Covid Update: 4 April

Last week I wrote about how the inevitable rise in new Covid-19 cases was occurring in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Illinois. Now, one, in the last week, we saw no evidence of states preparing to reinforce their public health and safety restrictions. And two, whilst we have no data on people not following guidelines, anecdotally a large group of people threw a party in my building’s common amenities space so it does seem like people are feeling less inclined to wear masks, socially distance, and isolate to their own households.

Those two conditions, of course, do not help reduce the case count. Instead they add to it. So it should come as no surprise that Covid-19 continues to rapidly spread in our five states, though some are doing worse than others.

New case curves for PA, NJ, DE, VA, & IL.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania arguably performed the worst. If we look at the peak to trough decline from early winter’s surge to late winter’s nadir, we can see that New Jersey has reached 40% of that peak. Pennsylvania enjoyed a better decline and so has a large gap, but is still nearing 20% its previous peak.

Illinois is also remarkable—again not in a good way—as its peak to trough fall was even greater than Pennsylvania’s, however it’s also now clearly rising. The Land of Lincoln, however, did manager to reach late summer levels of new cases—good. But those are now rising—bad. Delaware too is seeing a rise, albeit at a slower rate than its two tristate neighbours.

Only Virginia’s rise remains slight, barely discernible in the chart.

Deaths, while not exactly good news, aren’t exactly good news either. Last week I mentioned how they had stalled out and stopped declining. That is better than rising death rates, but the levels of deaths per day is still higher than we saw last summer. In other words, things could be significantly better even in pandemic terms.

Death curves for PA, NJ, DE, VA, & IL.

Last week? Deaths continued to stubbornly persist at those elevated levels. We remain vigilant, looking for any indication that deaths will follow the rates of new cases and hospitalisations and begin to climb.

The hope, of course, is that we have vaccinated enough of the most at risk populations to prevent a surge in deaths. But, we just don’t know yet. The only good news is that vaccinations continue to progress.

Vaccination curves for PA, VA, & IL.

Illinois has surpassed 18% of its population being fully vaccinated. Virginia is not far behind at 17.75%. Pennsylvania, because of the bifurcated nature of its data reporting, remains unclear. It sits at 17.8% fully vaccinated, but Philadelphia has not posted updated data since late Thursday. It’s likely that the Commonwealth has joined Illinois in surpassing 18%, but it’s not fully certain.

Also this past week, the CDC updated its guidance for the fully vaccinated, saying that it was safe for them to travel. I take some issue with this, primarily on the messaging front.

First, we need to be clear about what fully vaccinated means. It means two weeks after your final dose. For Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, that means two weeks after your shot as you only receive one. For both Pfizer and Moderna, you are only fully vaccinated two weeks after your second shot—not before. And keep in mind with Pfizer you need to wait three weeks between first and second dose. With Moderna it’s four weeks. In other words, with J&J you need to wait two weeks after your first (and only) shot before you can begin to follow the loosened guidelines. If you receive Pfizer’s, you need to wait five weeks from your first shot, assuming you do receive your second three weeks later, and with Moderna it’s six weeks, again assuming the recommended four week gap.

The problem is that only about 20% of the US population is fully vaccinated. And with the virus spreading at high rates and at high levels, it poses a significant risk as the newer, more lethal, and more infectious variants could take root in the United States and overwhelm the healthcare systems of the 50 states. We do not yet know if fully vaccinated people can spread the virus if they do become infected.

I think the advice should have remained to refrain from all but essential travel until we reached a high percentage of fully vaccinated folks. I ballparked earlier this week something like 2/3 the estimated amount of full vaccinations required for herd immunity (est. at 75%). In other words, keeping restrictions on travel until at least 50% of the US becomes fully vaccinated.

We remain several weeks away from that milestone, unfortunately. I understand the desire/urge people have to get out and do things and enjoy spring after a year of isolation. Sadly, if winter was the darkest/hardest part of the pandemic, I think that makes spring and early summer the most challenging. Because we see progress, we see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it coincides with warmer weather and we want nothing more to get out and do things and see people. But that is the last thing we need to be doing at this point.

I’ve often described the vaccination as the marshmallow test. In a study, scientists presented kids with a marshmallow. They could eat the marshmallow immediately, but if they waited 15 minutes, unsupervised, they could then have an additional marshmallow. We are all just grabbing that first marshmallow whilst the promise of a more normal summer is ours if we can wait just 15 minutes.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Covid Update: 29 March

Two weeks ago I wrote about how new cases in the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Illinois were stalling out, i.e. no longer declining. Additionally, with the exception of Illinois, they were stalling at rates far higher than what we saw last summer. I wrote

This means that the environment is ripe for a new surge of cases if people stop following social distancing and begin resuming indoor activities with other people. Sadly, both those things appear to be occurring throughout the US.

