Category Archives: Current Affairs

Sobering

For the day job, I get to see lots of reports and data, particularly as it relates to housing. It was one of those reports that had a link to the US Census Household Pulse Survey pageand let me tell you that you’ll find some sobering statistics there about the impact of COVID-19. The survey has been conducted weekly since March 13, 2020, and below are select numbers from week 12, the most recent week available:

Employment Income – Percentage of households that had experienced a loss of employment income:
United States: 51.1%
North Carolina: 45.7%

Expected Loss in Employment Income – Percentage of adults who expect someone in their household to have a loss in employment income in the next 4 weeks:
United States: 35.2%
North Carolina: 29.0%

Food Scarcity- Percentage of adults in households where there was either sometimes or often not enough to eat in the last 7 days:
United States: 12.1%
North Carolina: 11.8%

Delayed Medical Care  Percentage of adults who delayed getting medical care because of the COVID-19 pandemic in the last 4 weeks.
United States: 40.1%
North Carolina: 33.9%

Housing Insecurity – Percentage of adults who missed last month’s rent or mortgage payment, or who have slight or no confidence that their household can pay next month’s rent or mortgage on time.
United States: 26.5%
North Carolina: 23.0%

K-12 Educational Changes – Percentage of adults in households with children in public or private school, where classes were taught in a distance learning format, or changed in some other way.
United States: 99.4%
North Carolina: 99.7%

 

About That Family Gathering

Catawba County (NC) recently published a case study to show how one family gathering of over two dozen people ended up with 14 family members infected with COVID-19 who then spread the infection to 41 people in 9 different families and 8 different workplaces.CatawbaSpread

From the Catawba County posting about this:

Situations like this have become painfully common in Catawba County. I share this example because I hope it can help our community see how easily COVID-19 is actively spreading. More importantly, I hope it will convince us all to be even more willing to do the small things we’re being asked to do to protect ourselves and others: wear a mask in public, maintain physical distance, and wash hands frequently.

It’s not hard to prevent the spread COVID-19. What’s hard is having to call 20, 30, 40 people a day and tell them that not only are they sick with an untreatable illness, but they are also required to isolate themselves from others, including their loved ones, and stay home from work for two weeks or until they recover. This is especially difficult when they do not have the support systems that many of us take for granted, such as paid sick leave, the ability to isolate in their own home, or available caretakers for their children. It’s even harder when they are experiencing severe illness as a result of their exposure – exposure that could have been prevented.

Jobs Retained by PPP in the Triad’s 3 Big Cities

Digging a little more into the PPP numbers from the SBA (see yesterday’s post) it’s interesting to look at the number of small loans (under $150,000) versus the number of larger loans (over $150,000) and the number of jobs they have retained according to the report.

According to the data there were 9,670 loans combined in the three cities and of those 8,131, or 84% were under $150,000.

PPP loans by size

The data also shows that there were 115,448 jobs retained and of those 38,735, or 34% came from the small loans.

PPP Jobs Retained

PPP in Triad’s Big 3 Cities

After the SBA released the PPP data to the public I decided to take a look at the numbers for the three larger cities in the Piedmont Triad: Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem. Since the SBA divided it’s data into two separate sets, loans over $150,000 and those less than $150,000 I combined them all in one spreadsheet and then sorted by city and the size of the loan. Here’s what I found:

Between the three cities there were 9,670 businesses that were approved for PPP loans. Here’s how it broke down between the three cities:

PPP cities

The data is also broken down by loan amounts and this is how the loan sizes broke down:

PPP loan amount distribution

This chart reflects the distribution of all 9,670 loans across all three cities, but I found it interesting that this distribution was almost exactly the same across all three cities.

If you want to dig into the data yourself you can download the files here.

Spread

This New York Times interactive piece offers a chilling look into how COVID-19 spread in the US earlier this year. This part, in particular, caught my attention:

HOW THE FIRST OUTBREAKS SPREAD

Top federal health experts concluded by late February that the virus was likely to spread widely within the United States and that government officials would soon need to urge the public to embrace social distancing measures, such as avoiding crowds and staying home.

But Mr. Trump wanted to avoid disrupting the economy. So some of his health advisers, at Mr. Trump’s urging, told Americans at the end of February to continue to travel domestically and go on with their normal lives.

And they did. Millions moved across the country, cellphone data shows. Some unknowingly carried the virus with them.

spread

Travel volume from March 1 to March 14, based on aggregated data from Cuebiq, a data intelligence firm. Minor routes not shown.

