Emily Oster on Vaccines in February 2021

My third post on Covid data heroes features Dr. Emily Oster. Emily is a mom. Lot’s of economists are moms, but few have incorporated it quite as much into their careers. Emily has written a book on pregnancy and a new one on what to do with the kids after they are born. She does a great job explaining scientific research in a way that is easy to understand.

Emily made a big push to collect data on schools and covid back when there was crippling uncertainty about how dangerous it is to let children go to school in person.

She has a great email newsletter and substack. Her latest post is called “Vaccines & Transmission Redux Redux”. In this post, she distills the latest research to give practical advice on when kids can see grandparents once the vaccines are out.

For a long time now, some families have been avoiding close contact with elderly relatives. When can we go back to normal?

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Coase and COVID

Update: I added a comment on the post to clarify why I don’t think that having seniors stay at home is the correct Coasean solution. In short: social isolation has high costs!

Bryan Caplan has an interesting post on COVID and reciprocal externalities. Caplan starts off with the straightforward Coasean statement: “Yes, people who don’t wear masks impose negative externalities on others. But people who insist on masks impose negative externalities, too.”

For those not familiar with Coase’s 1960 article, one of his fundamental insights about property rights is that when property rights are not clearly defined, both parties can be imposing costs on one another. The externalities are reciprocal, not just in one direction. The efficient outcome, when bargaining is not possible, is to allocate the property right such that the “least cost avoider” is the one that adjusts their behavior. In other words, you allocate the property right to the party who would obtain the property right if bargaining were possible.

But Caplan uses this Coasean framework to come to the opposite conclusion that I would. Why?

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Going back to the gym?

Who doesn’t want to be stronger? You can get on the floor and do 5 pushups right now. Did you do it? Probably not. (If you did, great work.) For most people, nothing is stopping you from getting strong, except yourself.

I just keep sitting around. Going to a gym and meeting with an instructor in person used to be a way around this problem. This takes our human foibles and makes them work to our advantage. The sunk cost fallacy can work for us.

If you bought a stock and it’s a loser, you should sell! Too many people keep holding and go down with the ship.

However, knowing themselves, many people also go to the gym and sign up for a class. Not wanting to walk away from their investment, they actually do the classes.

The WSJ reports that many gyms are closing after Covid-19 forced the customers out. The article describes the machines people have brought into their homes to replace gyms. The Peloton is a signature of the year 2020. The new trend brings a live human trainer into the process of exercising alone at home.

The new machines can collect data on the user. This data is transmitted to instructors and maybe even friends. Now, from the comfort of your own home, you can “sign up for a class” again.

Had Covid struck in 1980, people might have bought fitness machines for their basements and they might even have bought a VHS to pop in and exercise with. But they would have been missing the link to a human who knows where they are supposed to be, which apparently provides more motivation.

The market has loved Peloton and smart money seems to think it will continue to do well, even with a vaccine already rolling out.

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Excess Mortality in 2020

My last post of 2020 tried to end the year on an optimistic note: the rapid innovation of a new vaccine was truly a marvel. But I also warned you that I would have a post in the new year talking about the deaths of 2020 during the pandemic. And here it is.

Throughout 2020, I have tried to keep up with the most recent data, not only on officially coded COVID-19 deaths, but also on other measures. An important one is known as excess mortality, which is an attempt to measure the number of deaths in a year that are above the normal level. Defining “normal” is sometimes challenging, but looking at deaths for recent years, especially if nothing unusual was happening, is one way to define normal. The team at Our World in Data has a nice essay explaining the concept of excess mortality.

One thing to remember about death data is that it is often reported with a lag. The CDC does a good job of regularly posting death data as it is reported, but these numbers can be unfortunately deceptive. For example, while the CDC has some death data reported through 51 weeks of 2020, but they note that death data can be delayed for 1-8 weeks, and some states report slower than others (for reasons that are not totally clear to me, North Carolina seems to be way behind in reporting, with very little data reporting after August).

