Good Friday Morning, especially to our vaccine research and development, which somehow continues to improve. Some notes on that point.
- A massive study out of Israel has shown the Pfizer vaccine 89.5% effective at preventing COVID-19 infections, whether symptomatic or not.
- A study of the vaccinated population in Israel (who has vaccinated 30% of its population now) shows “94 Percent Drop in Symptomatic COVID Cases.”
- Dr. Scott Gottlieb estimates we have about 40% protective immunity already in the United States, meaning the spring and summer months could be dormant and quiet for the virus, despite variants emerging.
- Research of the Pfizer vaccine says that vaccine is 93% effective after a single dose, and the paper recommends delaying all second doses to spread out scarce vaccine supply. If this policy is followed, we’d double our vaccine supply overnight. I’d like some confirmation of these numbers, but I’m pretty open to this policy.
- Pfizer and Moderna both say their vaccines are good against all variants, with reduced effectiveness against the South African variant. If that holds, it means the South African variant is the true threat to long-term herd immunity. A booster shot could be required at a later date.
Calling these miracle cures might be an understatement. And it’s all to the credit of the Trump administration and Operation Warp Speed. The United States is out-vaccinating every country on earth, with the exception of the United Kingdom and Israel. Our numbers continue to improve, and if the Biden administration could get its act together on approving new vaccines ASAP, we could have a normal society again by summer.
We’re going to take a dive into the storm that rocked Texas and the entire South this week, and what’s happening with regard to infrastructure. Links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
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Why is the Biden administration muzzling the CDC? – The Conservative Institute.
Democrats manage to snatch defeat from jaws of impeachment victory – The Conservative Institute.
Winter storms, Ted Cruz, and the rest of the story.
It has been a week. The southern half of the United States got a rare winter storm, and we’ve gained a new social media expert: electric power grid experts. I’m currently buried under about 0.5 inches of ice and another 4-6 inches of snow for my own part. It’s gorgeous to look at, but as a true born and bred southerner, I have no inclination even to attempt driving in it.
As a permanently remote worker, I realized this week that being a former homeschooled kid has prepared me for the WFH life. Snow days? Traffic? Random holidays? None of these things apply to you. But I can’t complain about that either, because being unaffected by a pandemic or winter storms is a rather lovely perk.
The other way it’s been a week is the kind of news stories making waves. There’s what people are acting like is a big story, and there’s what’s actually happening. There are optics, and there are actions. There’s the signal, and there’s the noise. I’m going to try and split out the signals from the noise.
The Texas power grid disaster.
I didn’t know I knew so many experts in energy policy this past week on social media. Opinions on the Texas power grid are great and all, but that’s about 10% of the story. What is happening in Texas is a disaster of historic proportions. People are focusing on multiple wrong things, from the left and right fighting over energy sources, to who bears the blame for what happened in Texas.
We need to establish a few facts. The first one is that this was and is a historic winter storm for the American South. I’ve lived in Tennessee all my life, and the last time we had ice storms on this level was in the early 90s. We’ve had smaller versions since then, but nothing on par. We were without power for two weeks. And we were fortunate because we could shelter in a church that was literally across the street.
The winter storm from this past week was historic.
- In Oklahoma, they activated the National Guard ahead of the storm as temperatures dropped to lows not seen there in 100 years.
- At one point, this storm had winter storm warnings in effect from the southern half of New Mexico, covered every county in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. It drifted as far north and west as the Ohio river valley. At another point, those warnings were as far south as the southernmost regions in Texas along the Mexico/Gulf Coast border and went all the way into Vermont. These warnings were happening all at the same time.
- “It’s the electricity and storm equivalent of the 100 year flood people talk about,” said Andrew Barlow, Public Utility Commission spokesperson.
- The storm broke every cold temperature record in Texas. Records go back to 1898. Seriously.
- Coldest three-day stretch on record
- Coldest temperatures seen in 70 years, and second coldest temperature ever recorded in the Dallas-Fort Worth area
- Three straight days of record-breaking lows
- Four inches of snow in one day, which broke the all-time record of 3 inches.
