Evaluating Past Predictions

Last year I posted a series of long-term predictions about covid.  The first batch I’d made around March 15th, but failed to publish at the time.  The second batch was made on April 24th.  Making and evaluating public predictions is a habit I’m trying to pick up from folks like Scott Alexander.  Scott has recently graded his predictions from last April, so I’ve been inspired to do the same.

I’m going to discuss both sets of predictions, and my reasoning, and try to tease out where I was right, where I was wrong, and what I’ve learned.

From March 15th:

1. a. The coronavirus peak will not arrive before May 1st – 99%
b. The Georgian government will maintain social distancing policies, including school closures and the recommendation to work from home, until May 1st – 80%
c. School closures will continue until June 1st – 60%
d. Schools will remain closed through the end of the school year – 50%

1.a. I’ve already called myself on vague language like “the peak”, which could be interpreted to mean many different things.  However, I think it’s reasonably obvious in retrospect that nothing resembling a covid peak happened between March 15th and May 1st 2020, so I’m giving myself this one.

1. b, c, d – Well, these all happened, so I give myself some points for that.  I’ll note a couple of other things, though.  Phase 1 reopenings started here on April 27th, and the curfew was lifted by May 23rd.  In retrospect, we could have opened schools safely in May or June, and so I think predicting that school had a 50/50 chance of reopening by the end of the year was reasonable.  Indeed, despite my extreme risk aversion on covid, I felt comfortable attending small, in-person gatherings in Tbilisi by the end of May.  I understand that at the time we were still operating under an environment of uncertainty.  However, consider this – we could have opened schools in May and kept them open through the summer to make up for lost time!  There’s no iron law that school has to be from September to June.  Instead, the government decided to open restaurants and tourist accommodations and keep schools closed.  My takeaway is that predicting something like school closures is less about the actual path of the pandemic and more about some aspects of human behavior and psychology that I don’t actually have a great handle on.  But also, to claim on March 15th that there was a 50% chance schools would stay closed all year was radical.  When I expressed this opinion to other teachers, they gave me That Look – like, “okay, you’re talking about nerd stuff, but I’m talking about reality.”

2. a. The coronavirus peak will arrive between May 1st and June 1st – 30%
b. The coronavirus peak will arrive between June 1st and July 1st – 30%
c. No coronavirus peak (it is not seasonal, or southern hemisphere cases spike in a way that requires continued countermeasures in northern countries) – 39%

Georgia had a peak in active cases on May 2nd.  Globally, the peak in active cases seems to have been January 31st 2021 – which I’m scoring as option c), because indeed what happened was that the situation required continued countermeasures in northern countries.  What I was trying to express with this prediction is that I thought coronavirus would be seasonal (it was) but I also thought globally the seasonal-ness would balance out (it did).  What I’ve learned is I need to be a lot more clear about what I’m actually trying to predict, and that sometimes phrasing the question the way a betting market would phrase it (e.g. using precise dates rather than saying “covid will be seasonal”) sometimes detracts from that clarity.  Looking back to one year ago, it seems we did have an accurate picture of the course the pandemic would take, and the Spanish flu of 1918 would turn out to be a very good predictive baseline.

3. If coronavirus peaks by summer (60%), then :
a. Coronavirus will have a second peak in fall – 90%
b. Starting in September – 50%
c. Starting in October – 30%
d. Starting in November – 10%

There’s a clear consensus that we did indeed get a second wave in fall.  In many countries this took the form of a graph with two very obvious peaks.  In other countries there was more of a rise to a plateau, a leveling-off in summer, and then a huge fall peak.  The global numbers follow this second pattern – not a summer peak, but a summer plateau, followed by a peak in fall.  I’ll give myself credit for being highly confident that there would be a fall peak, although thinking back honestly, I thought the first peak would be higher and the second peak lower, but in reality it was the reverse – the first peak was so low that it was a plateau in some places, whereas the second peak absolutely dominated.

I think the reason for this peak/wave structure is that we, locally and globally, did a phenomenal job of crushing the curve in the first wave – yes, even the countries that did this badly seem to have done it well enough to completely deform the graph and, indeed, flatten the curve – that is, until fall, when the combination of lockdown fatigue and cold weather hit us all with a double-whammy.  But you can see how having a global strategy – even one which was poorly-implemented in places – made a difference when compared with previous pandemics.

4. Therefore:
a. Social distancing/school closures by October 1st – 45%
b. by November 1st – 70%
c. by December 1st – 80%

My belief was that the fall peak would cause school closures and other restrictions to be imposed by December 1st, and they were.  Georgia postponed school openings in September until October 1st, and then during October, the government closed some schools intermittently including 42 kindergartens on October 12th, and then they closed all schools nationwide by by November 3rd.  Georgia’s “partial lockdown” began on November 28th.

Now, on to my predictions from April 24th, 2020:

Given that Georgia is loosening restrictions starting next week, and that we’re expecting at least some kind of Easter surge, I predict 307 won’t be the peak number of infections (confidence: 90%).

Obviously this turned out to be correct.  The Easter surge materialized and about a week after this prediction, on May 2nd, we hit our spring peak with 365 active cases.

1. a. A global coronavirus peak (in active cases) will not arrive before May 1st – 99.99%
b. The Georgian government will maintain social distancing policies, including school closures and the recommendation to work from home, until May 1st – 99.9%
c. School closures will continue until June 1st – 99.9%
d. Schools will remain closed through the end of the school year – 99.8%

These were easy predictions to make at this point since the government had already basically said as much, but it’s important to note I was very confident they wouldn’t reverse course during May or June.  Perhaps too confident – in retrospect, I’ve seen the government become a bit wishy-washy in terms of living up to their commitments, and this year we’ve seen them promise to open schools in Tbilisi on March 1st and then move that timeline back to February 15th.  Although these predictions came true, in the future I’ll remember to add extra uncertainty for anything involving any government policy.

