So, after another week of sheltering at home, I am again penning my weekly column. Prior to my first poke at the keyboard, I thought about how as a community, we have been subjected to 9 or 10 weeks of COVID-19 pandemic mitigation, and if you believe the experts, there is no end in sight.
At first, I understood we were facing a new threat. It is a new virus with an unusually long incubation period. Becoming infected appeared to be extremely dangerous, with a patient’s survival probability severely limited because there was no treatment, no cure, and no vaccine. Predictions of our impending doom included an outbreak which would overwhelm our health care system, and require medical hardware, such as masks, gloves, and ventilators, in a quantity exceeding all previous needs. Hospital ships were headed to New York and Los Angeles, and millions of federal government dollars was being spent setting up field hospitals around the country. In an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, travel to the suspected epidemic’s origin in China was halted. Next came the advice of the medical experts to take shelter at home in order to “flatten the curve” – whatever that meant. We learned what an N95 mask was used for and were also assured there was no need for the general public to wear one.
But now, over two months later, we are much better informed. As it turns out, not only was our health care system not overwhelmed, but the additional patient treatment capacity, provided by the federal government, went mostly unused. Hospitals had discontinued providing their regular services, which constituted the majority of their income, and are now laying off health care workers as their floors remain empty. We had more ventilators than necessary, and currently treatments are being devised with vaccines, other drugs, and mitigating methods entering clinical trials. But businesses, both large and small, are shuttered and suffering, as jobs are being furloughed due to “executive orders” around the country, making the prospect there will be massive numbers of bankruptcies more likely every day. A large segment of our population has become restless, and we are starting to see demonstrations demanding our elected offices allow us to proceed with our daily lives, unencumbered by their skepticism of the future. All while others tell us improving the economy will only occur at the cost of additional lives, so we should follow what the experts tell us. They yell, “Don’t you believe in science? Do you think money is more important than your life?”
Both are good questions, so let us start with the experts. So far, almost everything the experts have told us has not come to pass. The pandemic has not been as big, or as deadly, as they predicted. But their statements were just predictions. They were not based on facts or science, but on their opinion, so how can you fault them? Yet they keep repeating the same tag line, “it might get worse,” which is also not based on science. It is just as possible, “the situation may get better.”
But in other aspects, the experts have been absolutely wrong. Take the situation in New York where initially hospitals refused to take COVID-19 patients. What did the governor do? I’m sure it was after consulting with his experts, he ordered Convalescent Hospitals to take the infected patients, and the medical professionals who were in charge of the facilities did not object strongly enough. Instead, they willingly accepted contagious patients into an environment which did not have the capabilities of isolating, or properly treating them. Wait, were they not the same medical professionals who would not allow the public to visit their loved ones residing in Convalescent Hospitals because they are the most vulnerable, who now embraced admitting actively infected patients into their facilities? What happened? Many of those most venerable died and health care workers were infected. I know the New York Governor admitted he made an error in judgment, but tell me again, why I would want to blindly follow the advice of politicians or medical experts?
I understand the death of anyone close to us is a devastating and horrific event. Yet we all need to come to grip with the fact that death is a part of the human life cycle, and we will all succumb to death at some point in time. None of us will get out of this life alive, and during every minute, of every day, we face risks of injury, or natural medical trauma which could cause our life to end. Thankfully, most of us do not consider the probability of a life-ending event as we go about our daily activities, most likely because the probability of occurrence is so low, we simply, and sometimes unknowingly, accept the risk.
So rather than dealing with talking points about “humanity vs. the economy,” I would prefer to look at the data to determine what to do next. Some of the information, unfortunately, is not presented in a way where a conclusion can be drawn. The public has also been inundated with experts indicating more testing is needed, but test results have no meaning unless they cause something to happen, or provide enough information to make some sense of it. When we read an article which reports “the rise of x number of cases today” without knowing the sample size, the date of testing, the location, and if these are all newly tested individuals, it is not possible to tell if the number of new cases is increasing or decreasing. Yet, we can look to the number of COVID-19 deaths vs. the population. I realize the number may be bloated due to hospitals receiving larger payments if they report a COVID-19 patient, and even more if the patient was on a ventilator; but even so, we can use the number as a worst case scenario.
The number of COVID-19 deaths in the united states as of May 17 is 88,488, and the population of the US is 327 million. While the number of deaths may sound large, dividing deaths by population yields a 00.027 percent death rate. Interestingly, “I heart SCV” published data on May 14, showing the COVID-19 death rate in the SCV at 2.8 per 100,000 or 00.0028 percent, which is even lower than the national average.
To put our risk of death in perspective, I looked at the United States mortality rate (2017 data) which showed the total number of US deaths at 2,813,503, or 863.8 deaths per 100,000. The totals included heart disease at 647,457, cancer at 599,108, accidents at 169,936, chronic lower respiratory diseases at 160,201, stroke at 146,383, and Alzheimer’s disease at 121,404, all of which individually are greater of an impact than COVID-19, and we have not shut down our economy for any of them.
Next, I looked at the New York-specific data, which shows similar results to the SCV information I included in my column several weeks ago. Hospitalizations peaked on about April 10 and have been coming down ever since. Yet the section most curious is that the infection rate for those sheltering at home is significantly higher than found in the homeless population. So, has our approach to reducing our risk been wrong all along?
While there are a lot of questions yet to be answered, one issue is undeniable. Politicians and experts have shut down 30 percent of the US economy, and disrupted the lives of all Americans. Small business and low income wage earners are being hurt the most. People need to care for their children, put food on their families table, pay the rent, and the government does not have the resources to help out much longer. Politicians and experts never want to admit they made a mistake and this situation is no exception. They tend to double down on the road they chose to travel, and wait for the next high profile drama to rise up and take public attention away from today’s dilemma.
But, I do not think the public will be so quick to forget this time around. It is time to reassess the risk of returning to work, school, and recreation, and put the country back on its feet once again.