So there’s the caution. What can we do with this data? Since 2019 was a pretty “normal” year for deaths, we can compare the deaths in 2020 to the same weeks of data in 2019. In the chart at the right, I use the first 48 weeks of the year (through November), as this seems to be fairly complete data (but not 100% complete!). The red line in the chart shows excess deaths, the difference between 2019 and 2020 deaths. From this, we can see that there were over 357,000 excess deaths in 2020 in the first 11 months of the year, or about a 13.6% increase over the prior year.

Is 13.6% a large increase? In short, yes. It is very large. I’ll explain more below, but essentially this is the largest increase since the 1918 flu pandemic.

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Economists Watching Vaccines Every Day

EWVED could be our new name. Americans worked so hard to develop a vaccine (here’s Jeremy’s ode to development) and now we are seeing the distribution become painfully slow.

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Vaccine Innovation: A Marvel of Modern Science and Modern Markets

We’ve already talked about different methods for distributing the vaccine in the face of limited supply on this blog (see my post and Doug Norton’s post). But today I want to talk about something different: the speed at which this vaccine was developed. It is truly amazing.

Timeline showing a comparison of vaccine development timescales from Typhoid fever in 1880 to SARS-CoV2 in 2020.

This chart from Nature (adapted from the fantastic Our World in Data) dramatically shows just how quickly the COVID-19 vaccine was developed compared with past vaccines. What used to take decades or even a century was done in mere months (yes, even with all the regulatory barriers today).

Exactly how we developed this vaccine so quickly is a complex story that involves the advanced state of modern science, incentives offered by concerned governments, and the harnessing of the profit motive to advance the public good. We don’t know all the details yet, and likely won’t for a long time since, like a pencil, no one person knows how to make and distribute a vaccine.

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Church Attendance and Covid

Today is the last Sunday of 2020. The disruption to employment and rise of remote work might be the bigger story of 2020. However, for a significant fraction of Americans, 2020 is also the year their ability to meet as an in-person church was curtailed. Gathering in a room with many people singing is an efficient means of spreading the virus. For some, church has been an online-only experience since March.

Social scientists are interested in religiosity. Christian devotion has often been measured by asking how many times a person goes to church.

My colleagues who study the economics of religion will have an important issue to study. How does the switch to online church in 2020 affect Christian engagement in the future? How will this affect our ability to track long-term trends on religiosity?

If it is true that large gatherings are safe in a year from now, it will be interesting to compare in-person church attendance in 2022 to 2019. If it turns out that attendance has decreased, then we would need to see a break in the trend to conclude that Covid is the cause. Here’s a graph of church attendance in an article from B.C. (Before Covid).

A book that was published in the 1950s made it sound like, even then, people who attended church weekly were in the minority. Joy Davidman published Smoke on the Mountain in 1953.

The inspiration for this post was reading this line about “remote” church experiences:

Others, instead of stirring their stumps, listen in comfortable living rooms to a sermon on the radio, arguing that it is “just the same.” They have forgotten that one of the first necessities of a Christian life is a congregation…

Overall, Davidman is disappointed in how few of her American countrymen attend church. Early in life, she was a militant atheist. She’s a Christian at the time of writing, but still somewhat militant.

Davidman frowns on radio church, when in-person church was available. However, virtual church today is closer to the traditional visual church experience. Going forward, it will be important to consider whether people who use the internet for church experiences should get counted.

Here are some examples of what churches have been up to, virtually:

Trinity United Methodist Church in Birmingham, AL 

Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, VA 

Nativity, a Catholic church in Burke, VA 

Larger churches have been podcasting and Youtube-ing for years. One of the top productions is Bethel Church of Redding, CA. They even already had their own Bethel.tv ecosystem, so shutting down in-person services for Covid probably coincided with an increase in viewership for them.

2020 Holiday Viewing

Forget “The Christmas Prince” or “The Prince Christmas” or whatever is on Netflix. Why not spend your holiday refreshing this new vaccine dashboard?

