Listen: Why the Virus Is Spreading So Unevenly

The pandemic isn’t going away, and its growth is hard to predict.

The nation’s attention has turned to the protests, but the coronavirus hasn’t gone away. In fact, the decline in hot spots such as New York may hide a growing problem elsewhere—a problem whose path has been disconcertingly random.

Staff writer Alexis Madrigal tracks coronavirus data with the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. He joins hosts James Hamblin and Katherine Wells on the podcast Social Distance to give an update on the state of the virus in the United States.

Listen to the episode here:

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: You just wrote a piece with the headline: America Is Giving Up on the Pandemic. Are you giving up?

Alexis Madrigal: No, I would say I’m settling in because it feels like, institutionally, we’re not going to go anywhere close to suppression. The experience of this for me is, every day, we finish these data runs for the COVID Tracking Project, and I think to myself, Well, maybe today we’ll start to see something really different. And just for weeks and weeks now, you see over 20,000 new confirmed cases on average every day. And it’s just not going away.

And as time goes on, it seems to me, if we’re not pushing the number of cases down, eventually the number of cases are going to go up because bumping along in the way that we have actually feels quite unsustainable. Because you can just see it everywhere right now. You can see it in the protests. You can see it in Las Vegas. I mean, these things are not morally equivalent, but we can see people are gathering in groups more often. They’re expanding their pods.

Wells: My understanding from just ambiently absorbing news and information is [that] there was this crisis moment where we were all super freaked out in March and April. Into May, some of the most dramatic stories started tamping down. And now we’re starting to reopen. And the sense I get from that is that there were a lot of cases, and the trend is going down. What are you actually seeing in the data?

Madrigal: Basically, the New York metro area drove the first wave here. If you look at the national numbers, they’ve been going down for a long time, but if you actually take out those places, that isn’t really what’s been happening. When you take out the East specifically, cases everywhere else were kind of bumping along for May and basically since the end of May, they’ve been trending upwards as people started to loosen up and the loosening up that had happened before started to be reflected in the data.

I think what makes this story kind of complicated is that the states that people expected to have major outbreaks immediately, like Georgia or Florida, didn’t see it happen like that. It’s not that the numbers haven't gone up, but they haven’t gone up as much as they have in places like Arizona and California. And so it says a couple things, at least to me: (a) what the government says is not the only thing, and (b) people’s individual behavior matters a lot. And for a long time, regardless of sort of the politics at the top, people were doing a lot of the same stuff.

Wells: Right. There was more unity in behavior than you would have been led to believe.

Madrigal: Yes, that’s right. Exactly. And now that’s running the other way. I think people in California are acting more in concert with people in Georgia than you would’ve thought.

Wells: What are the states that you're most worried about?

Madrigal: Arizona and North Carolina. We haven’t seen another situation like New York yet. We haven’t seen an outbreak that starts to move extremely quickly through a population. Arizona is the closest thing we have to that right now.

Just look at their numbers. Back in May, they were getting 300 new positive [cases] a day, and now they’re getting 1,438 yesterday, 1,500 the day before that, and 1,200 the day before that. You see this line that’s just going up really quickly. And I think one of the major questions—and something that I feel like we just haven’t grappled with for some reason—is: What happens when this happens?

Like, let’s say this happens in a state that opens up. California says it’s going through all these different stages [of reopening], but it’s also seen growing cases. Let’s say they start to see Arizona-like data. What happens then? I don’t mean what does the government do? The government may do different things in different places, but what do the people do?

James Hamblin: You’re never going to have that same sense of urgency and fear as the first time. People have this tolerance to risk. They’ve already gotten used to people being hurt and killed by this virus, and they’re never going to immediately withdraw and shut down as quickly and as urgently as may have happened in the past.

Madrigal: I think that’s right. It seems like the U.S. is backing into just a highly, highly individualistic approach.

Hamblin: There seem to be some paradoxes here. It didn’t play out in every state in similar ways at all. New York has this unique lifestyle and population density, and there’s no place else in the country like this. We shut down pretty aggressively and people have been really compliant with masks and social distancing everywhere that I've seen. And yet there’ve been other states that have been slower to shut down, have been less aggressive; apparently there’s less compliance with public-health directives about social distancing. What are you seeing emerging in patterns from state to state?

Madrigal: I think the randomness of it is something that I’ve really struggled with. Basically, you have this kind of weird nonlinearity to the virus, particularly because we know that some people spread it to a lot of people and most people spread it to no one or very few people. And so you just have this weird situation where your intuitions about the risk are very hard to tune.

And that’s what makes what happened on the West Coast versus the East Coast so interesting. On the West Coast, you had a bunch of early introductions from China, but in a lot of places, just kind of nothing happened. You had people coming. They didn’t give it to anyone. And then there was no transmission chain that began there. I think it kind of triggers our sense of unfairness that you could do all the right things and still get infected, or you could do absolutely nothing and just be lucky.

There was an infected person at Lake of the Ozarks, where there was a pool party going on a few weeks ago. How many people were infected by that person? There’s a good chance none were; there’s also a good chance that a bunch were. It’s not as if there is a logic to that that exists outside of that person’s body. It’s that statistical fact that I think, at least for me, has made this harder to deal with.

Hamblin: And that does not bode well, if the lottery has taught me anything. This idea, like, we’re the ones who are going to be spared. You see this with all kinds of diseases and preventive measures: That happens to other people. Until you’re the one who gets the diagnosis.

And the more that there’s a sense of randomness to the patterns of transmission, the more I think we’ll see, a lot of people think, Well, I’m going to get lucky; I’m going to be one of the ones who can drive drunk or can keep a loaded gun in my house. All the things that we’re told not to do, which statistically put you at great odds for harm.

Madrigal: That’s totally right. You look at North Carolina. You look at Georgia. North Carolina is a state that could have serious trouble, whereas Georgia is not. They have similar climates, similar political environments, similar all these things. And yet, you look at North Carolina; the line is going up very consistently. You look at Georgia, and you don’t see the same thing. And I don’t know what to make of it.

Wells: We last talked to you soon after you started the COVID Tracking Project, when we were just realizing that the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] wasn’t releasing data comprehensively. So you actually, outside of the CDC, you probably have access to the most detailed information of anyone. And it’s not like you’re just looking at it as a journalist. You’re working with epidemiologists and data scientists to analyze this data.

When you started this, there was this clear problem to solve: The government was not giving us any data. We didn’t have data. Two months later, we have a lot more data. And the result is, we can’t tell what the patterns are. You didn't set out to solve coronavirus or anything, but you must have hoped that gathering and analyzing all of this information would lead to answers. That must affect you in some way.

Madrigal: Yeah. Honestly, the last few days, what I’ve been feeling the most is: As we go through this next six, nine, 12, 15 months of this, how do we keep putting energy into COVID when people are just so tired of it? As a person, how I really feel is just tired of this bullshit. Like, I just want to see my friends. I want to, like, do normal shit. That’s what I want. You know, it’s been months. I feel it’s so hard that feeling of like: God, I am over this.

And if I’m feeling this, and I look at this shit every day, and I know it’s real—I know the virus is still out there. We’ve seen it go through country after country. It’s going through Latin America right now. We know we’re going to go through this summer. It’s not going to be gone in the fall. We’re going to have the flu and this going on at the same time. And I just pause and think to myself, Do I personally have the mettle, and does this country have the mettle, to keep attention on something that’s just so annoying and dangerous and lethal, and requires these communitarian impulses? And I just don’t know.