2. a. A global coronavirus peak will arrive between May 1st and June 1st – 5%
b. A global coronavirus peak will arrive between June 1st and July 1st – 10%
c. Global coronavirus active infections will not have any peak before July 1st – 85%

I clearly got this one right – technically the official active case count dipped on May 31st and then went back to the rising trend, but I’m going to call that a blip in the data rather than a true peak; looking at the shape of this graph clearly shows no peak before July 1st.

3. If there is a global coronavirus peak by August 31st, then:
a. Coronavirus will have at least one more peak between September 1st and November 30th – 90%
b. Starting in September – 50%
c. Starting in October – 30%
d. Starting in November – 10%

The “If” statement never happened, so I’d have to render this one moot.  However, in countries where there was a spring/summer peak – like Georgia – there was indeed also a fall peak.  This is my attempt to predict the timing of the second wave, and I’ll note, again, that I was just so fundamentally wrong about the scale of the second wave that my whole predictive framework here is undermined.  Because what in fact happened in Georgia is that the second wave began in July and didn’t peak until December 12th.  So there was no “peak” between September 1st and November 30th – but this was because we were on the upward slope for that whole three-month period.  But although the second wave both started earlier and peaked later than I would have predicted, I take some solace in having predicted that it would exist and that it would start earlier rather than later.  I think I could do better by trying to avoid getting trapped in the “seasonal” mindset – I was taking the idea of predicting a “Fall Wave” too seriously, when in fact the world doesn’t operate in discrete three-month-long buckets.  If I were making this prediction today, I might have said something like: “countries with a clear ‘first wave’ will also have a clear ‘second wave’ after lifting restrictions”.  But then, that seems tautological – of course if countries lift restrictions they’ll get another wave!  Anyone could predict that!  On the other hand, this is clearly not obvious to everyone, as we can see from the massive ongoing fights over effectiveness of lockdowns, mask mandates, and other public policy interventions.  And maybe I’d have to separate out seasonality predictions from lockdown effect predictions.

Finally, I’d learn from this to have some degree of confidence in seasonality predictions.  That’s why I found The Atlantic’s timeline for return to normal quite convincing.  Regardless of the exact details, it does seem credible to imagine that there will be some kind of dip this upcoming summer and some kind of uptick next fall/winter – given what we’ve been able to predict and observe so far.

4. z. Schools in Georgia will operate through distance learning from the beginning of the next school year – 45%
a. If schools open, they will switch back to distance learning by October 1st – 55%
b. by November 1st – 75%
c. by December 1st – 85%

Again, reality thwarted my attempt to make precise predictions.  What actually happened was that there was a plan to open schools in person, and some schools did open in person, but other schools postponed their in-person opening to October 1st.  So technically, *some* schools did operate through distance learning *at* the beginning of this school year.  But generally, I’d grade 4.z. as false – we did have some in-person schooling at the beginning of this school year.  As mentioned above, the government switched many schools to distance learning in October, and switched all schools to distance learning nationwide by November 3rd.

So, again, the details are a bit hard to reconcile with a very messy reality, but the gist – that we wouldn’t have a normal school year, and that even if we did manage to open we’d almost certainly have to close down again – was correct.  Again, it was considered radical and very much outside the Overton Window, at least among my teacher friends, to predict last April that we wouldn’t have a normal school year this year.  People really thought the pandemic would go away, rather than have a fall wave.  But I don’t think I had any particularly great foresight here – I think starting with the Spanish flu as a baseline (or prior, as they say) and then adjusting based on new studies about coronavirus in particular led to this conclusion being almost inescapable.

5. a. Georgian borders are still closed by July 1st – 90%
b. by October 1st – 70%
c. by January 1st – 55%

All borders were closed by July 1st, except to certain international shipping workers and for limited repatriation of Georgian citizens.  Shortly thereafter, flights to a select few countries began.  So I’m calling outcome a. true, and b and c false.  It’s important that I was wrong about b. because I still think that opening borders was a very surprising move on the part of the Georgian government.  In fact I think if they’d managed to actually keep borders closed for real, and make sure truck drivers didn’t have any contact with anyone outside shipping routes, we might have been able to achieve elimination here and dodge the second wave.

I keep hearing people say that in the modern world it’s impossible to close borders unless you are an island country like New Zealand.  I don’t know why this should be true, though.  Is it people sneaking across land borders?  Are there international shipping treaties that governments cannot unilaterally interfere with?  I admit this is something I just don’t know very much about.  Still, I feel like better border enforcement, everywhere around the world, could have done a lot to slow the pandemic, and yet only a tiny few countries really tried to do it in a serious way.

Anyway, opening the borders was really the beginning of a set of policies which surprised me, culminating in the announcement that lockdowns would absolutely not occur until after hospitals had overflowed – which is sort of a surprising thing for a government official to announce, if you ask me.  I think this last prediction, where I thought they’d keep borders closed but they didn’t, marks the point where my vision of a Georgia that fought the pandemic effectively diverged from the reality of a Georgia that gave up fighting and decided to invite a massive second wave with open arms.  I think this accounts for the second wave being so much bigger and worse than I thought it would be that it lasted for five months, thus moving the start and end of the wave outside my three-month autumn prediction window.

Overall, I think I did quite well at predicting that we’d still be in pandemic mode going into fall 2020 and winter 2021, but I was wrong in thinking that the first wave would be worse than the second; rather it was the second wave which was much worse than the first, both in Georgia and globally.  I did okay at predicting government response, but I think that’s fine because politics is much more difficult to understand and predict than pandemics.  I didn’t do a very good job of laying out predictions in a way that would produce clear and transparent results and so I ended up having to evaluate most of my predictions based on some interpretation of how they mapped to reality rather than based on very clear and unambiguous benchmarks, and my lesson there is that next time I should make predictions, wait a few days until I forget what I mean by them, and then take a second look to see if it was still immediately clear what each one meant, what indicators and measures I would look at to evaluate them, and how I would interpret different outcomes, including unexpected or ambiguous ones.

