A million

The US now has over one million confirmed cases of COVID-19. Over 60,000 people have died. Those are shocking numbers, but it does appear that the spread may be slowing down. The doubling time for new cases is now 19 days and for deaths it is 15 days. Let’s hope the first two numbers don’t grow much more and that the last two numbers keep increasing!

So how big is a million? A thousand times a thousand! Does that help? Probably not. If you go to the beach and pour a handful of sand on to your open palm you will have about a million grains in that small heap.

A million seconds is just short of 12 days (60 x 60 x 24 x 12 = 1,036,800).

If you take the thickness of a dollar bill to be 0.0043 inches, then a stack of one million one-dollar bills would be 358 feet high. Sather Tower, aka The Campanile, on the UC Berkeley campus is just over 300 feet tall. The tallest tree in Redwood National Park is about 380 feet tall.

A baseball is between 9 and 9-1/4 inches in diameter. If you laid out one million baseballs end-to-end (I’ll use the larger number) they would stretch 1,752 miles! That’s the distance from San Francisco to Lincoln, Nebraska.

A trip to the moon and back is only about half a million miles. You’d have to make two trips to get your spaceship odometer to cross 1,000,000.

If you lined up a million people shoulder-to-shoulder (let’s say 24 inches apiece) you’d need nearly 400 miles of space.

A million people is 1/340th or about 0.3% of the US population. That doesn’t seem like a lot unless you think about the fact that you easily know 340 people. There’s a good chance you know someone infected by the corona-virus or at least you know someone who knows someone. Two degrees of separation is what they call that. That’s pretty damn close. Certainly if you lived in NYC or LA you’d have a better chance of being personally impacted by this disease. Those of us fortunate to live in a rural area have been somewhat isolated from the pandemic compared to our urban brethren, but we’ve experienced, like them, the economic fallout.

It bears repeating: we are all in this together. My good luck—i.e., my reduced risk compared to family and friends in the metro regions—is not immunity! Much is still unknown and uncertain about COVID-19. It will be hard to make good decisions without good numbers. But good numbers have been really hard to pin down! There seems to be a lack of coordination among the various epidemiological studies. Ideally, each data set would be added to a global repository that everyone could access. That way each new model of the disease can be better than the previous one because it can be updated with the latest information.

Scientists and other “experts” have taken a bit of a beating with this pandemic. That’s because all models are wrong. And you have to be wrong a bunch of times before you can get closer to being right. But you have to remember that all models are wrong, so you have to keep adjusting and that means letting go of a lot of previous work and previous assumptions. That’s hard to do. People get invested in their ideas and they are reluctant to part with them. Solving a problem like COVID-19 requires a tremendous amount of intellectual flexibility. You have to be able to see where you were wrong in order to improve your work. The public doesn’t like it when experts are wrong and experts don’t like to be wrong, so people fight over who is “right” because they don’t have the patience to stick with the process. It’s not about who is right or who is wrong. It is about how to work together and build the best knowledge base.

Public policy decisions are political, not scientific, but getting the best information into the hands of the decision-makers still needs to be done. What are the odds of that?

Oh, I can’t resist: a million-to-one!

11 thoughts on “A million

  1. I don’t think there are a million grains of sand in a handful. Doesn’t pass the smell test to me. I looked it up on the intertube and found answers that included 2 million. But if you do it by weight, that is, weight of a gallon of sand (12.76 lbs) divided by 16 (1 cup) = 0.7975 times 41,235 grains in a pound, you get 32,885. This seems more accurate to me. I think that, perhaps the calculations of particle size assume that the grains of sand occupy all the volume.

    I think all the other estimates of one million (which is one heck of a lot) sound about right. I also think that a heck of a lot more than 1 million people have contracted this disease at this point, but I am increasingly puzzled the more I think about it by what all the supposed asymptomatic cases mean. Have they really not contracted this particular virus? Have they contracted a much milder version? Are the testing regimes sufficiently accurate? In 1918, the mortality rate (the flu killed about 675,000 people in this country which had a population of a little over 100 million at the time) was about 2.5% COVID has, given the numbers, you quoted, a mortality rate of 6%. I think that is probably far too high, and suggests that there are large numbers of uncounted cases, although as they learn how to treat the disease, that alone should decrease the death rate.

    One thing, though, on the concept of herd immunity. It would be great, but barring a vaccine, that presupposes an infection rate of about 60% of the population. That means about 210,000,000 people, or 210 for every one of the counted cases now. And you can use any mortality rate you want, but it’s hard to envision a low enough mortality rate so that the numbers of dead are not in the millions.


