Conservatives of the paranoid bent sometimes try to depict Covid-19 as wildly exaggerated threat so the government can take away their freedumbs.1 But as we’ll see, the government should be the least of their worries. The big threat is private sector actors like Ticketmaster, with bright ideas about get back their old normal economics, in partnership with companies like IBM who already want to get their hands on your health data.
And to make matters worse, the Ticketmaster scheme, at least in its early iteration in an exclusive story in Billboard, looks unsound from a public health perspective.
Recall that Ticketmaster takes a cut for handling the booking of tickets to live performances sold by “event owners”. Google being Google, I didn’t have much success in trying to find the which types of events are most important to Ticketmaster’s total sales. However, its online ads say “Buy verified tickets for concerts, sports, theater, family and other events near you.” So we’ll assume that concerts, sporting matches, and theater are their big sellers, and likely in that order.
Now most of those gatherings would seem to be plenty risky from a Covid perspective: people sitting closer than “social distancing” norms and for many events, like rock performances, lots of yelling or loud talking. There appears to have been only one study so far, not peer reviewed, on what to do to make live performances safer. This one took 1400 volunteers at a rock concert in Germany. It concluded it was possible to make these gatherings “low risk” provided a lot of protective measures were taken, including of course mask wearing. From Rolling Stone:
Researchers offered a handful of recommendations for Covid-19 safe concerts: Installing new ventilation systems that more effectively refreshes the air in the venue; implementing seated food and drink breaks; mandating masks; and ensuring attendees can get into the venue through multiple entrances.
As the article continues, other groups in Europe are investigating the effectiveness of other approaches to making indoor shows safer.
But instead of a data-driven approach, Ticketmaster appears to be relying on hopium and snooping. The write-up in Billboard stresses that the Ticketmaster scheme is still very much on the drawing board. The only mention of masks is that “event owners” might require them:
Event organizers also have the ability to set their own prevention protocols, like sanitation, mask compliance and social distancing.
Now admittedly, states and municipalities are likely to set their own rules regarding mask wearing and the maximum capacity of events; right now, in most of the US, there are already strict limits for how many people may gather indoors, and in some states, even outside. However, “mask compliance” is a subtle point. Even if a municipality mandates mask wearing at, do you think a stadium owner will have mask bouncers? And what happens if you go to a basketball game and find that the people on one side of you all strip their masks off? By contrast, airlines are banning passengers who defy mask protocols from future flights and Delta even once had a plane turn around so that two uncooperative passengers could be removed.
The Ticketmaster scheme, “a framework for post-pandemic fan safety,” relies on tests and vaccines to make congregating an acceptable risk so that live events “can start mounting a return in 2021”. The outline:
Many details of the plan, which is still in development phase, will rely on three separate components — the Ticketmaster digital ticket app, third party health information companies like CLEAR Health Pass or IBM’s Digital Health Pass and testing and vaccine distribution providers like Labcorp and the CVS Minute Clinic.
Here’s how it would work, if approved: After purchasing a ticket for a concert, fans would need to verify that they have already been vaccinated (which would provide approximately one year of COVID-19 protection) or test negative for coronavirus approximately 24 to 72 hours prior to the concert. The length of coverage a test would provide would be governed by regional health authorities — if attendees of a Friday night concert had to be tested 48 hours in advance, most could start the testing process the day before the event. If it was a 24-hour window, most people would likely be tested the same day of the event at a lab or a health clinic.
Once the test was complete, the fan would instruct the lab to deliver the results to their health pass company, like CLEAR or IBM. If the tests were negative, or the fan was vaccinated, the health pass company would verify the attendee’s COVID-19 status to Ticketmaster, which would then issue the fan the credentials needed to access the event. If a fan tested positive or didn’t take a test to verify their status, they would not be granted access to the event.
Overconfidence in protective measures like vaccines could produce net negative outcomes, by encouraging citizens to become less vigilant about other measures, like masks.
