Monthly Archives: November 2020

Covid-19 and Compliance – the Rural Urban Divide

Other things being equal, one would expect infection rates for airborne transmissible diseases such as COVID-19 to be directly proportional to population density. At the beginning of the pandemic here in the United States infection rates were highest in the large cities on the coasts. These are places with high population density as would be expected.

As time went on, we learned that masks and distancing can have a profound impact on decreasing infection rates. The locale of rapidly increasing infection rates has now shifted to the Midwest in states such as North and South Dakota.

Here are some interesting comparisons. Los Angeles County, population density of 2,100 per square mile, has a case rate of about 40 per 100,000. (average number of daily new cases over the last seven days.)

Guttenberg, New Jersey has the highest population density of any city in the United States. It is in Hudson County, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The population density of Hudson County is 14,000 people per square mile and an infection rate of 50 per 100,000.

Now compare those rates in very densely populated areas where rates would be expected to be high with the rates in much less densely populated counties. Pope County, Arkansas has a population density of 74 per square mile and an infection rate of 55 per 100,000.

Buffalo County, South Dakota, population density of only 4 people per square mile, has an infection rate of 204 per 100,000. The population density of Hudson county is 3,500 times greater than Buffalo county, yet its infection rate is one quarter that of Buffalo County.

It should be glaringly obvious that something else is driving the infection rates beyond population density. That something is the willingness to address the steps necessary to disrupt the transmission of COVID-19. Some areas still have not mandated any wearing of masks, most notably South Dakota. It is no wonder that it has the highest ratio of case rates to population density in the United States.

Mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 come in multiple flavors, from lockdowns to unenforced mask mandates. Regardless of laws, the issue is compliance and rural areas seem to be the least compliant. It’s about freedom, right? But that freedom to ignore the pleadings of governors across the country really means the freedom to spread disease and death to loved ones and strangers alike.

Some claim a medical exemption to mask-wearing but there is zero evidence that a mask interferes with the passage of gasses such as Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide. Some with asthma claim an exemption even though most doctors will tell asthmatics that they are at a greater risk without a mask because of their condition. There have even been mask-burning events to protest this simple public health measure.

One wag put the problem this way: There are two issues, one is population density and the other is the density of the population. Listen to the experts, wash your hands frequently, properly wear a mask, and keep a distance. Not one or another, all of them.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Attracting Talent

Governor Hutchinson’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year contains a rather unusual tax cut. The top income tax rate currently is 5.9 percent but the governor proposes to cut it by one percent to 4.9 percent for new residents for 5 years. The idea is to recruit talent for the state’s tech and manufacturing industries from out of state.

The cost of the tax cut is estimated to be a modest 1.5 million dollars in the first year and 4.6 million dollars by fiscal 2023. This is a pittance in a multibillion dollar budget, but any tax cut means fewer services for the public. If this particular tax cut passes it conceivably could do more harm than good. That it passes is unlikely as leadership in both parties question the propriety of the cut.

So what can be done to attract talent in the tech area? How about rather than the “everybody gets a tax cut,” consider the other side of the balance sheet. How about use the funds not removed from the budget to provide additional opportunities for our residents? Education and recreation are two things that come to mind.

On the educational front, the rise in the cost of higher education, at least as a national average has been considerably outstripping inflation. Many students graduate with near-crushing debt. Rather than cutting taxes should we be cutting tuition? This would allow more of our residents to acquire those tech skills so needed for competition, not just with the tech industries in other states, but globally.
What are we up against education-wise? In Denmark, not only is higher education free, students are paid to attend for up to six years. It’s per capita gross national product is among the highest in the world. Such is the horror of socialist policies.

Another way of attracting or more importantly retaining tech talent is the quality of life issues. Outdoor recreation should be at the top of our list for youth in our state. That means taking care of, even nurturing our title as the Natural State. Our national parks and forests need protection and preservation for recreation. Many of our rivers, especially in the western part of the state are national treasures that deserve protection, most notably the Buffalo National River.

The park encompasses about 135 square miles, the boundary of which is only a half-a-mile or so on either side of the river. To preserve and protect the river requires actions watershed-wide which much larger, some 1388 square miles. After a long and public struggle, lead by the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the state bought out a hog CAFO which threatened to pollute the river. Making a temporary moratorium against medium and large hog CAFOs permanent would go a long way to protect this recreational treasure.

Additional recreational treasures are the Ozark Highlands Trail and the Ouachita National Recreation Trail. With a combined length of over 400 miles, they provide an inexpensive and healthy recreational experience.

