Scott Sperling | Following the Wrong Models

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I read The Signal article entitled “Officials: Curve begins to flatten, but social distancing must continue,” and also watched the Friday press conference where the data was presented.

During the conference, there was a presentation by the secretary of Health and Human Services for California, Dr. Mark Ghaly. As stated in your article, he showed the following chart, which contains modeled data, versus the actual data:

For some background, I have a degree in physics from Caltech, so I am familiar with analyzing experimental data. 

The light blue line is the “mid-range expectation,” according to Ghaly. The shaded region shows the model’s total expected range. The orange “dots” at the bottom show the “actual” data. Notice that the “actual” data is running along the low end of the expected range. This screams out that the model is faulty, and should be adjusted, based on the actual data. Ghaly’s conclusion was that we should be “staying the course” (i.e., maintain the “stay-at-home” orders) long into the future, because, if we don’t, we will get a spike similar to the dashed white line.

This is the wrong reaction to the data on the chart. The correct reaction is to revise the model based on the actual data. Now that time has “played out,” it is clear that the original model is faulty. The model needs to be adjusted so that the orange “dots” become the start of a new “mid-range expectation” line. And then, based on the new “mid-range expectation,” the modelers should estimate what the impact would be to rescind the stay-at-home orders, while keeping social-distancing policy. My guess (a guess that is based on the “actual” data) is that such a model would indicate that we could get back to work, and still avoid overwhelming the hospitals.

Also, I was furious about the lack of acknowledgement at the press conference that there are great human costs to “staying the course.” Ghaly, and indeed Gov. Gavin Newsom as well, speak of the stay-at-home orders as if they are a minor nuisance, and seem to ignore the devastation that the policy causes to tens of thousands of Californians. Any decisions about “staying the course” need to be weighed, in a sober fashion, against the great costs of “staying the course.”

It seems that the governor’s office, and the L.A. County leaders, are not even contemplating a “middle-ground” solution, which continues social-distancing, but relaxes the stay-at-home orders, so that people can get back to work. This blind spot is demonstrated in the chart presented on Friday by Dr. Barbara Ferrer (L.A. County Department of Health):

Note that she presents four models: “Never Began Distancing,” “Stop Physical Distancing,” “Maintain Current Level” and “More Physical Distancing.” It’s a glaring omission that there is no model for something like “Maintain Social Distancing, but Relax the Stay-At-Home Orders.” Why aren’t they modeling that scenario?

California needs to get back to work. There is a way to do so, without overwhelming the hospitals, and while protecting the most vulnerable. I just hope the governor’s office and the county leaders realize this before irreparable damage is done to the state of California.

Be well.

Scott Sperling

Santa Clarita

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