My COVID-19 Safety Thoughts
We interrupt our regular programming to bring you something a little serious today. Earlier this week, I came across two tools within a day or two of each other, and I felt compelled to write. I have to start by stressing that I am not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV. What I am, is a person who’s very focused on data. So that’s the basis of this article and the tools that I found. I know that there are a lot of other great sources out there for COVID-19 data and news, but I’d like to share my personal viewpoint.
A common argument on Facebook, and honestly one of a number of reasons that I have mostly walked away from that platform, is whether the number of COVID-19 deaths is being underreported or overreported. Some argue that anybody who dies and has the virus will be classified as a COVID-19 death even if it didn’t actually lead to the end of their life. So, for example, if someone tested positive but was killed in a car accident or died of cancer, they are still counted as COVID-19 deaths. The other side argues that many people who likely died of COVID-19 weren’t tested, so their deaths are being counted as pneumonia, influenza, etc. instead.
Fortunately, there is a way to resolve this difference. We already have a lot of data about historical death rates. If we compare the current actual death numbers to recent averages, we can find out how many “excess deaths” we have — how many more deaths we have than what we would expect over a certain time period. The Economist is actually tracking this for different countries and regions. So, for example, while the United States reported 114,038 deaths from COVID-19 from March 7th to June 12th (the most current date of data available due to delays in reporting), there were actually 130,546 deaths more than historical averages would predict during that same time period. Logically, the actual number of COVID-19 deaths must be much closer to the 130,546 number than the officially reported 114,038 number.
So, the data shows that deaths from this virus are being underreported. Furthermore, the worst flu season in the past 10 years only saw at most 95,000 deaths. We’re already well above that number, so we can safely say that this is much worse than the flu in terms of the number of deaths. In fact, this year COVID-19 deaths will soon be 3rd in the United States behind only heart disease and cancer.
So, if the data shows that the virus is real and it is killing people at high rates, is it safe to have social gatherings? I’m not here to make decisions for anyone on whether they should or should not get together in groups of any size. What I can do is show you the data so you can make an informed decision.
Georgia Tech has created an event risk assessment tool. Using current COVID-19 data, the tool can tell you the risk that at least one person at an event in a given county is positive for the virus, given the size of the event. Using my home county of Muscatine, Iowa, the tool says that, if the event has as few as 10 people, there is a 20% chance that at least one person is positive for COVID-19. Those rates rise to 44% in groups of 25, and up to 90% in large gatherings of 100. Of course, this doesn’t say anything about social distancing, masks, or outdoors vs. indoors. Even so, it should still give us a lot to think about when we’re considering those in-person meetings or events.
Despite it all, everyone has a complicated decision to make in how much to quarantine themselves. As I said, I can’t tell you that safety is more important than human connection. I can’t tell you that you need to cancel your vacation plans. I can’t tell you that you need to avoid your friends or not go to the store or not go out to eat. I don’t know if your loved ones are high-risk or not. Everyone has to weigh those decisions themselves.
However, there is one easy thing we can all do. The consensus among scientific experts is that masks work. You already have to wear a shirt and shoes in most businesses. You can’t smoke inside most public places in most states. In fact, all of us have to give up some personal freedoms many times every day because that’s what it means to live in a society. I think the biggest personal impact we can make in controlling this deadly virus is to wear a mask, especially when we’re in close proximity to groups of other people. Even though I’m not perfect on this by any means, I still hope that more will do their part to make a difference.