I hope to have a new set of medium to long-term predictions up within the next month or so… sorry I can’t be more specific, but apparently my blogging habits are outside the realm of even my predictive abilities.

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Coronavirus in Tbilisi – February 21st, 2021

Numbers:

Last week I predicted 1000 – 1500 cases in Tbilisi. We got 1201. The positive test rate was 2.47% nationwide for the week.

Projection:

I think that the impact of opening schools on transmission will be fairly low, so I’m going to ignore it for now and just project for next week as if the public policy situation hadn’t changed. I’ll review that decision next week if my number turns out to be too optimistic. My projection is about 1050 cases reported in Tbilisi. With a 20% margin of error that’s about 840 – 1260 cases.

Risk assessment:

About 1 in 1000 people you encounter in Tbilisi would be expected to be contagious. Individual risk is therefore obviously quite low.

I urge everyone to take basic precautions and use common sense. I would obviously be horrified if someone said “Neal told me the risk is low, so I went to a party and got covid”. On the other hand if I’m not willing to be candid about times when risk is low then no one should take me seriously during times when I say risk is high.

Schools and stuff:

There’s a lot going on and I have a lot of thoughts but I might put it in a separate opinion post because it’s long and partially speculative and partially argumentative and I’m trying to keep these weekly covid posts as factual and data-driven as I can. That said – schools have reopened in Tbilisi; I’ve opted out for my son and he will be continuing online for the next two weeks (if things get much better I’ll reassess).

I’ve reviewed the CDC and WHO recommendations (pdf) for opening schools. Based on specific community spread metrics, the CDC would put us in the highest risk category and urge the highest levels of precautions right now in schools. The WHO doesn’t put us in the highest risk category and would say schools should be open. I don’t give either set of recommendations absolute credence – they’re so influenced by politics and value assumptions that I can’t call them purely scientific documents – but I did find it useful to see what some outside experts would say about Georgia’s situation.

But here’s a glimmer of hope: if my projection for next week is correct, Tbilisi will move from CDC’s highest risk category (red) to the second-highest (orange).

At the current rate of exponential decay, it would be 5 weeks until the yellow zone, when CDC says full in-person (as opposed to hybrid) education can take place, and 17 weeks to get to the lowest risk level (blue). Obviously there’s no guarantee cases will continue declining at the same rate for five weeks – but I’ll be happy if they do. That would mean the government and population would need to keep reasonable restrictions in place, despite the low and decreasing personal risk to individuals, and I’m not confident that anyone is willing or able to do this. But now I’m getting into longer-term predictions, which are much less reliable than the simple exponential models I’ve been using to forecast case counts from week to week, so I don’t want to go out on a limb here and make any uncertain claims.

News:

Tikaradze says the first vaccines should arrive in a few days.

Gamkrelidze says 200,000 people to be vaccinated by the end of May with double-dose regimes. If they gave out first doses first and delayed second doses until more supply came in, they could protect 400,000 people by the end of May, and the UK has already adopted the first doses first strategy which has been proven to work, so I wish they would do that here as well, but I have no say in the matter.

Gamkrelidze also warns us again not to get too overconfident. He mentions the new strains although there’s been no word on additional genetic sequencing here so I don’t know if the new strains are circulating here yet or not.

Covid numbers from stopcov.ge, 1tv.ge, and ncdc.ge. Population numbers from wolframalpha and Geostat.

Stay safe, everyone!

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Coronavirus in Tbilisi, Super Special Valentine’s Edition – February 14th, 2021

Numbers:

Last week I predicted 1280 – 1920 cases in Tbilisi. We got 1377. Testing has increased to over 17000 per day and the positive rate for the week is 3%.

This is all good news. It suggests that whatever policy changes we saw as of February 1st haven’t caused a spike in cases. I was concerned last week that they might, so this week represents good news from my perspective. On the other hand, the rate of decline has decreased – cases were dropping faster at the end of January than they have been during February – so it does look like the opening of shops, and attendant increase in mobility, are having some effect.

It’s probably too early to judge what impact reopening transit on February 8th might have had. If it has no impact, I’d expect to see about 1160 cases next week. If it has about the same level of impact as opening shops seems to have had, I’d expect to see about 1350 cases next week.

Last week I was trying to decide between two similar projections. I went with the higher one, but the lower one ended up closer (but still within my margin of error). This week I’m going to split the difference and go for 1250 cases, which conveniently gives us a nice round number when we apply a 20% margin of error: I expect to see 1000 to 1500 cases in Tbilisi next week.

Risk assessment:

Worst case, about 1 in 750 people you encounter will be infectious. That’s… not so bad. You’d have to get very unlucky to get infected at this point if you’re taking relevant precautions.

I’ll just end on that Valentine’s Day good news. Lots of other stuff going on, but nothing urgent. Have a nice week!

Numbers collected from stopcov.ge and 1tv.ge.

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Coronavirus in Tbilisi – February 7th, 2021

Numbers:

Last week I predicted 1000 – 1700 cases reported in Tbilisi. We had 1634. The fact that this is so close to the top of my range is troubling because it suggests that we’re already seeing the impact of the reopenings, which are slowing down or possibly reversing the decline in cases we’ve had up until now.

Nationwide there were an average of 15349 tests per day with an average positive rate of 3.56%.

