Have we overreached in the face of COVID-19?
The news media has reported on COVID-19 as if it were the Bubonic Plague – wiping out high percentages of the human race. As we are seeing the crest of the pandemic – and more accurately assessing the economic damage – it is a good time to consider the level of the response.
The media and political narratives seem to ignore that economic damage is also measurable in human suffering and loss. We do not want a cure to be worse than the disease.
In looking at the issue objectively, we cannot say that COVID-19 was just another flu. By all measures, it posed a more significantly dangerous threat to humanity than the common flu or cold. There are three reasons for that. COVID-19 was much more infectious than common flus. Though not the worst, the death rate is significantly higher. The combination of a higher mortality rate and increased infectiousness creates an exponential impact on the populace. Added to that, we have no vaccine to carry out massive inoculations — and consequently, COVID-19 becomes an unprecedented threat, at least not seen since the Spanish Flu of the early 1900s.
Even though COVID-19 is a big deal, It does not mean we did not overreact. The combination of flawed modeling and media sensationalism – enhanced by political biases – may have created an unnecessary and counter-productive public panic. No … there were not people running madly in the streets or jumping out of windows, but the fact that the media was revving up fear and anxiety is irrefutable. Not only is it the media’s nature to sensationalize and politicize, the press saw it as a civic duty to pour out ominous warnings on a 24/7 spin.
To back off the myopic eye of the media, we need to look at the overarching data. At the time of this writing, there are about half a million cases in America. That is about 0.15 percent – fifteen hundredths of one percent. In terms of national health, that is a very low number.
HOWEVER – and that is a big however – the number of deaths in America (18,000) from COVID-19 is about the same as from ALL other infectious diseases so far this year – about 16,000. On the other hand, that number is below normal because social distancing has greatly reduced common flu and cold infections.
The nation’s number one authority on COVID-19 at this time is Dr. Anthony Fauci. He made a very important observation about the epidemiological models that are to give us insight into the progress of the disease. He said they are always wrong, but occasionally useful. That is particularly true in this case because COVID-19 is a “novel” virus – meaning that we have not past examples upon which to base prediction.
In one case, the model suggested that if we did nothing more than routine cautions, the number of dead Americans would exceed 2 million. Today, the prediction is potentially less than 60,000 Americans. That is a huge difference. Some say that the 2 million number was avoided by the success of social separation. More likely, the 2 million projection was just grossly wrong. Still, it was used by the media to gin up public anxiety.
There is also the issue of overcounting of the deaths caused by COVID-19 – including people who may have died WITH COVID-19 and not from it. Dr. Deborah Brix calls it “co-morbidity.” An obvious case was an infant who sustained a deadly injury in a home accident but was discovered to have had COVID-19 at the time. The child was initially reported as a COVID-19 victim in an attempt to show how even the youngest die from the disease.
If an 85-year-old person with COVID-19 dies of a sudden heart attack, was COVID-19 the cause? The answer is … maybe it was or maybe it was not. If a person has terminal cancer and contracts COVID-19, what actually killed him or her. What suggests that we may be counting people dying WITH COVID-19 as opposed to FROM it is the apparent drop in normal deaths from heart attacks – or even the flu.
Yes, there are nutty conspiracy theories out there. Anyone on social media will have seen them. But that does not mean that there are not serious questions as to the scope, the prospects or the fatality of COVID-19. In other words, were those extreme estimates needlessly ominous?
Since the percentage of Americans contracting COVID-19 – and the number of fatalities is now estimated to be only a fraction of those earlier projections — it is fair to ask if we overreached in our precautions. While the precautions undoubtedly saved lives, ascertaining that exact number – or even a close number – is not obvious in the data.
From the Center for Disease Control, we know that the flu season in 2017-2018 resulted in 61,000 deaths in the United States – and we did not even issue anything more than perfunctory warnings. We shut down nothing. In what CDC described as a very mild flu season in 2018-2019, there were 35,000 deaths.
The imponderable is to know how many people would have died of the flu in the 2019-2020 season. If we take the 2017-2018 figure as a typical “bad year,” the 60,000 for this year is not so shocking. However, that is not to suggest that COVID-19 did not significantly increase the number of deaths over any previous year. It is just that the net increase due to COVID-19 may be some number well under the 60,000 projection.
If the net increase-over-normal of the COVID-19 breakout in America is in the 20,000 to 30,000 range, the wisdom and benefit of crashing the entire national economy can come into question.
Of course, we are not done with COVID-19 – or rather, it is not done with us. Maybe the number will soar and justify the extreme measures. And there is always an issue of localized outbreaks. Obviously, New York has to deal with COVID-19 in the harshest of measure. Part of the post-COVID-19 analysis will have to answer the question as to why New York took such a hit – much more than any major city in America and even more than virtually every nation on earth, including Italy and Spain.
COVID-19 was not a hoax. It was not some Black Swan event created in a laboratory or launched as germ warfare. It is more than the usual flu – but how much more is currently up to debate. That will have to be determined by epidemiologists after the fact. As the numbers look now, it will not rise to anywhere near the fearsome level promoted early on by the media and partisan politicians. That is a good thing – AND it is a bad thing.
So, there ‘tis.