Our society is now transitioning into panic about the coronavirus.
Universities and schools are being shuttered, sports activities and public gatherings are being cancelled, individuals are hoarding toilet paper and supplies, travel is being severely constrained, the stock market has crashed, and business activity is nose-diving. Major businesses are forcing their employees to work at home.
This blog will try to summarize the coronavirus threat, suggest that some of the panic-driven actions may not be well-founded, and that there may be a far better, more effective approach to deal with the virus.
How Bad is the Situation Today?
If one steps back and looks at the actual numbers, particularly against other threats we face, the situation is far less apocalyptic than some are suggesting. As of today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes 1215 cases and 36 deaths in the U.S. since January 1. This is a very, very small percentage of the U.S. population of 331 million. The number of U.S. cases no longer appears to be going up rapidly, as noted by the latest CDC graphic (see below). Note the drop after the peak in early March.
In China, where the problem started, the number of cases is rapidly declining (see below).
According to Washington State’s Department of Health, the state has had 457 coronavirus cases and 31 deaths. Most (23) of the death’s in Washington have been limited to one nursing facility in Kirkland with a large number of elderly, chronically ill patients. In fact, according to the NY Times, this facility would typically lose 5 patients a month.
This facility also represents about 50 of the coronavirus cases in Washington, since several first responders and staff were sickened (with no fatalities) due to exposure at this site. In many ways, the Kirkland facility represented an unfortunate random event–the random exposure of a group of extremely vulnerable patients. If this random exposure had not happened, Washington State would probably not be getting headlines as a center for this virus outbreak.
An extremely important element of this coronavirus outbreak is that it hardly sickens young people, and healthy individuals of middle age or younger generally do not face a life-threatening illness. To illustrate, here is the age distribution of cases in King County. Few folks under 40 are sickened and none of them died. The problem is with the sick and elderly. This age distribution is going to be very, very important. Similar statistics are found in China.
There are undoubtedly many, many cases of coronavirus infection in the younger, healthier members of society, many of which are not aware of their infection. But without testing, we don’t really know other than by indirect statistical approaches. Thus, the “death rates” are clearly far too high, and highly deceptive.
Comparison to the Flu
It is important to note that the coronavirus (COVID-19) numbers are extraordinarily smaller than those of the flu.
Below is a flu graphic I got from CDC and added the coronavirus cases (see the gray dot). In fact, the gray dot should be much smaller. For example, we had 36 coronavirus deaths nationally so far compared to 61,000 flu deaths in 2017-2018. 45 million cases that year compared to 1200 COVID-19 cases so far this year. In WA state, 75 have died of flu through the end of February and several years have brought 200- 300 deaths from influenza.
COVID-19 is not even in the same league as flu, which also kills the youngest among us. We did not close down universities, businesses, and more for flu.
Interestingly, many who are panicking about the coronavirus today refused to practice reasonable hygiene when flu is around (e.g., washing hands carefully). COVID-19 is also not in the same league as auto accidents, which kill 1.25 millions a year (3287 deaths a day), with 25-50 million injured or disabled for the worldwide statistics, while about 38,000 die in the U.S. each year from auto wrecks.
Are our political leaders shutting down society for the flu or stopping auto travel because of deaths on the roadway? The answer is no. So why are they willing to close down society to deal with the coronavirus, which has represented only a small risk to the general population? Life is full of risks that must be considered, mitigated, and dealt with. But society must continue to function.
As the virus began to spread in China, the U.S. needed to develop a coherent plan for understanding and dealing with the crisis. This did not happen. President Trump probably made the right call about cutting off travel to China, but the lack of coherent planning beyond that is apparent.
The stock market is in free fall, the economy is tanking, colleges are poorly educating their students through questionable online learning, K-12 students aren’t being taught, business is contracting, and workers are losing salaries and being laid off. The lowest income folks are hurt worst, making “social distancing” highly regressive. I have read estimates that that the world economy could lose trillions of dollars and that recession is now becoming more likely in the U.S.