With the election and campaign hyperbole about COVID-19 behind us, it’s time to replace fear and emotion with reason in dealing with the pandemic. Coronavirus does not pose an “existential” threat to humankind. Yes, it’s a highly contagious virus but it’s death rate is a weak sister compared to the Bubonic Plague (which killed almost half of Europe’s population and 400 million people worldwide), Smallpox, the 1918 Spanish Flu and more recent flu pandemics of 1956 and 1968.
The media beats the drum of despair with the cumulative COVID-19 death count, now at 255,000 in the U.S. With 12 million cases recorded since March. That ratio is reported as the ”case fatality rate” of two percent. But it’s greatly overstated, ignoring the large number of people who have been infected but have had very mild or no symptoms at all and aren’t included in the case count. Adjusting for that, the fatality rate is most likely under one-half of one percent. We are the third most populous nation on the planet with more than 330 million people. Of that number, COVID-19 deaths are only eight-one hundredths of one percent.
COVID-19 brutally discriminates on the basis of age. 80% of those who’ve died are 65 and older, including 53% at 80+. Those with pre-existing conditions — like heart, respiratory and kidney disease — account for 94% of the deaths, and would have died prematurely in the absence of COVID-19. Of the remainder, just 6% are attributed to the virus alone.
News headlines trumpet the number of new cases. The recent surge is largely driven by the four-fold increase in tests since May, now exceeding one million per day, while the number of deaths per day has held steady at under one thousand since August. Consequently, the death rate is sharply dropping.
Hospitalizations have increased which is cause for concern about bed capacities and staff shortages. But we’ve learned a lot about treating COVID-19 and hospital stays for those infected have shortened.
I’m not insensitive about the 255,000 who have died. Each one is a personal tragedy, but responsible stewards of public policy are obliged to consider tradeoffs and the big picture. Public health officials are, understandably, narrowly focused on their specialty. Politicians tend to be overly risk-averse lest they be blamed for insufficient action and compassion, and punished for that in the next election.
But that doesn’t change the reality that 330 million Americans have been seriously damaged by the economic and social consequences of government-forced lockdowns, including the 12 million and more who have been infected and survived. Their health and welfare matters, too. Entire sectors of the economy have been devastated, some irreparably. Airlines, retailing, sports, hotels, to cite just a few, are reeling. Multitudes of small business owners have lost their life savings. Perhaps half of all restaurants will never reopen. Millions have lost their jobs and can’t pay their rent. Suicide, depression, domestic violence and crime are all up. State and city governments are in fiscal peril. The federal government is running up massive deficits driving an unsustainable explosion of the national debt.
The totality of this is even more serious than the COVID-19 death toll. Death and disease is a constant. 650,000 thousand people will die this year from heart disease, 600,000 from cancer. Pandemics are killers. Viruses come and go but government has never before forcibly locked down society.
COVID-19 deaths of schoolchildren are only two tenths of one percent of the total. Kids are at very low risk. Their social isolation is psychologically destructive. Many will never recover from the loss of foundational learning in lower grades. Dropout rates will climb. Very few teachers fall into the high risk categories. Schools should be reopened without delay.
When it comes to public policy risks, some seek refuge behind this simplistic cliché: “Even if it would save only one life, wouldn’t it be worth it?” The rational response is a resounding, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Following that illogic, we’d ban left turns, drop the national speed limit to 10 mph and impose limitless nanny-state restrictions on personal behavior, nutrition and individual freedom.
43,000 medical and public health scientists and doctors have signed the “Great Barrington Declaration.” It rejects another societal lockdown. Balancing the risks and benefits of herd immunity it calls for “Focused Protection,” allowing those at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally building immunity to the virus through natural infection, while protecting those at the highest risk. Imminent COVID-19 vaccines will accelerate that process.
This is common sense in the face of hysteria.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.