The Ticketmaster plan looks to fall prey to this sort of thinking by signaling too much faith in a vaccine. As we pointed out yesterday, it’s unlikely that a Covid vaccine (or any vaccine for a respiratory disease) will achieve the gold standard of “sterilizing immunity” meaning people who are vaccinated are safe to others. A vaccine (if effective on you) will keep you from getting the disease because your immune system will go out and vanquish it, or at least hopefully beat it back enough so that you don’t get as sick as you would otherwise have. But you will have the virus in your system as you are mounting the immune response, not unlike someone with an asymptomatic case. In the absence of data, experts believe those who were vaccinated can still spread Covid, but to a lesser degree than symptomatic cases, since their viral load would be lower and they would not have a Covid cough.
And that’s before getting to the fact that even the much-hyped Pfizer mRNA vaccine is expected to have 90% efficacy….assuming it doesn’t become deactivated due to cold chain lapses. Recall that Dr. Fauci depicted the odds of “highly effective” vaccine, as in 98%+ efficacy, as slim, and that even though he would prefer a vaccine with over 70% efficacy, 50% to 60% would do. We have yet to see performance data from conventional vaccine candidates in the pipeline.
Now if having had a vaccine were the only criterion for being allowed to attend a event, one could argue that concerns about vaccinated people possibly infecting others would be greatly reduced, since a vaccine would presumably offer some protection. But the Ticketmaster scheme is designed to get attendees in seats in 2021. There’s no way most would be vaccinated even by year end, charitably assuming full compliance. Hence Ticketmaster also allowing those with fresh negative Covid tests to be waved in.
Another concern is that Ticketmaster is also making assumptions about how long a vaccine would work. Careful readers may have noticed the parenthetical: “(which would provide approximately one year of COVID-19 protection)”. Glad to know that Ticketmaster has either a medical research division or a psychic, since no one knows how long vaccine-conferred immunity lasts, and some experts worry it could be as short as six months.
Needless to say, there’s also a lot not to like about sending personal medical information to the likes of third party vendors like IBM, particularly since most of them have said they are hungry to get in the business of selling medical data for wonderful purposes like personalized advertising. One has to take their claims of caring about patient privacy with a fistful of salt. Not only do their incentives run entirely the other way, but experts have warned that medical data often has enough patient identifying information, like age, race, gender, marital status and ZIP code, to get a considerable way towards deanonymizing it.
Oh, and Ticketmaster also wants to gets its claws into your data:
For Ticketmaster, two new technologies at the companies will help its clients scale the program. The first is digital ticketing that’s linked to a fan’s identity, eliminates paper tickets and can be restricted from being transferred or resold. Ticketmaster also plans to deploy its new SmartEvent system, which helps event organizers and fans manage social distancing, delayed entry and provide possible opportunities for contact tracing.
Count me out. And apparently no one gave the technology team at Ticketmaster the memo that experts around the world have concluded that contact tracing by smartphone doesn’t work. But no doubt it’s a great pretext for getting potential users to cooperate.
Now if America were well run and the sort of place that cared about protecting its citizens, it would be sponsoring and running studies on how to make venues safer, not just for the benefit of the sports and entertainment industry, but also for governments, so they could learn how to make places where people congregate like airports and courthouses safer. And if the Biden Administration were as science-minded as it pretends to be, it could create a safety bureau that would create standards and metrics. Venue owners might even pay a modest fee to have their facility and event procedures reviewed and graded, so members of the public could assess safety risks in advance of booking a seat. And that would create incentives for members of the entertainment industry, broadly defined, to work together to make performances safer.
The one bit of good news is buried in the article: the Ticketmaster plan is vaporware since no one yet has approvals to act as a Covid data broker:
To date, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any third-party companies to provide the complex technology needed to deliver real-time vaccination results, but Ticketmaster president Mark Yovich expects the demand for digital screening services — which will be needed for airline travel, employment verification and theme park entry — will attract a new wave of investors and entrepreneurs to fuel the growth of a new COVID-19 technology sector.
As Lambert said, “It sounds as if they aren’t interested in health.” That looks like an apt take on Ticketmaster’s priorities too.
1 Notice how the formulation parallels that of how the government wants to take away their guns?