because the virus outbreaks in China and South Korea began later, it was difficult to determine whether the new coronavirus would take the same course.

[…]

It will take another 4 to 6 weeks before health officials will have a clearer picture of how weather patterns shape the trajectory of the coronavirus, said Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director at the Pan American Health Organization, the regional office of the World Health Organization that focuses on the Americas.

The fact that local transmission is happening across the global south signals that this virus may be more resilient to warmer temperatures than the flu and other respiratory viruses. That is why World Health Organization officials still urge countries to act urgently and aggressively to try and contain the virus while case numbers are relatively low and close contacts can easily be traced and quarantined.

“One of the big perils in assuming that the virus is less dangerous in warmer temperatures, among particular ages or for any specific group is complacency,” said Julio Frenk, a physician who served as health minister in Mexico and is now president of the University of Miami. “If people fail to heed the warnings and recommendations of public health professionals, the results will be disastrous.”

But because high humidity and heat only align perfectly during mainly July and August in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere, Bukhari cautioned that the effects of warmer weather on reducing transmissions might only last for a brief period in some regions.

This is all very, very preliminary, and the effect may end up being limited in a number of ways. Even if coronavirus does behave like the cold and flu viruses in this way, that doesn’t mean it’s gone away, or that existing precautions like vigilant hand-washing are less necessary. It just means maybe our hospitals will get a break, and maybe give us some headway in getting a better handle on it. Maybe. If we’re lucky. In the meantime, stay socially distant. Kevin Drum has more.

Please get a flu shot

It’s always a good idea, even if it’s more effective in some years than in others.

The flu vaccine may not be very effective this winter, according to U.S. health officials who worry this may lead to more serious illnesses and deaths.

Flu season has begun to ramp up, and officials say the vaccine does not protect well against the dominant strain seen most commonly so far this year. That strain tends to cause more deaths and hospitalizations, especially in the elderly.

Only 48 percent of the 85 samples of H3N2 influenza viruses that have been tested since Oct. 1 are closely related to the strain that was picked for the vaccine distributed in North America, according to the agency.

“Though we cannot predict what will happen the rest of this flu season, it’s possible we may have a season that’s more severe than most,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a news conference Thursday.

CDC officials think the vaccine should provide some protection and still are urging people to get vaccinated. But it probably won’t be as good as if the vaccine strain was a match.

Flu vaccine effectiveness tends to vary from year to year. Last winter, flu vaccine was 50 to 55 percent effective overall, which experts consider relatively good.

[…]

Current flu vaccines are built to protect against three or four different kinds of flu virus, depending on the product. The ingredients are selected very early in the year, based on predictions of what strains will circulate the following winter.

The ingredients always include a Type A H3N2 flu virus. The most severe flu seasons tend to be dominated by some version of that kind of flu bug. The three most deadly flu seasons of the last 10 years – in the winters of 2003-2004, 2007-2008, and 2012-2013 – were H3N2 seasons.

In March, after the H3N2 vaccine strain was vaccine production was underway, health officials noted the appearance of a new and different strain of H3N2. “This is not something that’s been around before,” Frieden said.

But health officials weren’t sure if the new strain would become a significant problem in the United States this winter until recently, they said. Lab specimens from patients have shown that the most commonly seen flu bug so far is the new strain of H3N2. Specifically, about 48 percent of the H3N2 samples seen so far were well matched to what’s in the vaccine, but 52 percent were not, the CDC said.

Not perfect, but your odds are still a lot better with the vaccine than without. As the story notes, in an average year about 24,000 Americans die from the flu. I’ll have to check my math on this, but I’m pretty sure that’s more than the number of Americans that die from Ebola. (Which we still need to fight against as well, but Congressional Republicans have lost interest in Ebola since it’s not generating scary cable news stories any more.) So don’t fall for the hysteria. Please put the odds in your favor and get a flu shot, OK? Thanks.

Some things you can vaccinate against

Saying dumb things isn’t one of them.

CM Jack Christie

As the council considered a proposal Wednesday to accept $3.1 million in federal funding for childhood immunizations, Councilman Jack Christie voiced his opposition to the measure, apparently conflating it with flu vaccinations.

“I’m going to vote against this,” Christie said before the 15-1 vote. “You don’t die from the flu.”

Christie backed down somewhat from his comment on Friday. What he meant to say, he said, was that “People should not die from the flu.”

“First of all, that’s $3 million that the federal government doesn’t really have,” Christie said of the funding proposal. “It’s borrowed money we eventually have to pay back. But more important is the media’s embellishment of the extreme fear of encouraging flu vaccinations.

“Every year there’s going to be a flu,” he said, “and vaccines create synthetic immunity, which does not trump natural immunity to disease.”

Christie, who said he has never taken a flu shot, suggested the medical community should focus more attention on prescription drug abuse that claims thousands of lives annually in the U.S.

Dr. Joshua Septimus, associate professor of internal medicine at Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, called Christie’s comments irresponsible.

“That is totally wrong,” he said. “The flu kills anywhere from a few thousand to tens of thousands in the U.S. alone. There is very good evidence that the flu shot reduces deaths from the flu. That flu vaccine is a very low risk and with very high potential benefits.”

So much here to deal with. First, the idea that not accepting this funding is fiscally responsible is ludicrous. This money has already been appropriated. Not accepting it doesn’t mean it magically gets transmuted from a liability to an asset on the federal budget balance sheet. It means it gets to be granted to some other city. There are sometimes good reasons to turn down federal funding, but this is money for childhood immunizations. Spending money to keep kids healthy is about the best spending we can do. It’s an investment with a big payoff, both in terms of spending less later on sick kids, and the greater lifetime earnings potential of kids who grew up healthy and in some cases who got to grow up at all.

Second, the bit about the medical community needing to focus more on prescription drug abuse is a complete non sequitur. Last I checked, the medical community was big enough to handle more than one thing at a time. It’s also unlikely to change its priorities based on one screwball City Council voting down a grant for childhood immunizations. If you want to send a message to the American Medical Association, writing a letter to them is probably the better approach.

Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, but even Helena Brown voted to accept these funds. Let me say that again: Even Helena Brown voted to accept these funds. When you’re off on an island that even Helena Brown isn’t inhabiting, you need to check your coordinates, know what I mean?