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January 13th, 2021:

The Question That Nobody’s Asking

I’ve been scratching my head a lot lately, and I need to stop before I wear through my scalp. (My natural armor has been mostly gone for thirty-five years.) It’s a natural, nay obvious question, which I’m putting in bold and giving its own paragraph:

If masks prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections, where did the current explosion of cases and deaths come from?

Take a look at the screenshot below. This is from the Arizona Department of Health Services’ COVID-19 dashboard. The graph is deaths by date of death for the entire state of Arizona. The curve starts heading toward the sky during the last week in October.

AZCovidDeathsGraph-500 wide.png

Maricopa County, where we live, issued a mask mandate on June 19, 2020. That was right about when the first near-vertical slope in the graph began. It took a few weeks for the mandate to catch on, but by August 1, it was pretty much universal. That’s about when the curve started to fall. There was a certain amount of crowing that the mask mandate had brought the pandemic under control in the state.

Then the end of October happened.

Now, I’ve been watching not only whether people are wearing masks in retail outlets and offices (they are) but also what kinds of masks and how they’re being worn. Over time, the masks are getting better. I’m actually seeing KN95 masks with some frequency, and it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve seen a useless “train robber” bandana mask anywhere. Mask adherence in the state is at 90%, which aligns with what I’ve seen, if perhaps on the low side. That’s a mighty high rate.

So again, my question: With mask adherence at 90%, why is the curve still so high? Note that the graph is of the days deaths happen, not when they are reported. Death reports are not all received by the state on the days deaths happen, and reports from rural areas can take a week or more to get to AzDHS. What looks like a falling curve at the right edge of the graph may simply be due to lag time in reporting.

There is certainly some inflation of death counts due to the problem of “with COVID but not of COVID.” Some. I don’t think that kind of confusion can cause the numbers we’re seeing here. And it’s inevitable that a certain amount of fraud happens; I’ve seen the news stories describing gunshot suicides, car accidents, and victims of alcohol poisoning described as COVID-19 deaths–some without a positive test for the virus. However, if there had been enough fraud to cause this explosion in deaths, somebody somewhere would have said something.

Wouldn’t they?

Ok. Although I’m open to other theories, I think it’s significant that something happened in the last week of October: Arizona temperatures crashed hard. We had a long, lingering summer here. Mid-October was still giving us 90+ degree days. That went down into the 60s and 70s in a big hurry.

It’s long been known that viral respiratory diseases become much more prevalent in cold weather. Why this should happen isn’t known with certainty. One theory is that influenza and corona viruses have a coating that becomes more rugged in colder temps, giving the virus a longer survival time in air and even in sun. Dry weather favors viruses for reasons that, again, are far from clear.

Well, in Arizona we have dry weather in spades, year-round. Cold, not so much. In fact, a typical winter’s day here is probably about the same temp as a typical summer’s day in North Dakota. Given the uncertainty about what causes viruses to infect more readily in winter, could it be a conjunction of cooler (than usual) temps and extreme dryness? Or (and I like this one better) is there something about the effect of a fall in temperatures (the delta, not the absolute temps) on the human body that gives the virus free rein?

That’s the only theory I have that I haven’t already shot down. It wasn’t Thanksgiving gatherings; the curve took off close to a month before Thanksgiving. And for all that, I consider it pretty thin gruel. It’s dry here probably 340 days a year. It’s even drier in summer than winter.

The theory that people spend more time indoors than outdoors in winter doesn’t apply in Arizona. The reverse is largely the case: When it’s 110 degrees outside, most people stay indoors, or maybe stand up to their necks in the pool. Winter is when people jog, bike, hike, and work outdoors, getting lots of fresh air and plenty of sun (and thus crucial Vitamin D) on their faces, arms, and legs.

Again, where the hell did that near-vertical runup in deaths come from?

I’ll tell you where it didn’t come from: People ditching their masks. The fact that mask compliance is at 90+% during an explosion in COVID-19 deaths screams out something a lot of people don’t want to hear: Masks don’t prevent infection. If they did, the increase would have been a lot more gradual, and probably a lot lower in magnitude.

Let me put it in short, simple words: Masks have been sold as a means of stopping the spread of SARS-CoV-2. They’ve been sold hard. Mask skeptics get called a whole lot of dirty words, even though we wear masks as a courtesy to the rule of law. Faced with a graph like the one the State of Arizona itself puts out, what are we supposed to think?

The graph says something else, perhaps a little more quietly: There are no COVID-19 experts. We still have very little understanding of how this thing spreads and (especially) why it hits some people so devastatingly hard, and others barely at all. When our (often self-appointed) experts told us to put on masks, we put on masks. And then the graph went through the roof.

I wish I had answers. I don’t. Why two peaks instead of one? What had been going on between the end of July and the end of September? Were we doing something right? If so, what? And what did we start doing wrong in late October?

Nobody knows. Read that again: Nobody knows.

If I figure it out, you’ll read about it here.