Stop the COVID-19 madness. Just stop the friggin’ COVID-19 madness.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes this disease, is a nasty little pathogen, and everyone should take it seriously. But encouraging a moral panic rarely helps anyone with anything.
Yes, 500,000 Americans have died with the disease caused by the worst new virus to confront the human race in more than 100 years, but collectively as a species, we have done way better than we did with the Spanish flu of 1918 to 1920.
The Spanish flu killed 0.64 percent of the population, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A kill rate like that today would leave 2.1 million dead.
This pandemic is far from over and the death rate is sure to rise. But the daily number of COVID deaths has been falling steadily since early January, according to the tracking of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, and it is projected to continue to fall.
IHME has predicted a worst-case scenario of 616,000 dead by June 1 – 16 months into the pandemic in the U.S. To reach Spanish flu levels by 2021, people would have to start dying at more than twice the rate they are dying now.
Then, too, SARS-CoV-2 isn’t killing who the Spanish flu killed.
“An unusual characteristic of (the Spanish flu) virus was the high death rate it caused among healthy adults 15 to 34 years of age,” the CDC has noted. “The pandemic lowered the average life expectancy in the United States by more than 12 years.”
COVID-19 has so far lowered life expectancy by only a year, largely because its death rate has focused on those over 34 years of age.
The country will set a record for total deaths this year at somewhere over 3 million in part because of COVID-19, but the number of deaths per year in the U.S. has been almost steadily climbing since the 2.15 million of 1990. This is in large part a reflection of a still growing but aging population.
These are simple population dynamics any ecologist learns early.
What really needs to be examined if one is to quantify the damage done by COVID-19 is “excess deaths,” which reflects the number of people dying before they were destined to die or preordained themselves to die thanks to bad life decisions. That’s not blaming them.
Bad decisions plague us all. It’s a human trait. As someone who has spent a lot of his life in the Alaska wilderness, I’ve known way too many people – pilots, skiers, snowmachiners, rafters, climbers, the list is long – who suffered premature deaths because they made bad decisions, and I’m not embarrassed to admit it is probably only luck that has kept me from joining them.
COVID-19 was implicated in a massive number of deaths in this country last year, but even if it was solely responsible for every one of those deaths, it still lagged behind cardiovascular disease and cancer – diseases we have for better or worse learned to accept as “normal” killers, according to the CDC.
Not to mention that death with COVID-19, as opposed to deaths from COVID-19, is all tangled up with heart disease, cancer and a host of this country’s other chronic diseases when one tries to sort out how deadly the latest pathogen to visit a pandemic upon humankind.
As of Feb. 17, the CDC was reporting 94 percent of those who died with COVID-19 were reported to have medical “conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19. On average, there were 3.8 additional conditions or causes per death.”
In simple language, the vast majority of the dead were already medically compromised, and 61 percent were 55 years of age or older – the Americans considered “old” before 50 became the new 40 and 60 the new 50.
Only 3,674 of the dead – 0.8 percent – were under the age of 35. Despite the mainstream media comparing COVID-19 deaths to the lives lost in World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam debacle, there is no comparison.
The COVID war is not the Vietnam War which left approximately 54,000 American servicemen dead before their 35th birthdays. At current death rates, COVID-19 wouldn’t reach Vietnam death numbers for young, productive Americans even if the pandemic went on as-is for a decade.
For those under 35 with COVID, the better comparisons are with unintentional injuries, which killed 39,000 of them in 2019, according to the CDC; drug overdoses, which killed about 23,000; and suicide, which claimed the lives of 14,527. The number of deaths there are, respectively, 11-, 6- and 4-fold greater than for COVID-19.
Still, COVID-19 is not a disease to be taken lightly. It is not the flu, let alone the common cold.
CDC data shows two huge, COVID-linked spikes in expected weekly deaths in the U.S. in 2020 – one starting at the end of March and running through May, and another starting roughly in November and running through January.
