The 2019 coronavirus does not generate zombies. However, it seems to continually spawn variations on the same “theory” that no silver bullet, stake to the heart, or head shot can put down. That would be the theory that somehow, somewhere, lots and lots of people already had COVID-19 months ago without even realizing it.
In the latest round of this rumor mill whack-a-mole, the target is California. With over 20,000 cases, at first glance California doesn’t seem to have received a “get out of COVID free” charm. But considering the state’s size, and the fact that it was the first known location of community spread infections in the United States, it has done remarkably well in comparison to other states. So remarkably well, that it’s generated claims that California has a secret advantage… a “herd immunity” found nowhere else.
If this article seems like a repeat, that’s because it is. Not only has shooting down this theme featured as a side issue in almost a dozen posts, it kept returning so often that I did a whole piece on why an unrecognized wave of coronavirus did not already sweep the country just ten days ago. And yet … here we are again, about to take another swing of the math machete to this same brain-eating topic.
Because this time around, it’s not just social media records of “hey, remember that cough we all had in November?” pushing this along. It’s getting genuine attention from national media after first getting pushed by a California news source. What’s really making this particular version of the apparently unkillable theory gain extra momentum is that the way it’s being reported makes it appear to have actual scientists behind it—Stanford medical researchers no less.
As first reported by Salinas, California television station KSBW, a team from Stanford has made a blood test of 3,000 people in the San Francisco Bay area to see how many of them have coronavirus antibodies in their blood. On the surface, that’s a very reasonable, worthwhile, and completely admirable experiment. In fact, tests exactly like this are absolutely necessary in determining the reach of the virus, identifying asymptomatic cases, and ultimately bringing the outbreak under control. Good on you, Stanford medical researchers.
Then, exactly one paragraph later, the whole story goes off the #$@$ing rails.
According to Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow with Stanford's Hoover Institute, the hypothesis that COVID-19 first started spreading in California in the fall of 2019 is one explanation for the state's lower than expected case numbers.
The report goes on to explain Hanson’s theory about why the Bay area has been so successful in not just suppressing cases of COVID-19, but snuffing out the nation’s first hot spot. At the time of writing, California had 374 deaths from COVID-19, a tiny fraction of those in New York or other states, despite having a much larger population. California had issued a statewide stay-at-home order only three days before a similar order was passed in New York. California was doing good. Too good.
For Hanson, and apparently the reporters at KSBW, all of this was suspicious. "Something is going on that we haven't quite found out yet," said Hanson. And he had an idea just what that something might be.
Because of the tech industry, Hanson explained, the Bay area has a lot of contact with “Chinese nationals,” including regular flights from Hubei province. And back in the fall, doctors had noted an early flu season. Put the two together and Hanson contends that COVID-19 actually arrived in the San Francisco area months before the first case was actually reported to the World Health Organization in Wuhan. "When you add it all up it would be naïve to think that California did not have some exposure," said Hanson. That exposure, says Hanson, provided California with the vaunted “herd immunity,” giving it an edge over other states.
It’s not hard to see why this theory is proving popular, because it has it all:
- There’s a double dose of xenophobia about China, both in the idea that the virus was moving around months before they fessed up to it’s existence, and those “Chinese nationals” smuggling what Donald Trump refers to as the “invisible enemy” into the United States.
- There’s the reinforcement of the idea that many people already had the virus, which is comforting from half a dozen directions.
- To top it all off, there’s the idea that those San Francisco “elites” aren’t really that good at managing this thing … they’re just cheaters.
First off, Victor Davis Hanson, is not a scientist. He’s also not associated with the Stanford medical researchers or their sampling project at all. In turning reports of this completely reasonable and necessary study into an opportunity for Hanson to spew an idea that is foolish on nearly infinite levels, KSBW reporter Caitlin Conrad has done a huge disservice to her area, and the whole damn nation. Though damn … she sure has gotten the clicks.