Two weeks hence, one of one thing inevitably occurred.

New cases are now rising in all five states. I wrote about the flat tails of the curves for the seven-day averages. A quick look at the chart shows those have swung upwards, in some cases sharply.

New case curves in PA, NJ, DE, VA, & IL.

Two weeks ago I referenced Europe as a cautionary tale. Governments there eased up on their restrictions, cases surged, and then as hospitalisations rose, governments had to reimpose restrictions and effect new lockdowns. Europe has typically been 3–4 weeks ahead of us throughout the pandemic. So that we are now at a point where we are seeing rising cases, absolutely none of this should be surprising.

The evidence has been in our faces for weeks, plus we have the European example to look at. Reopening makes no sense until we can get case numbers lower, especially with new more virulent and lethal strains of coronavirus now circulating.

Deaths too have been trending the wrong way over the last few weeks.

Death curves for PA, NJ, DE, VA, & IL.

We have seen the curves largely bottom out. And if you look closely, these bottoms are higher than the rates we saw last summer, in some cases more than 3× as much. This flattening occurred just a few weeks after cases began to flatten. The question becomes, will they rise in a few weeks time? Or have we vaccinated enough of our most vulnerable populations?

That’s the real wildcard.

Right now, we have only fully vaccinated about 15% of the populations of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Illinois.

Vaccination curves for PA, VA, & IL.

Is that enough to prevent hospitalisations and deaths in what looks like will be a fourth wave?

Credit for the piece is mine.

And Up We Go Again

Yesterday I wrote about Covid-19 here in five states of the US. I mentioned how I am concerned about the levelling out of new cases in certain states, notably Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In Italy, the government issued a new round of lockdowns in an attempt to contain a new wave before it swamps their healthcare system.

At the end of that BBC article, they used a small multiples graphic showing the seven-day average in several European countries. Today is the 16th, and so the data is now a few days old, but the concept remains important.

New cases curves for several European countries.

From a design standpoint, we are seeing a few things here. First, each country’s line chart exists with its own scale. Unfortunately this makes comparing country-to-country nigh impossible. We know from the title that in the present these are the countries with the highest new case rates in Europe. But, how do these rates today compare to earlier peaks? Without axis lines or a baseline, it’s difficult to say.

Of course, the point could well be just to show how in places like Italy, France, Poland, &c. we are seeing an emergent surge of new cases since the holiday peak.

If that is the goal, I think this chart works well. However, if the goal is to provide more context of the state of the pandemic in these select countries, we need some additional context and information.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Covid Update: 14 March

Last week I wrote about how our progress in dealing with Covid-19 was stagnating. To put it simply, this past week did not get any better on that front.

New case curves for PA, NJ, DE, VA, & IL.

In Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Illinois we see that the flattened tail I described last week, well remained a flattened tail. In Delaware, we see more movement, but the average of the average, if you will, is flat over the last two weeks. And in New Jersey, where I mentioned some signs of rising numbers, we see a clearly rising number of new cases over the last week. Only in Virginia are numbers heading down, and those are shallowing out.

The problem here is that in Pennsylvania and Delaware, the new case rate, whilst flat, is well above the summer rate of low transmission. This means that the environment is ripe for a new surge of cases if people stop following social distancing and begin resuming indoor activities with other people. Sadly, both those things appear to be occurring throughout the US.

In Europe we see a cautionary tale. They too saw their holidays peaks decline and the national governments began easing restrictions on their populations. Within the last several days, however, new cases have begun to surge. Italy has gone so far as to announce a new lockdown. Other governments are considering the same.

If the United States cannot resume pushing its numbers of new cases down, it could well follow Europe into a new wave of outbreaks that would threaten lockdowns and push back our eventual return of normalcy.

None of this would be an issue if vaccinations were nearing herd immunity levels. However, in the states we cover, nowhere is above 12% fully vaccinated.

Vaccination curves for PA, VA, & IL.

Pennsylvania now lags behind the other two states. But at least the Commonwealth is over 10% fully vaccinated.

And of course, the problem under this dire scenario is that deaths could rise once again, though at this point the most vulnerable are in the middle of being vaccinated. Indeed, if we look at the last week, we see the good news for the week, that deaths are headed down in all five states.

Death curves for PA, NJ, DE, VA, & IL.