- Those record lows are continuing to come in.
- Arkansas broke multiple cold temperature and snow records that had stood for 100 years.
- Nashville, TN, has experienced seven straight days in a row of highs below freezing (when does that streak end? TBD). The record is 12 days set in 1895.
- The winter storm broke a 121-year-old record for cold on the Mississippi coast.
Asking why did infrastructure fail in these conditions is a bit dense. Of course, infrastructure failed. Nothing in the American South was built to withstand anything close to this level of a winter storm. Asking why infrastructure failed is like asking, “why did that building on the beach blow over during the category five hurricane?”
If the Northeast were breaking records on cold and snow, they’d have issues too. In New York City, it’d mean 28+ inches of snow and low temperatures below -15 and maintaining that level for days on end. And it wouldn’t be localized to NY or NYC, it’s be the entire Northeast and Midwest all experiencing these records at the same time. That’s what has happened in the South. We’ve designed buildings here to withstand extreme heat, humidity, strong storm fronts, and such. Not extreme winter.
With extreme winter comes extreme demands on the electric grid. There were unquestionably failures here, but there was also an excessive demand on the entire system. This situation wasn’t just a “snow storm,” like people are phrasing, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime storm that no policymaker would ever design a system to withstand. Devin Hartman, Director, Energy and Environmental Policy at the RStreet Institute, highlighted this point in his piece examining the disaster:
The Texas grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), is rightfully in the public eye. But the ERCOT is merely the air traffic controller that coordinates power plant operations and, when necessary, instructs local utilities to curtail service to customers. The ERCOT is not responsible for power plants tripping offline or how local utilities implement load-shed procedures. Some knee-jerk reactions from politicians appear to think customer outages are entirely the ERCOT’s fault and that they were left uninformed of the risk. Yet the ERCOT has been transparent about what its system is designed for—generally, one-in-10 year events—and what it isn’t, like once-a-lifetime events.
Why would any state keep equipment on hand to handle a one-in-a-generation event? It is theoretically possible for a hurricane to have enough speed, size, and intensity to crash into the United States and make it, intact as a hurricane, to Chicago. Should Chicago go out right now and hurricane-proof their buildings? No.
And if you look at charts of energy usage in Texas, you get the same answers: historical demand. Texas had the resources to handle a once-in-a-decade event spike in energy, but not the generational event. Here’s another way to compare. As a state, Texas has 700 total snow plows. Mississippi has 86. New York City has 2,300. I haven’t done the detailed research on it, but I’d be willing to bet New York City has more snowplows than the entire South.
Does that prevent attention on improving the system? Absolutely not. Disasters are a great time to reexamine what works and fails. But in understanding why something failed, it helps to know what that system encountered first. Not any of the other hot takes on the internet seem to take these things into account.
The reverse version of this story is Hurricane Sandy, the deadliest hurricane of the 2012 hurricane season. When it came ashore in New Jersey, it was no longer a hurricane. It was already post-tropical. But it caused massive damage to an area unused to hurricanes and utterly unprepared. In 2011, Hurricane Irene, which I rode out safely in Virginia as a category one, went up the coast and caused the worst floods Vermont had seen in 100 years. Disasters happen every year. We work on preparing for the worst, but sometimes the historical worse happens, which wipes out any plans we might have had.
The optics are easier to understand
Understand all of that requires time, knowledge, and a memory of previous weather events. It’s not relatively as easy as a lousy optics story, a story like Texas Senator Ted Cruz going on vacation to Cancun while the rest of his state struggles.
This story, a perfect one for the national media to jump on, dominated my media feeds for all of Thursday. And I agree, it’s a bad look for Cruz. But that’s about all it is. It’s like Andrew Cuomo ignoring mask orders he put into place. Or Nancy Pelosi reopening a salon to get a blowout for only herself so that she could appear on MSNBC with Chris Hayes later that night. Gavin Newsome eating at a restaurant with a group of friends despite signing orders banning everyone else from doing the same. And so on and so forth, I think you get the drift here.