    • If figure if you have really fine powder-like sand you could get a million grains in a cubic inch. I figure a heap of sand in a palm is about twice that. So 32 000 seems to small to me by an order of magnitude. But I’m assuming close packing and not accounting for air space. Anyway, maybe a double handful of ordinary beach sand would have been a better guess!

      Yeah, this “herd immunity” thing may work OK with influenza, but not a novel virus. At least that’s what it seems to me, but I don’t know anything about infectious diseases. I just don’t like the sound of “novel” virus! Influenza has been around, people probably have some kind of immunity to many strains, and we have at least some vaccine protection from it. This virus is something new. Some preliminary numbers suggest SARS-CoV-2 is 10x deadlier than the flu, like 1% vs. 0.1% fatality rates. I agree–seems like it would take a lot of dead people to get to herd immunity.

      I suspect the State of Georgia will be our laboratory over the next month as they ease restrictions despite a pretty high total of both infections (27 K) and deaths (1 K) considering the population is about 10 M. Rural counties here in the West will begin opening despite state guidelines. Modoc has already said so, they are afraid of simply going under and no one noticing. I’m expecting that to happen here soon.There is a real sentiment around that we can re-start a lot of businesses safely. We are a low-risk region, for sure, but that’s not good enough. People will have to do things differently, the distancing, mask-wearing, etc. will likely have to continue for some time even if infections drop to safer levels.


  2. I think they should start opening things up, particularly in rural or other relatively COVID-free places. I am reading that Butte and Sutter are going to open. I don’t particularly like the “fuck the governor” attitude, though, that smacks too much of a political statement rather than a calculated decision based on the safety of your residents. But if you can go into a store to buy food, why not a bookstore, assuming you take the same precautions? Seems like the fewer interactions you have, the better, yet the bookstore (for example) could get some business and it could be an individuals choice as to where and how many to have. I say that as someone who strongly supports the government’s right to curtail business or quarantine people. I don’t know about eating out or doing anything else that involves groups of people. At least for me, for now.


  3. I’ve been wondering about all these supposed asymptomatic cases and all the people who have recovered as opposed to those who have a really hard time recovering, if they do at all. Why is that? Leaving aside underlying health conditions, which can clearly have an impact on an individual’s outcome, but have not, yet anyway, suggested a means of measuring who is likely to survive and who isn’t.

    They already know that there are variants, or strains of the virus. That is how they determined the path of some infections. What if some of the variants are more deadly than others? The tests for the virus are based on a small part of the virus’ DNA that uniquely identifies it. It is bound by synthetic RNA and duplicated until the test can detect it. These are different from serology tests that measure the presence of antibodies in the body, indicating that you have been exposed to the virus. What if the virus has mutated such that a, or some are more deadly than others, yet the virus is detected equally by the genetic test and the body develops identical antibodies for each. That could explain why some people are asymptomatic and others or not.

    On the other hand, what if the deadliness of the virus is all pretty much the same. Maybe it makes a difference how much you are exposed to. They say it can be airborne and also transmitted via droplet. The airborne part is scary, of course, because it means that you could, say, walk outside to get your mail and some of the virus wafts up your nose. But an aerosol can carry many, many fewer viral particles than can a droplet. So what if those people who show positive but have been asymptomatic or only mildly ill have been exposed but their dosage has been far less, such that they have been able to generate sufficient antibody response so as to escape the more tragic outcomes? That would also suggest a means of getting a large number of asymptomatic people. In that case, the human response is pretty good, unless it is overwhelmed by the little buggers. I wish I had a virologist or geneticist around to ask about the plausibility of these thought.


  4. Everybody responds differently, I imagine, even if the virus is the same. If you look at drug trials there is always variation in response to the treatment. It isn’t a binary “yes it works or no it doesn’t” outcome but a range of outcomes of which some are more likely than others. So I’m not surprised that people exhibit a variety of responses to the infection. Throw in the mutations and different strains and you have a lot of possibilities. I’m not sure we understand “immunity” all that well to begin with so I think your questions will be head-scratchers even for experts.


    • Genetically, other than identical twins, we are all surely different from each other. (And identical twins can exhibit large phenotypic variation.) Individuals ought to have an individual response, don’t you think?

      I mean, no one survives getting their head chopped off. There’s no variation in that response. But something that operates at the macro-molecular and cellular level? I’m not surprised that we all have different tools in our toolboxes. I wonder, if they figure something out, could they get a therapy out of it ? Something that would help people who don’t have that allele or set of alleles that reduce the severity of the infection.

      In the video I linked to the reporter talked to some people who were researching the micro-biome we all carry around with us. Is there something in our unique cocktail of microbes that helps (or hurts) our fight against the virus? That’s a whole ‘nother ballgame.


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