Projection:

The number of cases has been higher than I expected (but still within my error margins) for two weeks in a row, and I expect to see a moderate increase in infection rate due to relaxed restrictions. These are both signals that I should calibrate my forecast higher. Using last week’s method, my model predicts ~1400 cases (plus or minus about 20%, so say 1100 – 1700). My re-calibrated model predicts ~1600 cases, and with an error margin of 20% that gets us 1280 to 1920.

Note that 1600 cases is not much lower than 1634 cases, and the forecast also implies that there’s a decent chance that the numbers could go up next week rather than down. My intuition is telling me that numbers will go down again and the 1400 number is right, but, like I said, my intuition has been a bit too optimistic for the last two weeks, so I think this could be wishful thinking.  I definitely hope I’m wrong.

In any case, intuition is unreliable, so I’m committing to a projection of 1280 – 1920 new cases reported next week in Tbilisi.

Analysis:

In terms of public policy – if we have indeed reached the point where case numbers stop going down, that means policy-wise the populace is willing to live with 200 new cases per day or more in Tbilisi. Collectively, we’re willing to open schools, restaurants, borders, and public transit when cases are at 200 per day and rising.

Maybe that’s fine. I don’t want to judge others who have different levels of risk tolerance. I just think that people don’t understand how quickly the city can go from “200 cases per day” to “hospitals are overflowing”. In the second wave, the government closed down schools about three weeks after we hit the 200/day mark, and the hospitals overflowed about three weeks after that. If the third wave follows the same pattern, schools will close again by the second week of March and we’ll all be in total lockdown again before April.

How likely is the third wave to follow the course of the second? On the one hand, perhaps the government and the public have learned their lesson after mishandling the second wave, and will manage the third wave more effectively. I see very little evidence of that – in fact it seems like the public is in semi-rebellion and policy is now being made by mob rule, with the mob being led by businessmen who are in complete denial about the reality of the disease – but I guess I can’t rule it out entirely. On the other hand, the virus has mutated to be more contagious in at least four separate locations in the world, and the mutated strains have been spreading internationally for quite some time – months, in some cases – which means one or more of them could be here already and consequently the third wave might end up progressing much more rapidly than the second did.  I don’t have enough data to project the chance of the third wave involving a more contagious variant, but I think it’s worth mentioning.

There won’t be enough vaccines to dodge the third wave – remember, we’re talking about a spike in mid-March, and it takes 2-3 weeks for vaccines to produce immunity, which means best case scenario only the vaccines that arrive in February will make a difference. According to the government we can expect about 60% of health care workers to be vaccinated by the beginning of March, and probably no one else.

I’m giving it about a 33% chance that the third wave will be managed better than the second wave was, and a 66% chance that it will be managed the same (i.e. poorly). Note there is virtually no chance of avoiding a third wave – we might already be in it (for example, it’s possible that as I write this, the tests that are being run today to be reported tomorrow will represent a rise in cases over last Monday, which will then turn into a continuously rising new case curve), but even if we aren’t, the government definitely seems determined to keep relaxing restrictions until we are in a third wave. The open question here is whether the government will put lockdowns back in place before e.g. hospitals overflow like in November. I’m not very confident in an answer either way, but my default assumption is that if the country has been handling things poorly since September, it will continue to do so through April.

Risk Assessment:

NPR reported on a risk assessment model that concluded that in the US, you could roughly assume that the number of infectious people on any given day was about 10 times the number of reported cases.

I’ve been conducting risk assessments on the assumption that on any given day the number of infectious people was about 7 times the (average) daily number of reported cases.

I’m not going to update my risk assessment model just yet because I think there are reasons to believe that the US is worse off than Georgia in terms of underreporting case numbers – not least of which is that the positive test rate in the US is over 10% and Georgia’s is under 5%. I’m also assuming that at least some infectious people are actually staying home.

I have also been adjusting my risk assessment up or down based on projections about the following week, rather than just naively using the current day’s numbers, so the assessment would be higher while cases were rising and lower while cases were falling.

Still, it is good to see that the big fancy Columbia University model arrived at a number which is on the same order of magnitude as my number, and if you feel inclined to trust Columbia more than me you could just assume things are about 1.4 times as bad as I’ve been saying they are.

With all that in mind: I’m projecting that at most 1 in 600 people you encounter will be infectious. The Columbia model would say it’s about 1 in 500. Now you might be wondering because those these numbers are closer than the ratio of 7:10 would imply; that’s because my worst-case projection (274 cases per day) is higher than the average case count this week (233 cases per day). Since my model is accounting for the possibility that cases might already be on the rise, it’s giving a risk assessment that’s closer to the Columbia number.

Other:

I feel like this post has been a bit more dense than usual, so I’m sorry if readability has suffered – I’m quite disturbed by the government’s decision to open in-person schools on February 15th, and my way of working through it is to analyze every little factor to death, because feeling like I know what’s coming gives me a sense of control and stability, even if (as now) it’s all really bleak. Anyway, better just end the post now before it gets any worse…

Stay safe!

Case counts collected daily from 1tv.ge and watchcov.ge stopcov.ge.

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Coronavirus in Tbilisi – January 31st, 2021

Numbers:

Last week I predicted 700 – 2100 cases reported in Tbilisi. We had 1923. That’s a bit on the higher end of my prediction range, part of which can be explained by increased testing. Last week we had an average of 12549 tests per day; this week it was 16011 per day. The positive test rate for the country averaged 4.13% last week and is generally decreasing from day to day.

For next week I predict 1000 – 1700 cases. It could go lower if we see a big enough drop in testing.

Risk assessment:

Based on projections, about 1 person in 650 might have an undiagnosed infection, which realistically is too low to think about properly. Try it this way: to have a 1 in 10 chance to come into contact with someone with covid in Tbilisi, you’d have to come into contact with about 70 people.