Previously, Virginia had been working through a backlog of death records, but those appear now cleared. We are not quite back to summer-level lows, but we are steadily approaching them.

The big question this week will be what happens to those new cases numbers. Today’s data, Monday, will likely show lower numbers because of lower testing on the weekend. But starting Tuesday, what do we see over the course of the next five days?

Credit for the piece is mine.

Covid Update: 7 March

Last week I wrote about some signals indicating a potential stagnation in terms of declining numbers of new cases. I also wrote about some potential signs of reversals, or increasing numbers of new cases.

This week, what we saw signs of came to pass.

New case curves for PA, NJ, DE, VA, & IL.

At the tail ends of each chart, you can see that the last week was broadly stagnant. In Pennsylvania and Illinois the seven-day average was itself remarkably flat. Delaware is now where it was this time last week; a slight rise in new cases was met with an equal magnitude decline.

In reversals, we have New Jersey. New case numbers there increased throughout the week. With lower weekend data, those numbers have fallen slightly.

Only in Virginia did we see good numbers in new cases. Numbers there fell over the last week, though notably at a slower pace than in previous weeks.

Deaths presented broadly good news. Last week we had mixed signals with increasing numbers in Delaware and Virginia. We knew the increase in Virginia was due to the state processing a backlog of death certificates with Covid.

Death curves for PA, NJ, DE, VA, & IL.

But in the last few days, those numbers have also fallen though the state reports it is still processing the backlog. And in Delaware, the daily number of deaths has also fallen again. I think it’s too early to say this peak has crested, but it could well be.

And in the other states, we continue to see slowly falling numbers of deaths. There are some potential signs of that bottoming or stalling out in Illinois, but we’ll have to see how this week pans out.

Finally, the best news we had over the course of last week was with vaccinations.

Vaccination curves for VA & IL.

Last week I mentioned that we can see the lines moving upwards as we approach 10% fully vaccinated in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Illinois.

This week, well let’s start here: as I’ve pointed out in the past, Pennsylvania does not have a centralised reporting system. Most notably the state reports figures for all but Philadelphia county (coterminus with the city). The city reports its own figures. I aggregate the two. But for the last several days, the Philadelphia data site has been broken, so we don’t know the progress of vaccinations in the city. And as the largest city/county in the state, Philadelphia is an enormous part of figuring out the statewide numbers.

So looking only at Virginia and Illinois, the numbers look good. Virginia is at nearly 9.5%. Illinois is on 8.92%.

But we really need Philadelphia to get its act together.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Farewell, Cardboard Cutouts

In 2020, baseball did not permit fans to attend regular season matches. (They changed this for the playoffs.) Instead, many stadiums opted for cardboard cutouts: fans often paid a fee and submitted a picture that the team printed on cardboard cutouts. Like so many things we will say about 2020, it was surreal.

But in Philadelphia at least, cardboard cutouts are out, and human fans are in. The state government in Harrisburg and the city government will allow 20% capacity at outdoor stadiums and 15% for indoor stadiums.

The Philadelphia Inquirer created a small graphic for its homepage to capture this news.

I cannot wait to safely attend a live match. C’mon, vaccines.

I intentionally included other site elements in the cropping to show how the graphic fits into the broader site. The extra white space around the image helps focus attention on the datagraphic over the numerous photographic elements for each article. Clicking on other tabs in the section brings up full-component-width graphics.

To the graphic itself.

Still can’t wait…

My guess would be this was a quick turnaround piece. There are a few things going on here. The first and most obvious one, the squares as spectators. Now I confess this confused me at first. I was not entirely certain what the coloured squares meant; they mean in-person attendees. Was this supposed to be an overall stadium? Or was it a representative seating section?

The quick turnaround becomes important, because this is probably how I would have first conceptualised the graphic. But, with more time, I may have attempted to incorporate the shape of the playing field, be it a baseball diamond or basketball court, or hockey rink—I know all the sports terms!—and surrounded them with shapes representing a certain number of spectators. Squares might not work in that case because of the curves. Circles? Hexagons? Regardless of the shape, the filling of occupied seats would be the same as here, but it would perhaps be clearer to some readers, i.e. me.

Second, we get to the table below the graphics. Here we have a subtle design decision. Note that here the designer greyed out the normal capacity figures. The new figures at that 20% and 15% rates are what appear in black bold text. My usual instinct is to use typographic weight, regular vs. bold, in these situations. But the grey here works equally well.