The reason this caught my attention is that in the March 1-14 window I traveled from my home in North Carolina to Washington, DC for a business trip that included a visit to the offices of several legislators on Capitol Hill on March 11. If that date looks familiar it’s because that’s the last day that Congress was open to visits from the public. Every office we visited had signs on the door stating that they were discouraging shaking hands, but that didn’t stop at least one Congressman from shaking my hand and one staff member from shaking everyone in my group’s hands – around 10 people.

In addition to visiting the Hill, I was attending a small national industry conference held at the Grand Hyatt. Several hundred people flew in from around the country for that meeting, and we spent hours together in meeting rooms of various sizes over several days. At the beginning of the conference, the only precaution we took was making sure everyone had hand sanitizer and we refrained from shaking hands. Three days later they had set up AV equipment in the meeting rooms so that people could remote in from their hotel rooms if they weren’t comfortable meeting in person.

After the conference, we were informed that if anyone was diagnosed with COVID-19 we would be informed and we never did get that notification. To be safe I decided to work from home for two weeks so I didn’t put my office mates at risk, and of course, by the time that was done, we’d shut down our office and moved everyone to work-from-home status.

In an interesting coincidence the League of Municipalities had a meeting in DC the same week we were there. Several members of Winston-Salem’s city council were there and visited Capitol Hill on the same day we did, March 11. Less than a week later they announced that they were self-isolating because attendees at their conference had tested positive for the virus. If I’d had any question about working from home before that then I’d have made the call to do so then because our paths crossed on the Hill.

So, how many meetings/conferences like ours were held somewhere in the country those first two weeks of March? How many people attending those meetings unwittingly carried the virus home with them? How many were like me: they didn’t really want to go to the meeting, but felt they had to? If the government had come out earlier then those meetings likely wouldn’t have happened and we wouldn’t have had to make that decision. It’s impossible to know how many additional infections/deaths this delay led to, but I suspect it was a substantial number.

This final bit of info from the Times piece:

More than 22,000 deaths in the New York City area could have been avoided if the country had started social distancing just one week earlier, Columbia University researchers estimate.

About 36,000 deaths nationwide could have been avoided by early May had social distancing begun earlier, the estimates say.

When Perception Matches Reality

Since the COVID-19 crisis began one of the local testing centers here in Winston-Salem, NC has been located on Hanes Mall Boulevard near my home, and I’ve driven past it at least a few times a week throughout the crisis. For much of the first six-ish weeks of the crisis, I would either see no one out there, or just the health workers hanging out waiting for potential cases to drive in. Then a few weeks ago I started noticing cars in line with people waiting to be tested, and then more recently I saw those lines getting significantly longer. It was noticeable enough that I mentioned to Celeste, my better 3/4, that I wouldn’t be surprised if we started to see on the news that there were more cases in Forsyth County. Sure enough, over the last two weeks, we’ve seen a heavy surge in cases and we’re not alone as the entire state of North Carolina has seen an uptick in positive test results and hospitalizations. The following is from the Winston-Salem Journal:

Forsyth County has experienced its largest one-day spike with 97 new cases reported Thursday by the county Health Department. The previous daily high was 61 on May 14. The number of COVID-19 related deaths remained unchanged at nine.

The overall total surged to 1,160, which may signal that Forsyth has surpassed Guilford for having the third-most cases by county. The latest N.C. Department of Health and Human Services update, released at 11 a.m. Thursday, had Guilford with 1,137 cases and 56 deaths.

ForsythCovidmay27

This is one of those times where I really wish the reality hadn’t matched my perception.

While we’re here I’ll also share that there’s an anomaly that I can’t wrap my head around: while Forsyth County’s case count has been skyrocketing the deaths have remained relatively low when compared to neighboring Guilford County. Forsyth has 1,160 total cases with 9 deaths, for a fatality rate of .775%. Guilford has 1,173 total cases with 56 deaths, for a fatality rate of 4.77%. Given that the two counties abut each other and are similar in so many ways I just don’t understand what can account for such a large discrepancy.

The numbers are tragic no matter how large or small, but it’s discrepancies like this that make me believe that we still don’t have an accurate picture of what this disease is doing to our community. Only time and good public health science will give us a true picture, and I fear that the worst of this picture is yet to be revealed.

Voices from Past Leaders Trump Today’s

Helluva piece from NPRuses the voices from some of our national leaders of the past to highlight the barren voice of today’s “leader” during our current national tragedy:

BROOKS: Yeah, I guess I’d say tragedies touch us at a deeper level than politics. And at these moments, I think, what presidents do when they’re at their best is they step outside their political role, and they just speak to us humans as humans, whether it was Reagan after The Challenger…

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God…

BROOKS: …Or Obama after the Newtown shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They had their entire lives ahead of them – birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.