It looks like they’re going to start opening malls this week. We probably won’t see the impacts of this yet so this week will generally be safe from whatever infection bump we end up getting from opening malls. That said, it is possible (I’d say not likely, but possible) that this will be enough to start pushing the numbers back up again. So I’m reasonably certain that next will be safer than this week was – but I’m less certain that the week after next will be safer than next week.

News:

Georgia says we’re getting 30,000 vaccines mid-February to start vaccinating health care workers. This is of course excellent news just in terms of saving the health care workers, but also because there is preliminary evidence that the vaccines reduce or prevent transmission, which means that interacting with health care workers – which is often an unavoidable, in-person interaction – will become safer.

I’m aware that news organizations are unwilling to say this because it hasn’t been “proven” yet, but it is misleading to conflate “no proof” with “no evidence” – and the quality and amount of evidence we have already is really quite convincing and all points in the exact same direction, which is that the vaccines greatly reduce transmission.

People are impatient to reopen the economy, and I am reminded of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. We’re in sight of our goal. If we lose faith now, we lose all of our progress. If we can keep numbers down until the summer, we’ll have warm weather and more vaccines on our side. If we give up now and open everything early, we’ll get a third wave that will kill thousands and keep our kids out of school.

If you’re following the world news, we’re in a bit of a race between the vaccines and the new variants. Georgia is behind on vaccines but a bit ahead because of travel restrictions. Travel restrictions are being reduced. Where does that leave us? The existence of the variants makes it harder to make medium-term predictions, but the worst-case scenario is now much worse than it was before. Unless we get lucky I think we’re looking at a third wave in March/April, which will manifest as either very strict lockdowns or a new wave of sickness and hospitalization. The Minister of Health says the third wave might start as early as mid-February, which is now quite soon. I’m not quite sure how informed this speculation might be but for what it’s worth I agree – it could start as early as mid-February – but I think March is more likely.

Stay safe!

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86 Restaurants to Boycott

Times are tough.

Ideally, everyone in society would pull together.  We would all make sacrifices for the common good.

My son, who is eight, has been studying online for almost a year.  Online classes for an eight-year-old offer limited value.  He has a great teacher at a great school and I am deeply privileged to be able to provide that for him.  Nonetheless, he is missing out on important social and educational experiences.

Less-privileged children are, of course, even worse off.  There are children whose parents cannot work from home – who cannot offer even the limited supervision I am able to offer my son.  There are children who lack internet connections, who lack computers, or who lack the skills to fully participate in online learning.  There are children who are functionally missing an entire year’s worth of education.

But hey: why not make it two years?

That’s the question that 86 restaurants are planning to ask us tomorrow.

Letting restaurants operate delivery and take-out only isn’t ideal for restaurants.  I get that.  A lot of the restaurant experience is getting service, moving to a new setting, hosting friends without having to cook and clean up afterwards.  If people can’t get that, they’re less willing to pay for restaurant food.  I know that restaurants are about more than just food, and that many restaurants are failing due to the pandemic.

But here’s the thing: there is no safe way to operate a dine-in restaurant during this pandemic.

If you open restaurants, people are going to gather in large groups, indoors, without masks, and they are going to eat and talk, and the infection rate is going to go up – just like it did in August, September, November – just like it has done all over the world when restaurants have opened in person.  And when infection rates go up, no one feels safe sending their kids to school.  Teachers don’t feel safe teaching.  And, of course, thousands of people die.

Forgive me for saying this, but I have to be blunt: children’s education is a fundamental need – a fundamental human right – and it should have a higher priority than the luxury of dining at a restaurant.

After the first wave, this country re-opened restaurants, bars, hotels, resorts, and other recreational facilities before it re-opened schools.  As a result, children got only a few weeks of in-person instruction.  That was a poor decision and a poor trade-off.  This country should not make the same decision again.  Schools need to open in-person before restaurants, bars, and other recreational businesses are allowed to open in-person.  Children’s education should be the priority.

I don’t believe we should just let people starve, either.  I have argued for government assistance to individuals and businesses during this pandemic.  But yes – restaurants are going to take a big hit, due to the nature of their business, and the sacrifice we’re asking them to make is to serve food via delivery service, rather than in-person.

Their response?  They are boycotting the public.  They are suspending their delivery operations for 24 hours tomorrow – forgoing a day’s income, and on a Saturday, no less – just to tell us that they are not willing to make the sacrifices that we, as a society, all need them to make.  This action puts pressure on the government to open in-person dining early, which increases the chances that we have to delay school openings, or close again soon after opening, or expose our teachers and students to unnecessary risks*.

Fine.  They have the right to do that.  And I have a right to keep a list of every business that decided to boycott the public, and boycott them in return.  As a parent, teacher, and consumer, it is my duty to stand up for myself and my students, and say, if you’re not willing to sacrifice so I can get back into a classroom – so my son can get back into a classroom – so every student in Georgia can get back into a classroom – then you will never see another tetri from me again, so long as I live.

