This article was published on August 11, 2020

What herd immunity looks like in a maximum security prison

What herd immunity looks like in a maximum security prison
Tristan Greene
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Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

Coronavirus in Context is a weekly newsletter where we bring you facts that matter about the COVID-19 pandemic and the technology trying to stop its spread. You can subscribe here.

Hola Pandemic Pals,

Just so you know, I spent well over 10 minutes trying to find a joke to start this newsletter off with. But nothing seems particularly funny right now. 

The LA Times recently published an article detailing the plight of the inmates incarcerated at the San Quentin men’s correctional facility in California. 

San Quentin has been devastated by COVID-19. Per the LA Times article:

“As of Monday, there had been more than 2,200 cases and 25 deaths, among a population of more than 3,260 people.”

There’s two things we need to do in order to put that into perspective:

First, we have to recognize that San Quentin still hasn’t achieved herd immunity. “Community spread” continues at the prison. And that’s with around two-thirds of the population infected. 

Second, those numbers get terrifying when expanded. If we apply the San Quentin herd immunity model to the US, we’d see 2.5 million COVID-19 deaths at the equivalent infection rate, and we still wouldn’t have reached herd immunity. 

In other words, based on what we’re seeing in a closed, forced experiment at San Quentin, if the US chose to completely reopen and depend on herd immunity to end the pandemic, it’s likely that more Americans would die of COVID-19 than did in the Korean war, Vietnam conflict, World War I, World War II, The Civil War, The H1N1 pandemic, the AIDs epidemic, the 1918 flu pandemic, and 9/11 combined (!!!) before we even reached that goal. 

And the sooner we attempted to expose everyone, the greater the death toll could be. Because what the “herd immunity” advocates aren’t telling you is that herd immunity, in actual practice, would be dependent on a significant portion of the population becoming vaccinated, and we don’t have a vaccine yet. 

The science is clear. Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands.  

By the numbers

Last week we started counting down the days left in 2020. This week, let’s expand on the death toll numbers from above. (Source: Time, CDC)
  • 9/11 Terrorist Attack: 2,977
  • H1N1 Flu Pandemic: 12,469
  • Korean War: 36,574
  • Vietnam Conflict: 58,220
  • World War I: 116,516
  • World War II: 405,399
  • The Civil War: 620,000
  • 1918 Flu Pandemic: 675,000
  • US AIDs epidemic: 675,000
  • TOTAL: 2.6 million

Tweets of the week:

What to read

Death panels, prison plagues, and even the robots think we should wear masks…
? In a recent interview Trump falsely (and stupidly) claimed children were nearly immune to COVID-19, Facebook removed the video for spreading misinformation.
? Disabled people are being deprioritized for healthcare as COVID-19 death panels decide who deserves treatment. How horrific. (Politico)
? Here’s a population tracker for COVID-19 in the California prison system. (
? Want to know how good your mask works? These researchers employed AI to figure it out.
? Trump weighs blocking US citizens from returning to the country if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19. (New York Times)


In this little section, we’d like to talk about the tech that’s getting us through the pandemic. This week, let’s talk about Zoom.

I always forget when I have a meeting coming up, so whenever I get the 10-minute-reminder on my phone a feeling of instant panic sets in. My anxiety shoots through the roof and I’m guaranteed to start the call frazzled.

This isn’t my fault.

I can’t remember the last time I tried to connect to a meeting and something didn’t go wrong. Here’s a list of the problems I’ve had in the last 10 or so meetings I’ve taken via Zoom, Meet, phone call, or Slack:

  • Zoom (or my phone) inexplicably decided I needed to be in “driving mode” while hosting a meeting, so we lost video and I had to use push-to-talk the entire time.
  • Meet pumped speaker audio through the phone’s main speaker but used the microphone in my earbuds, thus I could barely hear and had to stop using video so I could hold the phone my ear.
  • I spent 15 minutes trying to call a US number from Mexico to no avail before it worked (no clue why).
  • Unable to take/make calls in Slack across two desktops and a laptop, but mobile works fine.

Every bit of software has its troubles and tribulations, but I’ve been getting a ration of it lately.

Part of my problem is that I don’t have a simple technology solution for my office. I review a lot of products so I’m constantly changing software and I seldom use the same device for more than a few days or weeks.

Where most people work out the kinks after the 3rd or 4th meeting, my setup changes on a weekly basis. It’s a bit ironic, as a technology journalist you might expect me to have a sweet setup that works like a finely-tuned machine. Instead, I live mired in a hodge-podge of technology that usually gets swapped out the moment I figure out how to work it.

So, with that in mind, now you know why technology journos (or maybe just me) always seem to spend the first five minutes of a meeting sounding like the Verizon guy: “Can you hear me now?”


We’ll be back next Tuesday. And every Tuesday after that until the pandemic ends. Because we’re all in this together.

In the meantime, here’s a few links to help you manage the misinformation as the disease hits its peak:

The Center for Disease Control’s myth-busting section on COVID-19

After Recovering from COVID-19, are you immune?

John Hopkins Univeristy COVID-19 myth vs fact

Don’t believe everything you read on social media. Stay healthy and take care of each other,


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