Here’s the announcement:

I personally know a few health care workers who got their shots (do not say “jab” to me) this past week. It’s all very exciting! Here at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), the medical community has freezers, fortunately.

Here’s VP Mike Pence getting his vaccine:

Jeremy and Doug have both talked about allocation this week. Economists get really jazzed about allocating scarce resources. It’s been frustrating to watch first tests and now vaccines not be available on a market. Excellent points are also made every week over at Marginal Revolution on how we are missing an opportunity to get the incentives right. Supply. Curves. Slope. Up. (Thousands. Dying. Every. Week.)

Reflections on Teaching in Fall 2020

As the Fall semester comes to close on college campuses, it’s a good time to reflect on and assess how the past semester went. Many universities went to almost exclusively virtual learning, but other schools tried to make Fall 2020 as normal as possible given the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My school, the University of Central Arkansas, chose the route of trying to have things as normal as possible — by which I mean students live on campus, classes are mostly in-person — while still accommodating students and faculty that preferred a more physically distant atmosphere. For example, UCA increased the number of fully online courses available, roughly trying to meet faculty and student demand. I normally teaching one online course per semester anyway, and I continued that this semester. Other faculty had more online classes than usual, or moved their class to be partially online.

So what was my experience?

First, the students, the most important part of the teaching process. Overall, I would say my students did very well. At least in the classroom, they complied with all the rules the University set forth: wearing masks, physical distancing in classrooms (seen in the image below), even the one-way entrances and exits to the building. There were only 3-4 times I can recall this semester when a student entered my classroom without a mask, and they immediately asked me for one upon realizing their mistake (I kept a pack of surgical masks with me).

My classroom at the University of Central Arkansas, with chairs blocked off for physical distancing.

As far as academic performance of students, I was very pleased with the students. For those students that were able to stick with the class and keep up, which was most students, they perform as well or better than previous semesters. Some students, due to personal circumstances, had trouble keeping up. I tried as much as possible to accommodate students in these situations, by being flexible with deadlines, offering additional resources, and generally just trying to listen to them and empathize. It was hard for everyone.

On my end, I tried to make the teaching atmosphere of the classroom as normal as possible. I usually do have some interactive aspects of the classroom, where students work in small groups, talk to their neighbors, etc. Most of those activities didn’t happen, unfortunately. But otherwise, the classroom atmosphere operated as usual.

As my students did, I also wore a mask in the classroom while I lectured. For students that had to miss class due to quarantine, isolation, or other reasons, we were asked to record every lecture and have an option for students to watch the lecture virtually if needed. Making sure that the video was properly recording and the I had set up the Zoom link for students that needed to be remote added an extra element to think about at the beginning of each class, but it was the kind of thing that once you get used to it, it just became normal.

I will say that I often felt very exhausted after teaching each day. The mental load of making sure everything was working right in the classroom, combined with the constant sense of doom in the world around us, made this a challenging semester mentally. I’m sure this was even more true for some of my students. But, we made it.

Finally, how about the administration of my University. I’ll bite my tongue a little here: I am up for tenure this year! But really, I don’t have anything major to complain about. Guidance was communicated well, although sometimes big changes were rolled out a bit more quickly than the faculty liked. UCA provided isolation and quarantine dorms for students, though these never came close to capacity. Weekly updates on testing, cases, and related data were provided to everyone (and made publicly available, so I’m not revealing any secrets here).

Testing data for UCA students. This data excludes athletes, since they were required to get tested regularly, which could have skewed the data.

As you can see above, the general student body at UCA did report positive COVID cases every week. And some weeks the positive test rate was a little higher than I was comfortable with! But we never had a large spike in cases, and the University held firm to its commitment to offer in-person classes for everyone that wanted them, as long as the campus was generally safe.

All in all, I think it was the best semester we could have had under the circumstances. The only thing really weighing on my mind: we are going to do it all over in the Spring semester. And we’ll do it as well as we can.