The following 86 restaurants are on my permanent ban list (with apologies for any weirdness caused by Google Translate):

1. Black Lion
2. Taqueria
3. Khasheria
4. Le Gateau
5. Keto and Kote
6. Kera
7. Mill Group
8. Megrelian House
9. Steak House
10. Z 10
11. Khamantska Bar
12. Suliko
13. Tone
14. Barbarestan
15. Beer House Varazi
16. Beer Garden Varazi
17. Black Dog
18. Moulin
19. Number 8 Brewery & Bars
20. Zazanova
21. Woodstock
22. Respublika Grill Bar
23. Badiatsatrovani
24. Bikentia Grill
25. Marani
26. Marani Hall
27. Burger Classico
28. Stelcea House
29. Cafe Discovery
30. Dolce di Paradiso
31. Green Terrace
32. Wine Bar Sapere
33. Racha District
34. Chicken Gaiz
35. Veriko
36. ACDC
37. Melnikov Shop
38. Chacha Time
39. Tamtaki
40. G.Vino
41. Coffee LAB
42. Eclair de Jen
43. Gagra
44. Bar Kikodze
45. Shemoikhede Genatsvale
46. ​​Pomidorisimo
47. Mines
48. Strada
49. Candy
50. Prince
51. Tails
52. Khinkali House Iverion
53. Kalina
54. Apartment 37
55. Gala
56. Terra Wine
57. Drums
58. Mziuri Cafe
59. Tea House
60. Maestro
61. Linville
62. Kakhetians on Beliashvili
63. Kakhetians (Lilo)
64. Prospero’s Cafe
65. Restaurant Zala
66. Piano Bazaar
67. Tsibakha Game Club
68. Workshop Bar
69. Cecilia
70. Jazz Rock Cafe
71. Dedaeni Bar
72. Bar Makulatura
73. Bar Aton
74. Barbar’a Gastro Bar
75. Babale
76. Chabas Jazz Rock Cafe
77. Meoba
78. Laurel
79. Piano
80. Pasanauri
81. Bernard
82. Shemoikhede Genatsvale (on Marjanishvili)
83. Bernard Sushi
84. Cecilia City Cafe
85. Khachapuri N1
86. Our

Honestly, I won’t miss many of these.  I have no illusions that any of them will care, but I’m still doing my part.

***************************

*A note on risks:

Yes, children under 12 seem to be at a decreased risk for infection and transmission, but middle school and high school students also have a right to education.

Yes, there is data showing that schools can be opened safely given adequate infrastructure and precautions, but Georgia has schools that don’t even have indoor plumbing, let along adequate infrastructure to provide PPE, ventilation, hand-washing facilities, and social distancing.

Yes, infections in children tend to be less severe, but the death rate for people under 18 is not zero, and there are currently dozens of children in Georgia who are suffering – suffering – from MIS-C, which seems to be a side effect of covid in some children.

Data from other countries on the relative safety of school openings don’t take into account differences in resources, infrastructure, or living arrangements between those countries and Georgia.  There are many reasons to believe that opening schools here would be less safe than opening schools in more affluent countries.

And finally, we know the Ministry of Education has been very risk-averse so far – perhaps because, unlike in the USA, here in Georgia it’s considered politically damaging if you let a bunch of kids die on your watch – and we have every reason to believe this risk-averse behavior will continue. So even if you, the reader, are convinced that schools are safe, schools won’t open until the government is convinced that schools are safe – and that’s not going to happen if restaurants usher in a third wave.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a zero-sum game.  We probably get to open recreational/luxury services, OR schools, but not both.  I’m an educator, so, it’s pretty clear which side I’m on.

Posted in Education, Health and Sickness in Georgia, Restaurant Reviews | 4 Comments

Coronavirus in Tbilisi – January 24th 2021

Weekly Coronavirus in Tbilisi update:
 
Numbers:
 
Last week I predicted 2200 – 3700 reported cases in Tbilisi, with an average of 15000 tests performed per day nationwide. As it happens, I didn’t account for the national holiday, and anyway there was a bit of a testing slowdown, so we only averaged 12549 tests per day this week. The total number of cases reported in Tbilisi was 2610.
 
Next week I’m projecting 700 – 2100 reported cases in Tbilisi. My model projects about 1050 cases if we have 10,000 tests per day, and about 1580 cases if we see 15000 tests per day, but again, I’m widening the margins to account for uncertainty, including any more surprise holidays or shenanigans.
 
Risk assessment:
 
Assume about 1 person in 500 will be carrying an undiagnosed infection. In a collection of 10 people, there’s about a 2% chance that one or more people would be infected.
 
Local news:
 
You’ve probably already heard that some limited reopening is scheduled for February 1st.
 
On of my old neighbors in Kutaisi received an invitation to go to a baptism party. “Only” 30 people were invited. My neighbor declined the invitation and was apparently mocked for it. On the day of the party, the hostess’ mother said she felt like she had a fever and the hostess told her not to “ruin the fun”. Long story short: the mom passed away, the hostess is in the hospital with double pneumonia, the party was obviously a terrible idea, and my neighbor is okay because she didn’t go to the party and refused to have any contact with anyone who did.
 
So… I recommend not going to parties. People talking, loudly, in close proximity, indoors – this is the ideal environment for the virus to spread. Better to be the odd one out and survive, I think, than give in to peer pressure.
 
But also: when the restrictions are lifted you’re going to see more things like this. People are going to use it to rationalize the gatherings they know they shouldn’t be having.
 
We have about a week before they start lifting restrictions. Probably this upcoming week, then, will be the least risky week to do things before the restrictions lift and the numbers start creeping up again. I can’t say that for certain, but it’s my best guess. I’ve been saying this for a couple of weeks now, but if you need a dentist’s appointment or something it’s probably best to do it now.
 
No real news on vaccines or the new strains, at least as they pertain to Georgia.
 
Stay safe!
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Coronavirus in Tbilisi – January 17th 2021

Going to try to keep it short this week.

Numbers:
Last week I predicted 4200 cases plus or minus 1500. We had 3574. The positive test rate dropped a lot – we’re down from 12.25% to 8.39%, with an average of 14352 tests performed per day.

If you look at a graph of the cases in Tbilisi (using a rolling average/rolling total) we appear to be on a plateau – we’re doing a bit better than last week but a bit worse than two weeks ago. The problem with interpreting this is that there are several conflicting variables: there’s the “holiday bump”, the lockdown-relaxation-lockdown process, and the holiday decline in testing. I wouldn’t make too much of any of this and that’s why the predictions I’m making have a wide margin. But to be very brief I think we’ll see consistent testing next week and a continuing decline in positive test rates and new infections. The “holiday bump” should be more or less over and the restrictions in place should be more or less consistent, and they were working just fine in December so we should start to see that again.