Third, and this also involves the table, we have the first game data. We talked about the comparison of the capacity and permitted attendance. But I wonder, did the date of the first game with fans needed to be displayed in the same way as the permitted attendance? Because the news isn’t the dates of the first games—at least not as I read the news—but the numbers of attendees. And because of that, maybe I would have reduced the size of the type for the date of the first game. Or, conversely, set the type for the new attendance in a larger point size.

Overall, I enjoyed seeing this news presented visually, even if I was left confused.

Credit for the piece goes to John Duchneskie.

Covid Update: 28 February

Last week we saw some positive trends with respect to new Covid-19 cases in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Illinois area. What did we see this week? Curiously, we saw stagnating figures and, in some instances, slight reversals.

New case curves in PA, NJ, DE, VA, & IL.

This stagnation can be seen by the small flattenings at the end of the lines for Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Virginia. And if you look at Delaware and New Jersey, you can see the reversals as little upward hooks.

I do not think this means we will be returning to the levels we saw earlier this winter. In fact, if you look a little ways back in Delaware and a bit further back in both Pennsylvania and Illinois you can see a similar pattern. Slight reversals appear as jagged little outcrops on the slope. New cases do indeed climb for a week or so—probably isolated to specific geographies within those states tied to outbreak clusters, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

These reversals, therefore, are something we should pay attention to this week when the weekday data resumes on Tuesday. But I am not worrying about this breaking the overall trend of falling numbers of new cases.

Deaths, on the other hand, while still a bit mixed, are broadly positive. Last week we were in a similar position as we are with new cases this week. In particular, we were looking at increasing numbers in both Delaware and Virginia while the other three states saw slowly falling numbers.

Death curves for PA, NJ, DE, VA, & IL.

In Delaware we have the numbers down a bit, but the longer term trend remains generally up. I will be watching this closely this week. Virginia, however, is an easier, but maybe better explanation? During the course of this past week, Virginia stated that it’s processing death certificates from the post-holiday surge in deaths.

This means the state under-reported deaths earlier this year and so that the curve should have actually been significantly higher. But the positive news in that is that the deaths we are seeing now happened in the past so that deaths today are far lower than are being reported.

And with vaccinations we continue to have good news. The lines below are clearly off the baseline now as the three states we track move towards 10% fully vaccinated.

Vaccination curves for PA, VA, & IL.

It’s not all perfect, as the rate in Pennsylvania appears to have slowed slightly. This after vaccine administrators mistakenly used second doses for first doses. Now the state has to play catch-up.

But in Virginia and Illinois, we continue to see increasing rates. You can see this as the curve is beginning to gradually slope more and more upward instead of the shallow angle we saw for the last few weeks.

Like with new cases, which, while positive, still have a ways to go before we get to summer-like levels that would allow us to head out and socialise, vaccinations have a long way to go.

And importantly, just because someone is vaccinated doesn’t mean society should reopen just for those lucky to get their doses early. We need to wait—or should wait—for higher levels of vaccination before reopening.

Credit for the piece is mine.

No, Your Vaccine Is Now Fully Operational

Another week is over, and for the past few years I’ve often said we all made it to the end of the week. When in reality, for the last few months, thousands of people were not. We’ve started using Monday to sort of recap the state of the pandemic in a select region of the country. And then we moved straight into how the New York Times addressed the US reaching the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths.

So I want to end this week with a little story told over at xkcd that tries to explain these new mRNA vaccines. Who doesn’t love science, science fiction, and humour woven together into a narrative? True, this isn’t really data visualisation, but it dovetails nicely into the work we’ve been doing and reviewing of late. Plus, levity. We all need levity.

These are not the cells you’re looking for.

You’ll want to click through to read it all.

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

Another Look at 500,000

Yesterday we looked at how the New York Times covered the deaths of 500,000 Americans due to Covid-19. But I also read another article, this by the BBC, that attempted to capture the scale of the tragedy.

Instead of looking at the deaths in a timeline, the BBC approached it from a cumulative impact, i.e. 500,000 dead all in one go. To do this, they started with an illustration of 1,000 people. Then they zoomed out and showed how that group of 1,000 fit into a broader picture of 500,000.

We’re going to take a look at this in reverse, starting with the 500,000.

Half a statistic.

I think this part of the graphic works well. There’s just enough resolution to see individual pixels in the smaller squares, connecting us to the people. And of course the number 500 stacks nicely.

My quibble here might be whether the text overlay masks 8,000 people. Initially, I thought the design was akin to hollow square, but when I looked closer I could see the faint grey shapes of the boxes behind a white overlay. Perhaps it could be a bit clearer if the text fell at the end of all the boxes?

But overall, this part works well. So now let’s look at the top.

1,000 tragedies

This is where I have some issues.