How can we be sure that coronavirus did not sweep the Bay area last fall? Well, to begin with, how large was the fleet of refrigerated trucks standing by at Bay area hospitals last fall to receive the bodies from overrun morgues? Because those trucks are there in New York, and Detroit, and in other cities where COVID-19 has become widespread. Did California authorities have to dig graves on Alcatraz like those currently being dug on Hart Island in New York? Surely they did. Because that’s what an outbreak of COVID-19 looks like.
In fact, that’s what an outbreak of COVID-19 looks like when authorities are fighting it with every social distancing measure at their disposal. America had a two month preview of the virus, including seeing outbreaks in China, South Korea, and Italy, before more than a small number of cases were present in the United States. We don’t have to guess about that, because we could watch what an outbreak meant there. We can see what an outbreak has brought here. None of it is what San Francisco looked like in the fall.
The numbers around COVID-19 have been all too consistent and unrelenting. About half of all cases are either asymptomatic or so mild that they might be overlooked. About 30% of cases generate more severe, flu-like symptoms, but recover without necessarily needing hospitalization. About 20% of cases bring on severe difficulty in breathing and other symptoms that demand medical attention. Of these, about half—10% of all cases—need critical care, including oxygen, respirators, or ventilators. About 3.5% die. The case fatality rate in New York as of Saturday morning is 4.6%. In the United States overall, it stands at 3.7%.
For California to achieve herd immunity in a completely novel virus where no one has immunity going in, would require something on the order of 70% of people to become infected. That’s 28 million infections. 5.6 million people needing hospitalization. About 1 million dead. That did not happen without being noticed.
As long as we’re indulging theories that keep being put forward, let’s engage another and say that that there are masses more asymptomatic people out there than are being caught by inadequate testing. We know this isn’t true from data in South Korea, Singapore, and elsewhere … but let’s say it anyway. Let’s say the “real” case fatality rate for COVID-19 is ten times less than what’s currently being seen in the United States.
In that case, California would have only experienced around 100,000 deaths from flu last fall. Or about three times what the whole nation experienced in flu deaths for the entire flu season. This did not happen. Nothing even close to it happened. In fact, despite Hanson pointing to reports of an “early flu season,” flu deaths were not even up for California during the fall.
Finally, there is one other rather large issue with this I-really-hate-to-use-the-term “theory.” Hanson claims that San Francisco has direct connections to Wuhan that could have brought the virus there months ahead of time. But what else has direct connections to San Francisco? Everything. Had the virus become established in the Bay area and spread beyond a handful of cases, it wouldn’t have resulted in a neat little mini-epidemic nicely prescribed by political boundaries that make Democratic leaders at the local and state level look good. It would have done just what it did in February. it would have become a global pandemic.
I really try not to use this term, but this theory is stupid. Also, the reporting on this was genuinely irresponsible and worthy of reprimand.
The reason that the area around San Francisco is doing so relatively well is that local health officials, mayors, and county executives cooperated to lock down the area even in advance of statewide action. And the action that Hanson tagged as “only three days ahead of New York,” was actually just one of several steps that had been taken at the state level to promote social distancing and arrest the early spread of coronavirus. Those officials are continuing to keep some of the strictest measures in the nation in place, despite concerted grumbling.
As many people have pointed out to me when I’ve posted on this theory in the past, I am not a doctor. So “you shouldn’t diagnose what I had.” And they’re absolutely right. I’m a geologist. I have no business doing medical diagnoses. So I won’t. But I do have a calculator, and I can definitely diagnose pure bullshit when I see it. And that’s the odor that wafts from every one of these “we had it months ago” theories.
Viruses are not sneaky. COVID-19 did not run around the country, secretly infecting people but not killing anyone for months only so it could come back and kill thousands when the cameras were rolling. It doesn’t work like that. Nothing works like that.
The people infected with COVID-19 deserve to live. This theory … deserves to die.