Using a very simple exponential decline model I project 2700 – 3200 cases next week reported in Tbilisi, which assumes that testing continues to average around 15000 tests/day and nothing strange happens. I’ll widen the margin a bit to account for randomness and say I expect to see 2200 – 3700 reported cases.

Risk assessment: assume 1 in 265 people are infected. A gathering of 10 people has only a 4% chance of containing one or more infected people. As I said last week – without taking any frivolous or unnecessary risks, if there’s something you need to get done before the next wave hits, like a trip to the dentist’s or whatever, now would not be the worst time to do it.

Medium to long term: The government has extended the restrictions until February 1st, so we should see a fairly consistent decline until then. I predict they’ll extend restrictions even past that, but it’s hard to say for sure.

I haven’t seen any more news in Georgia about the ‘UK variant’, but similar mutations have been popping up all over the world: UK, South Africa, two in Ohio, and one in Japan that’s apparently from Brazil – so it does seem inevitable that at least one of them will reach us here, unless the government smartens up and seals the borders. The Janssen vaccine looks like it works and is part of COVAX, and Georgian officials have been making more announcements about looking outside of COVAX, so it does look like we’re now on track to meet the 20% target this year, which should help things a little bit.

I also came across a paper (via the New York Times) saying that scaling up the world’s vaccine production to vaccinate everyone in the world in a year would only cost on the order of $4 billion, which means it’s not inconceivable that some government – maybe Biden’s US administration, maybe someone else – might get its act together and just start producing enough vaccines for everyone in the world at some point. I’m not particularly optimistic that this will actually happen but it’s at least a possibility to consider.

Good luck everyone!

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Weekly Coronavirus in Tbilisi Update

Last week I wrote that the number of confirmed cases this week would be unpredictable due to rapid swings in holiday testing. I thought we might have 5000 – 10000 tests done per day on average, resulting in up to 3600 cases reported this week.

In fact, there were 11894 tests conducted per day, resulting in 4127 cases reported. In a way this is good, since more tests and diagnoses means more people who know they need to stay home.

The positivity rate has barely changed – while it swings up and down from day to day, the weekly average is 12.25%, down from 12.55% last week (this is probably not a meaningful difference). Remember that the target for a well-managed response is 5% positivity or lower, so we’re still quite far from having the disease under control.

4127 cases is worse than last week’s 3284. This looks like it’s entirely due to the low number of tests performed last week, and not due to any effects of holiday gatherings. However, this also means that the decline we had been seeing during the restriction period is entirely gone – instead the infection rate has leveled off. The “holiday bump” and the government restrictions seem to be canceling each other out. This is not ideal – we need the infection rate to go down, not hold steady at 4000 diagnosed cases per week. But at least we didn’t have another peak like in November.

I think we’ll see numbers go up again a bit this week – more tests, and more diagnosed cases. The impact of whatever gatherings happened on the 7th (Georgian Christmas) will also be starting to show up this week, which I again expect to at least cancel out the impact of the restrictions. So I’ll say I expect to see about 4200 cases, plus or minus 1500. Risk assessment is the same as last week: roughly, about 1 person in 160 will be infected without knowing it, which translates to a 6% chance that someone in a 10-person gathering will be infected.

Something I don’t talk about much is personal risk over time. Meaning, if you thought you were going to get the coronavirus for sure, when would you rather get it? Now wouldn’t be the worst time. Early November would have been a terrible time to get sick. I suspect there will be another peak in March if the government follows through on its promise to ease restrictions. That would also be a terrible time to get sick. So if there’s something you absolutely need to take care of – a dentist’s appointment or a minor surgery or something, or travel, or whatever – now wouldn’t be the worst time to take care of it, and indeed this might be the safest period we’ll get before this summer. Note that I’m not saying you should take risks – I’m saying that if you need to take risks, now might be the best time to take them.

Vaccine situation: Looking better. COVAX sorted out some of its issues, and secured some extra funding. Georgia is also looking at getting one of the Chinese vaccines separately from COVAX, per Tengiz Tsertsvadze. This is excellent news since as I’ve said COVAX is not even aiming to provide enough vaccines for Georgia in 2021. Although there are many vaccine candidates in development, it’s just not clear that the manufacturing capacity exists at all to vaccinate 70-90% of the world this year. It’s not just about developing a vaccine that works – you also need a supply chain to get all the materials to the manufacturers, and they have to be quality controlled, and distributed properly. I’m still saying that we’ll be facing some level of restrictions for the entire year. Get used to masks and small gatherings. Vaccinations will help, and can cut the death rate, but beware the line of thought that says “the first vaccinations arrived – now it’s over.” The UK has already started vaccinating and they are currently in one of their strictest lockdown periods yet.

Speaking of the UK: I’m not going to go through everything I’ve read about the new strains (UK and SA). In short, they look about 50% more contagious, the UK variant was found in a lot of young people, they don’t look any more severe, and the vaccine probably works against them. Specifically in the context of Tbilisi, there has been one official case of the new strain confirmed. There may be more out there. It seems inevitable that more and more cases will show up as the UK and SA strains become the dominant strains across the world. Once this strain is at large in Georgia, lockdowns will have to be stricter in order to achieve the same effect. The curve will be steeper in case of uncontrolled spread, meaning that if the government uses hospital capacity as its benchmark for when to impose restrictions, there will be a lot more people who get sick and can’t access treatment between when the hospitals hit capacity and when the restrictions start to take effect. In other words, the government will absolutely need to be a lot smarter about how it handles the first UK or SA variant wave in the country, because otherwise it’s going to make November’s peak look like its opening act.