Part of this is hypocrisy, part of it is optics. Little of it is substance. But it’s easier to talk about that on social media. And so I saw people using Cruz as a stand-in as proof for the failure of all of Texas. Which is the rhetorical equivalent of “gifted kid” purposely pushing on a pull door (which is still one of the best Gary Larson Far Side cartoons of all time).
The point is, these are all foolish stories that matter very little in the scheme of things. But it’s accessible meme material, so people build their entire political lives around it.
Actions or the actual words that matter.
Here are some real stories that got ignore because of the Cruz story and dumb takes surrounding the Texas electrical system.
- New York Republicans are moving ahead, starting a commission that will begin gathering evidence and documents to remove Andrew Cuomo from office.
- The Biden administration’s reopening school plan is utter garbage. The latest CDC guidelines (here) would keep 90% of schools closed across the country. These guidelines ignore all the science available, which says that schools are not super-spreaders or an issue. Any plan that keeps 90% of schools closed isn’t based on an ounce of science. Here’s what the CDC’s summary of studies says on this issue:
- “Although children can be infected with SARS-CoV-2, can get sick from COVID-19, and can spread the virus to others, less than 10% of COVID-19 cases in the United States have been among children and adolescents aged 5–17 years (COVID Data Tracker). Compared with adults, children and adolescents who have COVID-19 are more commonly asymptomatic (never develop symptoms) or have mild, non-specific symptoms.4-11 Similar to adults with SARS-CoV-2 infections, children can spread SARS-CoV-2 to others when they don’t have symptoms or have mild, non-specific symptoms and thus might not know that they are infected and infectious. Children are less likely to develop severe illness or die from COVID-19.”
- “Based on the data available, in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission. Although national COVID-19 case incidence rates among children and adolescents have risen over time, this trend parallels trends observed among adults.17 Increases in case incidence among school-aged children and school reopenings do not appear to pre-date increases in community transmission.17,32-34 … … Some studies have found that it is possible for communities to reduce incidence of COVID-19 while keeping schools open for in-person instruction.10,20 A study comparing county-level COVID-19 hospitalizations between counties with in-person learning and those without in-person learning found no effect of in-person school reopening on COVID-19 hospitalization rates when baseline hospitalization rates were low or moderate.”
- Remember all of that CDC information on schools when you read the following story: “School Board Mocks Parents Who Support Reopening: ‘They Want Their Babysitters Back’ – In a hot mic moment, school officials were caught belittling parents.” Oh yes, there’s a video. These are the people and groups the Biden administration is tailoring its school reopening policy around.
- NYPost: “President Biden is dismissing the genocide against the Uighur population in China, dubbing the mass internment a “different norm” — despite the State Department this month responding to “atrocities” in the camps, following reports of systemic rape and torture.”
So there are the signals for this week, in my mind. Real things. You have the authentic storm in Texas, which does 90% of the job explaining what happened there. Joe Biden’s failure of a school reopening plan, and the rest.
But yes. Let’s spend our time talking about Ted Cruz and his family heading to Cancun. Or the Biden family’s dogs.
I’m not saying we can’t have fun with these things. I enjoy the memes. But there are real political issues here. There’s a pandemic, natural disasters, and more happening here. And for all the MSNBC hosts focusing on the Ted Cruz story, remember, they ignored the Pelosi hair salon story. Fox News didn’t miss Ted Cruz on Thursday.
There are signals and noises in politics. The great problem with internet meme culture is that it often focuses on and amplifies the noise. Hypocrisy is an easy thing to covey in a simple picture meme—complex ideas, less so. And the news media is designed to help amplify the easy stuff because it keeps them in business.
Links of the week
A progressive parent’s rant about the politics surrounding school reopening – Rebecca Bodenheimer, PhD
Alex Trebek’s Wardrobe Is Donated to Formerly Incarcerated Men: The gift, which will also benefit formerly homeless men, was in keeping with an appeal that the host of “Jeopardy!” had made when he asked viewers to “build a gentler, kinder society.” – NYTimes
Why No One Believes Anything – Rich Lowry, National Review
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Party Of Love And Progress Rejoices Over Death Of Political Opponent – The Babylon Bee
Thanks for reading!