Increasing both educational and recreational opportunities will go a long way to attract talent from out of state and retain our homegrown talent.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

A Vaccine? Not so fast

Currently, Covid-19 has killed slightly over a million people worldwide, close to a quarter of that here in the United States. This is about equal to the annual death rate from Tuberculosis which is the most lethal infectious disease worldwide. Interestingly both are airborne respiratory diseases. The recent announcement of a ninety percent effective vaccine has buoyed hope world wide. The vaccine is being developed by a collaboration between Pfizer, an American drug manufacturer and BioNtech, a German Biotech company.

Whereas the initial data is encouraging, it is only initial data. What is yet to be determined is will the vaccine be durable, that is will its effectiveness to prevent the disease last more than a few months? Will it be effective in groups not tested? Pfizer has done a good job of including a mix of ethnic, racial, and age groups in the Phase III trial but will it work with neonates, or pregnant women, or as yet unknown variables?

Its distribution is also problematic as it requires that the vaccine be maintained at nearly minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That requires special equipment, way beyond a home or commercial freezer, which isn’t commonly available.

A real unknown is its adoptability. If and when an effective vaccine is available, will the public actually get the shot, actually two separated by two weeks? In terms of global human health, vaccinations are second only to good sanitation in improving the life and health of humanity. That said, we are living in a time of distrust in authority in general and in this case distrust in vaccinations.

Although anti-VAX (opposing vaccination) movements have waxed and waned since the time of Edward Jenner and the inception of vaccinations, the current movement began after outright fraud by Andrew Wakefield. He published a since retracted paper claiming that the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. It turns out that he was paid by an attorney to fabricate data that would be to his advantage in suits by parents with autistic children against drug manufacturers.

Several entertainment personalities promoting the anti-VAX position have apparently had an inordinate influence on the public. Actress/model Jennifer Biel testified against a California bill meant to limit medical exemptions for vaccination of school children. Jim Carrey and his one-time girlfriend Jenny McCarthy, Robert Kennedy Jr, Mayim Bialik of “Big Bang Theory” fame, and others with no relevant medical experience drive the anti-Vax train.

Our current environment of anti-intellectualism and anti-authoritarianism acts to combine with the anti-Vax movement to provide a big impediment to defeating Covid-19. The announcement of preliminary positive results with a vaccine is encouraging but we have a long physical and psychological way to go before life can return to normal. At the earliest, this is estimated to be the third quarter of 2021 or later. Until then we will need to continue to – you guessed it – wash your hands, wear a mask, and maintain a proper social distance.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Energy Jobs and the Future

In the most recent and final presidential debate Joe Biden commented, “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes,” in response to Trump’s accusation that he wanted to wreck the oil industry and force an end to the use of fossil fuels.

By the next day, campaign ads were running in fossil fuel-rich states lambasting Biden’s promotion of renewable energy over fossil fuels. Texas comes to mind. Oops, already 61 % of energy-related jobs in Texas are in renewable energy industries as opposed to oil and gas – 254 thousand renewable energy jobs versus 162 thousand jobs in oil and gas.

If you want to see the future of fossil fuels, look no further than coal. Trump campaigned on revitalizing the coal industry. Several regulations via executive orders favored coal production and use yet the industry is in its death throes. Coal-fired powered plants are rapidly closing around the country not because of governmental largess but rather from simple economics. Wind, solar, and natural gas are all a cheaper way to produce electricity.

An argument has been made that the oil industry is important for transportation but the cost to move an electric vehicle down the road is some one-third to one quarter the cost of moving a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine fueled with gasoline or diesel fuel.

There is no question that transitioning from one form of job within an industry to another will cause a loss of jobs, but at the same time, new job categories will be created. When the horse and buggy were displaced by the automobile, buggy whip makers were thrown out of work. As far as I have been able to determine, no great effort to preserve those jobs occurred. The country moved on with the new technology and new jobs.

The use of fossil fuels is unlikely to go away completely for a long, long time. Lubricants and chemical feedstocks will continue to be made from oil. Useful and recyclable plastics will continue to be made from natural gas. Even coal has a limited utility in smelting ores for industries such as steel manufacturing. Burning a fossil fuel to produce bulk power however, is on the way out. And for good reasons.

First and foremost is economics. Wind and solar are already the cheapest source of electric power if you don’t need storage, and we are a long way from needing storage. Balancing sources on the electric grid can handle up to about thirty percent penetration before storage becomes an issue. Right now we are at slightly less than ten percent of electricity production from wind and solar and vigorous research and development programs are rapidly dropping the cost of storage.

Then there is the continuing existential threat to the planet of global warming and the forcing of climate change. The only way to avert this crisis is to stop loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses and ending the use of fossil fuels is the cheapest and fastest way to achieve this end.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.