The government handled the first wave well and the second wave poorly, so the baseline odds are that it’s a coin toss. In some ways the UK variant wave is more like the first – it’s new so there’s more uncertainty, and it’s not an election season. In other ways it’s more like the second – people are tired of the pandemic. I therefore have no basis to predict anything other than a 50/50 chance that the government will handle the the UK variant wave reasonably. That’s bad: to be clear, I’m saying there’s a 50% chance we’re going to have a wave with outcomes worse than November’s wave. If you have any influence over the government, now would be a good time to use it. Tell them to get serious before the UK variant becomes the dominant strain here.

Numbers from stopcov.ge and 1tv.ge.

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Weekly Coronavirus in Tbilisi Update

Last week I said I expected to see about 3000 cases reported in Tbilisi this week, plus or minus 1500. We got 3284.

This doesn’t quite tell the whole story. The number of tests per day dropped from 12349 per day to 8506 per day. It is likely that some of the decrease in case count is due to this decrease in testing. It’s important not to overstate this – as the number of cases drops, the demand for testing should drop as well, as fewer infections means there will be fewer people showing symptoms and fewer starting points for contact tracing. Also, the positive rate has dropped from 15% to 12.55% – so relatively speaking, the testing regime in Georgia is more adequate now than it has been since the beginning of this wave. So it’s not quite accurate to say that if we had done twice as many tests we would have picked up twice as many cases.

Still, I expect that the decline in testing should stop, or reverse itself, this week. Using exponential models, I would predict that if we do about 10000 tests per day, we should pick up 2900 – 3600 cases in Tbilisi this week. If we do 5000 tests per day we could go as low as 1400 new cases, and if we do 20000 tests per day we could hit as many as 7300 new cases. But I really expect us to have somewhere in the range of 5000 – 10000 tests per day on average, so I expect to see 1400 – 3600 cases reported in Tbilisi this week. Note that today there were only 2795 tests done – if the country sticks to under 3000 tests per day we’d barely even crack 1000 new cases in Tbilisi, but that 1000 would be a very unrealistic number. Even if the whole country goes on holiday for a week and decides to shut down testing, the virus won’t also go on holiday.

These numbers all assume that there are going to be over 7000 actual cases in Tbilisi in the next week, and a great deal of the variance is in what percentage of those we catch with tests. Using that number, we can calculate that one person in 160 in Tbilisi will be carrying an infection. That gives us a 6% chance that someone in a 10-person gathering will be infected. This assessment gives a slightly greater risk than last week’s, but I think that last week I was a bit too optimistic because I was using a linear rather than exponential model to make my forecast.

If there is going to be a “holiday bump”, I’d expect to start seeing it by the end of this week. It’s hard to project what that would look like, but I’ll probably have a better idea in next week’s update.

Incidentally, stopcov.ge is now reporting testing numbers (for both PCR and antigen tests) daily. Other information comes from 1tv.ge.

An update on vaccines: The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine has been approved in the UK, and is also a part of COVAX. People are interpreting this to mean that Georgia will be able to access enough vaccines to end the pandemic. This is unjustified for several reasons. One, COVAX is still underfunded (although they have made some progress on making agreements with vaccine manufacturers and getting donations from wealthy countries). Two, AstraZeneca will only be providing 170 – 370 million doses out of the 2 billion COVAX estimates are based on. All of the other COVAX vaccine candidates are still in clinical trials. Three, even if Georgia does meet its targets – if it does get all 1.4 million doses needed to vaccinate 700,000 people in 2021 – that’s still only about 20% of the population vaccinated with a vaccine that prevents 70% of infections. This would undoubtedly reduce Georgia’s already low mortality rates, and is certainly a good thing, but it is not even close to enough to achieve herd immunity – meaning we’d still be stuck with a tradeoff of how much activity to resume vs. how many dead we’re willing to live with and how many sick people our hospitals can treat.

Let me be clear: this is not idle speculation. There is no person or organization that I am aware of who is making the claim that Georgia will have universal vaccination in 2021. The *most optimistic* projection that anyone is willing to commit to is the above scenario (20% vaccinated by 2022). That is the current expert consensus as reported by the WHO, The Economist, The Guardian, and various Georgian experts who are in communication with international organizations and vaccine producers. That should be regarded as the best-case scenario: again, it’s a target, not a promise.

It is possible that dozens of new vaccine candidates could get approval in the next six months and that Georgia could access enough doses of enough of them to vaccinate the 60% or more of the population we’d need to vaccinate in order to approach herd immunity. I am not ruling it out. It *could* happen, and I hope it does. But – again – not a single individual or organization connected with vaccine production or distribution is currently willing to claim that this is a likely or even feasible scenario.

Part of the reason for this is that wealthier countries will get first access to most vaccines. COVAX is the program that is supposed to ensure fair access to low and middle income countries, but the first two approved vaccines – Pfizer and Moderna – are not available through COVAX at this time, and there are currently no plans to make them available.

Georgian authorities are now saying they are making efforts to get vaccine doses in addition to the COVAX doses. I hope these efforts succeed – but again, they are competing against all of the wealthiest countries in the world to access these additional doses. The Georgian authorities are being very responsible by not claiming that additional doses will be available, or discussing where these doses might come from, or estimating how many doses they think they’ll be able to come up with. I suggest that they are not withholding information on these points – they simply do not have it. There are simply no plans to get more than 20% of Georgians vaccinated before 2022, and even that plan is currently facing a bit of uncertainty.

I imagine we’ll have some data on what 20% vaccination looks like soon enough from the countries that have already started vaccinating. Once that comes in I’ll make some more detailed projections about what Georgia will look like next fall. Until then, and I cannot stress this enough, it is not time to get your hopes up.

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