German scientists have been studying their country’s hardest hit district, Heinsberg near the Dutch border. They are focusing on a traditional Carnival party on February 15 as the local superspreader event. From The Guardian:
… A hundred days after a Chinese government website announced the discovery of a “pneumonia of unknown cause”, it has become clearer that the dynamics behind the virus’s rapid expansion across the globe has relied heavily on such “cluster effects”.
Each of the countries most heavily hit by the pandemic has reported similar stories of social, cultural or religious gatherings where large numbers spent numerous hours in close company – holding hands, kissing, sharing drinks from the same glass – which then turbo-charged the spread of the pandemic.
For example, there is a bad outbreak in small town southwest Georgia that appears to trace back to a big funeral for a local janitor from a big family on February 29. As I’ve been mentioning, while some superspreader events, like the gay circuit party in Miami, are reminiscent of how AIDS spread, an awful lot of the superspreader events are innocent, respectable, normally healthy events like funerals, choir practices, and birthday parties.
“One pattern we are seeing across the globe is that wherever there was singing and dancing, the virus spread more rapidly,” said Prof Hendrik Streeck, a virologist at the University of Bonn whose team of researchers has spent the last week carrying out the first “Covid-19 case cluster study” in Heinsberg.
“Most infections didn’t take place in supermarkets or restaurants,” Streeck said of his preliminary findings. In Heinsberg, his team of coronavirus detectives could find scant evidence of the virus being transmitted via the surfaces of door handles, smart phones or other objects.
Early theories that the virus at the carnival party in Gangelt could have been transmitted through the dishwater in the kitchen turned out to be a red herring: most guests drank their beer from bottles.
Instead, he said, transmission took place at “events where people spent a length of time in each others’ close company”, such as apres ski parties in the Austrian resort of Ischgl, the Trompete nightclub in Berlin and a football match [Bergamo’s big game was rescheduled to the big stadium in Milan on February 19] in northern Italy.
“Mass events are a perfect opportunity for the virus, as people meet total strangers,” said Niki Popper, a mathematician at Vienna’s Technical University whose team has been developing a simulation that could help governments predict the development of the pandemic more accurately.
Instead of merely multiplying the number of daily cases by a certain factor, Popper’s example tries to account for what he calls the starting point of “local epidemic networks”.
“If you have 100 or 200 people spend enough time in a room with a person carrying the virus, then for example 20 might walk out with the new infection and, after a few days’ incubation time, pass it on to their families and workmates, let’s assume 10 more people each. Within a few days, the virus can thus multiply 200 times with only one new incident – and then continue.”
So if these German scientists are right (and they might not be, but I’ve been looking forward to their findings since April 1 because this is a serious effort), then restarting the economy will be easier than restarting the society, which is good news and bad news. We ought to be able to get back to work sooner, but how are new couples going to meet?
In terms of restarting the economy, I can imagine that once masks are available, there will be some demand for blue collar workers to retrofit shops and houses to make them more resistant to spreading infections: for example, installing plexiglass along checkout counters and installing copper door handles and the like because viruses can’t survive as long on copper as on stainless steel or plastic. The government could offer 1% loans for this kind of project.
But restarting the pleasures of social life … that might be a long way off.
I’ve only been to Italy once, in 1980, but my impression after first visiting northern Europe upon arriving in Milan was that northern Italians were much friendlier than the more standoffish Northern Europeans. It was like an average day in Italy was like a holiday in Germany.
I didn’t get too far into Southern Italy (Lecce in the heel), but Southern Italians seemed more furtive and suspicious. Northern Italy, where there isn’t much mafia, was the friendliest place I visited in Europe.