When I first saw this, my eyes immediately went to the visual patterns. On the left and right there are rivers or columns of what look like guys in white t-shirts. Of course, once I focused on those, I saw other repeated patterns, the guy in the black jacket with his arms bent out, hands on his hips. The person in the wheelchair occupies a different amount of area and has a distinct shape and so that stood out too.

Upon even closer inspection, I noticed the pattern began to repeat itself. Every other line repeated itself and with the wheelchair person it was easy to see the images were sometimes just flipped to look different.

Now, allow me to let you in on a secret, unless you gave a designer a budget of infinite time, they wouldn’t illustrate 1,000 actual people to fill this box. We don’t have time for that. And I’ll also admit that not all designers are good illustrators—myself first and foremost. A good design team for an organisation that uses illustration should have either a full-time illustrator, or a designer who can capably illustrate things.

But this gets to my problem with the graphic. I normally can distance myself from reading a piece to critiquing it. But here, I immediately fixated on the illustrations, which is not a good sign.

There are three things I think that could have been done. The first two are relatively simple fixes whilst the third is a bit grander in scope.

First, I wonder if a little more time could have been spent with the illustrations. For one, white t-shirt guy, I don’t see his illustration reused, so why not change the colour of his t-shirt. Maybe in some instances make it purple, or orange, or some other colour. I think re-colouring the outfits of the people could actually solve this problem a good bit.

But second, if the patterns still appear visible to readers, mix it up a bit. I understand the lack of desire to spend time creating an individualised row for each row. Crafting each row person by person probably is out of the time requirements—though maybe the people above the designer(s) should know that content takes time to create. So what about repeating smaller blocks? I counted 20 rows, which means there should be 50 people per row. Make each row about ten blocks, and have several different blocks from which you can choose. Ideally, you have more blocks than you need per row, so not all figures are repeated, but if constrained, just make sure that no two rows have the same alignment of blocks.

Thirdly, and here’s the one that would really have required more time for the designer to do their job, make the illustrations meaningful. In a broad sense, we do have some statistics on the deaths in the United States. According to the CDC, 63% of deaths have been by white non-Hispanics, 15% by Black non-Hispanics, and 12% by Hispanic/Latino, 4% by Asian Americans, 1% by Native Americans, 0.3% by Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and 4% by multiple non-Hispanic. Using those numbers, we would need 630 obviously white illustrations, 150 obviously Black, and so on.

If the designer had infinite time, the illustrations could also be made to try and capture age as well. Older people have been hit harder by this pandemic, and the illustrations could skew to cover that cohort. In other words, few young people. According to the CDC, fewer than 5% of deaths have been by people aged under 40. In other words, no baby illustrations needed.

That’s not to say babies haven’t died—87 deaths of people between 0 and 4 have been reported—but that when creating a representative average, they can be omitted, because that’s less than 0.1%, or not even 1 out of 1000.

To reiterate though, that third concept would take time to properly execute. And it would also require the skills to execute it properly. And I am no illustrator, so could I draw enough representative people to fake 1,000? Sure, but time and money.

The first two options are probably the most effective given I’d bet this was a piece thought up with little time to spare.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics team.

500,000 Deaths

The United States surpassed 500,000 deaths from Covid-19. On Sunday, in advance of that sobering statistic, the New York Times published a front-page graphic that dominated the layout.

Sunday front page for the New York Times

Usually a front-page graphic will make use of the four-colour process and present richly coloured graphics. This, however, starkly lays out the timeline of deaths in the United States in black and white.

Meaningful graphics do not need to reinvent the wheel. This takes each life lost as a black dot and then, starting at the top in February, plots each day.

Detail of the graphic

The colour here serves as the annotation. The red circle drawing attention to the first reported death. And down the side the tick marks for days. Red lines indicate 50,000 death increments. The labels tell the story, we’ve needed fewer and fewer days to reach each subsequent 50,000 milestone.

As the first wave intensifies in March and April, the space fills with black dots. But as we enter summer and deaths fell, the space lightens. Late autumn and winter bring more death and you can see clearly towards the bottom of the chart, as we approach today, the graphic is nearly solid black.

If we want to look towards a hopeful point in the content, we can see first that it took 17 days then 15 to reach 400,00 deaths and 450,000 deaths, respectively. But it took 19 days to reach 500,000. As a nation we appear to finally be on the downward slope of this wave.

Returning to the piece, it’s a gut punch of simplicity in design.

Credit for the piece goes to Lazaro Gambio, Lauren Leatherby, Bill Marsh, and Andrew Sondern.