Deaths were also up in the summer when death rates historically creep downward, but the summer increase pales when compared to the other two peaks. There were enough deaths to reduce U.S. life expectancy from the 2019 estimate of 78.8 years to the 2020 estimate of 77.8, but only time will tell whether this changes the trend in the long term or is but a bump on the graph.
The life expectancy of American white women fell from 55.3 in 1917 to 43.20 in 1918, it was back up to 57.4 in 1919. White women are, on average, the longest living of Americans, but the changes in life expectancies for men and minorities followed the pattern of those of white women in 1918.
Black Americans, then as now, had lower life expectancies. The life expectancy for a black man fell to a startling 29.9 in 1918, just slightly below the century-long low of 29.1 in 1904. By 2019 that number had more than doubled to 72.3 years.
Many people don’t truly understand how well off the species – no matter gender or skin color – in this country in the new millennium. But still some die because life is a death sentence.
COVID-19 painted some new peaks on the annual mountain of deaths in the U.S., but it didn’t alter the mountain.
At the worst period in April, according to the CDC, there was a 41 percent jump in excess deaths. The number of people expected to die – 56,000 – increased by 23,000 to 79,000. By the end of January, according to the CDC, the difference in deaths between the expected and the actual was down under 5 percent.
How many might have been able to avoid infection if their personal risk management had been better will likely never be known, but personal actions can shift the risk level up or down.
“Increased distance and fewer close contacts are two key measures to reduce transmission in the coronavirus pandemic. Increasing the distance between people and reducing the number of contacts reduces the risk of being infected by people who were unaware they were infected,” warns the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
Norway has a SARS-CoV-2 infection rate among the lowest of Western countries. Its death rate of 11.2 per 100,000 is three and half times smaller than that of Alaska, which just happens to boast the third lowest death rate in the U.S.
Only Hawaii and Vermont are doing better. Hawaii kept its rate low much the same way Norway did; both put strict controls on who they let into their territory and how. And they did a good job of isolating those who became infected to prevent them from spreading the disease to others.
Norway’s risk protection measures were simple.
A Norwegian analysis concluded that distances of a meter or more “reduce the risk of infection by an estimated 80 percent. Face masks used in the population only reduce the risk by approximately 40 percent.”
“This means that the risk of infection can increase if we replace the recommendation for a distance of at least one meter with the use of face masks,” Vold said. “It also shows the importance of people continuing to keep at least one-meter distance to others than their closest contact, so that the virus does not spread.”
A University of Vermont study published in January warned that mandatory masking in the U.S. appears to be suffering as a prevention measure because of the failure of Americans to limit their contacts.
The key risk factor driving transmission was found to be the number of daily contacts with other adults and seniors, a university media release summarized; “those who wore masks had more of these daily contacts compared with those who didn’t, and a higher proportion contracted the virus as a result.”
It is now clear the risks of your contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be minimized by your behaviors, but many people are poor at risk assessment and management. Sometimes because they worry about the wrong risks.
The chances of being killed by a bear in good bear habitat have been estimated at 1 in 2.1 million. The lifetime odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are a well-documented 1 in 106, according to the National Safety Council.
Despite this, many Alaskans fear being attacked by a bear, and almost nobody fears driving. In fact, there is so little concern about what could happen while someone is behind the wheel that so-called “distracted driving” – ie., not paying attention to what you are doing – now kills eight people per day, according to the CDC.
Among most Americans, there is likewise so little concern about heart disease – despite the one in six odds of dying from it – that most people don’t even think about prevention until after being diagnosed with the disease. If they cared about prevention, the CDC estimates the number of deaths per year could be cut by at least 200,000.
Government officials and physicians have been trying to scare them into taking heart-disease prevention measures for decades, but it hasn’t worked. And now there are mixed-signal messages aimed at trying to scare them into taking better COVID-19 prevention measures.
Is it possible there are approaches that might work better?