The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, November 17, 2020 1:00 am

Multiplier effect

Numbers make new lockdown inevitable

Christer Watson

Last week, I was outside with my two sons. My older son was hanging on a tree branch that looked barely strong enough to hold his weight. As he hung further and further out on the branch, I ask him how far he could go before the branch broke.

He stopped.

Someone somewhere told me this lesson: If you don't know where the line is, you will probably cross it. I think about that constantly as I see our leaders, both at the state and national levels, in deep denial about the spread of the virus.

New positive cases are increasing at an alarming rate daily. The easiest way, I think, to understand the numbers is to look at the number of new cases every day, adjusted to 100,000 people so comparisons between states and models are easier.

In Indiana, that number was around 10 to 15 for several months. It is now doubling roughly every two weeks. On Sept. 30, it was 14. Two weeks later, it was 23, then 36, then 74. The latest number, 74, is for Nov. 12.

There is no reason to expect this pattern to change soon. The way this virus spreads is through a person with a positive case making contact with an another person.

When there are only five or 10 people walking around, our health care system has a chance at catching them before they make a lot of contact with others. When there are 23 or 36 people walking around, our health care system cannot catch them, so each one can spread the virus.

When there are 74 people walking around, the situation is twice as bad and there is twice as much spread.

Looking toward the next month or two, we should expect this pattern to roughly continue. The doubling time will not change until we change our behavior.

A look at other approaches, within the U.S. and abroad, offers examples of how to do that.

A Nov. 7 policy paper published in the Lancet described lessons learned from different countries' and regions' approach. The countries analyzed were the U.K., Spain, South Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Germany, Hong Kong (technically a region) and Japan. The paper discusses much about the detailed approaches. A few highlights for me were:

• Those countries with recent experiences with similar viruses (SARS in 2004 and MERS in 2015) adopted nearly universal mask-wearing more effectively. They tended to isolate cases in institutions instead of having people isolate at home. They also had more intrusive tracking of people's movements, and public acceptance of that intrusion.

Some combination of these has allowed a much more effective control of the virus' spread during those countries' opening-up process.

• Those countries that had a transparent, community-informed and community-accepted set of standards for lockdowns and opening up were also more effective.

Transparent is a delicate word here. It does not mean that everyone gets an equal say in the rules. The rules must be consistent with what we expect of the virus.

You cannot make a rule and just hope for the best. If the best medical advice and experience predicts that a rule will lead to uncontrolled spread of the virus, such as the doubling Indiana is currently experiencing, then we have to recognize that. This doubling is not acceptable, but many people do not realize how bad doubling will be after several more weeks.

Transparency also requires deciding and announcing those conditions that will lead to specific lockdown policies. What happens if new daily cases hit 50 (we are already past this)? What about 100? What about 150? What about 200? What about 300?

If there is no publicly announced plan for what will happen at those levels, then we are left to argue only about what to do now. Some people will always, secretly and against all available evidence, hope the numbers will get better on their own.

If you don't know where the line is, you can always invent a reason you think you haven't crossed it yet.

If we can get below 10, our health care system has a reasonable expectation of keeping up with testing and tracing. To get to 10 from our current, high level of about 80, will be hard. That means new limits and forced closures (i.e., a lockdown) will take awhile. If we had started two weeks ago, it would have been easier.

However, if you think things cannot get worse, you are wrong. If we wait a couple of more weeks, that daily case number can double to around 160. If we wait longer, it can double again. Going from these higher numbers back down to 10 will be harder.

We need dramatic new limits now. Actually, we needed to start a month ago, when the job would have been a lot easier.


Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a visiting assistant professor of physics at Purdue University Fort Wayne. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette, where his columns normally appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.

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