Some Really Encouraging Numbers about Slowing the Spread of the Virus

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A man walks by an illuminated flag of The United States as the coronavirus outbreak continues in Manhattan, New York City, March 13, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Back in mid April, Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger built Rt.live, a site that aimed to calculate how fast the coronavirus is spreading in each state. They took data from the Covid Tracking Project, and used formulas for incubation time, onset of symptoms, and asymptomatic carriers. They’ve also adjusted the formula to account for the slowly but surely increasing rate of testing.

The Rt rate is the average number of people who become infected by an infectious person; the higher the rate, the faster the virus spreads. If the Rt rate drops below one, the spread slows down. In fact, the site declares that “when Rt is below 1.0, the virus will stop spreading.”

The current data on Rt.live offers some really encouraging news: 46 states have a Rt rate below one. The lowest is Montana at .64; the highest is Minnesota at 1.05. Four weeks ago, 26 states had an Rt rate above one.

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Some people will look at this and conclude, “See? We should reopen our society and economy, the number of infected is slowing down!” Other people will look at this and conclude, “No, opening up is the worst thing we could do right now! We’re beating this virus, and people interacting with each other will increase the spread again!”

The decision on how much to reopen society and how quickly is going to be complicated and will probably leave a lot of people frustrated. Many states closed their schools on March 16 or 17, although some localities closed them days earlier. State stay-at-home orders went into effect in the stretch from March 21 to April 7. For most Americans, this is week nine of quarantines, lockdowns, social-distancing and other various restrictions on daily life. The unemployment rate is nearly 15 percent and could hit 20 percent or more next month, and 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits.

The data at Rt.live suggests that we have successfully slowed the spread almost everywhere in the country. If the number of infections increases rapidly after the current ongoing phased reopening, we can put these restrictions back in place. Just about everywhere in the country, we have the hospital capacity now. What we don’t have is the cash flow to keep these hospitals open!

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