BROOKS: And they really come to us as emotive healers. And with President Trump, we have someone who can’t express empathy. He’s reacted to this crisis simply as a political exercise not as a human tragedy.

KELLY: E.J., your thoughts?

DIONNE: We look to political leaders to help us confront the horrors we experience. We don’t want the horror glossed over or explained away glibly. But we do want paths to hope and solidarity and fellowship and, at least, the possibility that we can emerge from tragedy better than we were before. That’s how we keep living.

The audio is definitely worth a listen if you have a few minutes.

 

Stories by the Numbers

Some interesting numbers. First, check out this graphic from today’s (May 8, 2020, 1:00 p.m.) Wall Street Journal website that highlights why the stock market is a pretty lousy proxy for the economy:

This next number caught my eye because it features a small Nebraska city, Grand Island, where Celeste and I spent one night last summer when we were driving home from Colorado. It’s from an article in the May 7, 2020 Wall Street Journal:

Local officials have now confirmed hundreds of coronavirus cases, with more than 200 linked to a local JBS USA beef plant and another 40 to area nursing homes. There were 1,228 Covid-19 cases as of Tuesday in a city of roughly 51,000, according to the regional health department. That puts its per capita rate of infection well above that of New York, the hardest-hit state in the nation by the coronavirus pandemic.

Compare those numbers to my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC, which has a population of 246,000, 347 confirmed COVID-19 cases and five deaths as of 5/8/2020. So despite have five times the population of Grand Island, Winston-Salem has had less than a third the number of confirmed cases. One interesting piece of info though: Winston-Salem has seen a recent spike in cases and a high percentage of those cases are tied to people who work in a Tysons Food poultry plant located in a county that’s an hour away.

Long story short: food processing plants are becoming a significant hotspot in the less urban parts of the country, and since those operations are all essential and can’t be done remotely, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that small cities and towns across the country could see a significant per-capita impact for months into the future.

What if…

As I write this the world is in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and America is essentially shut down. The vast majority of Americans have been living under “stay at home” orders for several weeks, a majority of businesses have been shuttered, unemployment is growing by millions of people per week and there is a growing debate about when to open the country back up.

A central argument in the debate about reopening, and its timing, is about whether the lives saved by shutting down justify the economic damage and human suffering the shutdown is incurring. Of course there are a few problems we face when we have this debate:

  • We have no way of knowing how many lives we’ve saved with this action, partially because we don’t have widespread testing to know how many people have been infected, also because we have imperfect reporting of causes of death (numbers are constantly revised) and partially because we have imperfect models with which to estimate the true infection and mortality rates of the virus.
  • We don’t, as a society, have an agreed upon threshold for the lives we are willing to sacrifice in order to keep our economy functioning at a “normal” capacity.
  • We don’t, as a society, even agree what a normal economy should look like. At a time when we are experiencing extreme wealth disparity it’s almost a given that people will disagree with whether or not the economy that COVID-19 blew a hole in is the economy the majority of Americans want to return to.

I think we can all agree that we will disagree in fundamental ways about when and how we will get back to normal since we will disagree about what normal even is. But, for the sake of this exercise let’s just accept that we want to get the country working again so we can get back to some semblance of normalcy. So, what do we need to do that and what will “normal” look like when we do?

Let’s do this for a thought exercise: let’s assume that we decide that the benefits of some form of social distancing are great enough that they should be considered normal. Why? Well, let’s look at one of the arguments that people on social media seem to love when arguing for ending the stay at home orders: Since X number of people die every year from the flu and we don’t shut the country down then, why should we shut it down for COVID-19?

Again, we have no idea what the true number of COVID-19 deaths would have been without the shutdown, so let’s not argue about that. Instead let’s argue about whether we should do some form of social distancing every flu season. Here are the data points for the debate – all of the numbers are made up simply for the sake of debate:

  • In an average year we lose 100,000 people to flu-related deaths and 500,000 people hospitalized
  • After this COVID-19 crisis we learn that thanks to social distancing we reduced the probable mortality rate by 50% and hospitalization rate by 25% and if we implemented some forms of social distancing during flu season we would see a similar effect for flu-related deaths/hospitalizations.
  • We also learn during the crisis that because of the economic shutdown we, as a society, “lost” $10 million per person killed or $2.5 million per person hospitalized

What do we do? We know that we could save 50,000 lives but is it worth risking the trillions of dollars it would cost the economy to totally shut down the economy every year? Or do we find a middle ground? Do we decide to leave businesses open but require the wearing of face masks and gloves in any public space during flu season or when the signs of an outbreak are spotted? Do we reduce occupation limits on all businesses that serve the public? To help offset the economic impact on those businesses do we provide them tax breaks? If we discover that implementing socialized medicine reduces the overall impact on the economy – keeps us open while reducing the overall economic cost – do we go for it?

I’ve yet to hear anyone who isn’t a crackpot argue that we should have done nothing in the face of COVID-19. Rather, all the arguments have been about what and how much to do. That’s not surprising, because COVID-19 is new, very scary and in the absence of experience and accurate data our leaders have erred on the side of extreme caution. We literally go in the other direction with the flu because it’s a known quantity; as a society we’ve come to accept the tens of thousands of deaths that happen every year and shrug our shoulders and accept it. If we flip this debate we’re having on its head and ask ourselves, “If we can flatten the curve on COVID-19 can we do the same for the flu?” then maybe we can be honest with ourselves. We can ask the hard questions, that need to be asked, not just about COVID-19 but about our society’s priorities in general.

Time to Get Over Our Millennial Obsession Syndrome

So, have you heard about this Millennial Generation? <Insert sarcasm here>. Of course you have. We all have. Repeatedly. Over and over and over and over…you get the drift. We’ve been reading, listening or watching stories about the Millennials longer than some of them have been alive and most of those stories focus on gross generalizations like “they’re more entitled than previous generations” or “they’re soft – participation trophies have made them emotionally fragile and needy” or “they think they’re too good for entry-level positions.” Well, as the parent of three millennials and as an employee of a trade association that trains literally hundreds of millennials every year, I can tell you that I find these generalizations to be sheer and utter bullshit.

Here’s what I see when I see Millennials these days; young adults who have the same character traits that their parents and grandparents had when they were the same age – impatience, brashness, exuberance, some misguided swagger, a belief that their parents and grandparents are out of touch and a bedrock belief that their generation will fix what their predecessors screwed up.

I also see a huge group of young adults whose world is very different from their parents and grandparents and who are reacting in the same way that I sincerely believe we older adults would have if we were in their shoes today. They are starting families far later than we Xers did, but that’s a very logical thing to do when you’re saddled with student debt, wages are stagnant, rents are soaring and the barriers to homeownership are much higher than they were 20 years ago?

Later household formation has a ripple effect. Huge numbers of them are reaching 30-35 years of age without having experienced many of the rites of passage that their parents – and grandparents in particular – experienced between 18-30. They haven’t gotten married or had kids so they haven’t had to learn what it’s like to lose control of their own daily lives. If most of us older folks are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that our young, single selves exhibited the same traits as those we disparage in Millennials; we just had a shorter window of time to do so.

And there’s the not-so-small matter of the changes in society between our coming of age and the Millennials’. In an interview with Rolling Stone, newly-minted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, probably the most prominent Millennial-aged politician in the United States right now, makes this observation in response to the question, “What do you think you know that the old guard doesn’t?”:

One of the things that I bring to the table is a visceral understanding that people under 40 have been shaped by an entirely different set of events. We’ve literally grown up in different Americas. They were shaped by a Cold War America, a post-World War II America; and we are an Iraq War America, a 9/11 America, a hyper-capitalism-has-never-worked-for-us, Great Recession America. People are used to talking about millennials as if we’re teenagers. We’re in our thirties now. We’re raising kids and getting married and having families, and we have mortgages and student-loan debt. It’s important that [Congress is] in touch. People tend to interpret this as me railing against older people and being ageist. But that’s not what this is about. It’s a problem of representation. We don’t have enough intergenerational representation. We largely have one generation. That’s not to say that one generation should be out of power, it’s that others should be here as well.

You don’t have to agree with her politics in order to recognize and accept the reality that she’s pointing out: the world these young adults grew up in is very different than the world their parents and grandparents did. Again, this is nothing new. The world we Gen Xers came of age in was very different from the world that many Baby Boomers (especially the older ones) and the World War II Generation came of age in. We were all influenced by our environments and in retrospect, our behavior at that time was exactly what you’d expect. I think in 20 years we’ll say the same is true of the Millennials, so let’s just admit that in principle they’re like every generation that preceded them and we’re like every generation that preceded us – grumpy old(er) people who wish those young folks would quiet down, watch how it’s done, and wait their turn.

The reality is this: all of us are playing the same roles our ancestors played, we’re just using wearing different looking costumes and dancing to different sounding music. What we older folks need to remember is that part of our role is to be ready to help our successors because we know how hard and cruel the lessons of life can be and when they get to the other side of those lessons they’re going to be just like us. Actually, based on what I’m seeing I think they’ll be better than us, and for the sake of our world, I hope I’m right.