The Corner

Health Care

COVID-19: Scary Enough without the Scaremongering

A woman in a face mask walks in Manhattan after further cases of coronavirus were confirmed in New York, March 5, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Like the reporters and pundits who seek out the most bloodcurdling predictions regarding coronavirus, I have no expertise on infectious diseases. But I’m far more skeptical about what certain experts say — not the scientists and doctors making amazing and tangible strides in combating the disease, but the model-making policymaking experts who often dominate news stories.

Former CDC director Tom Frieden, reports the Washington Post, says the U.S. death toll for coronavirus could range anywhere from 327 (best-case scenario) to 1.6 million (worst case). As I noted, I’m not an epidemiologist. That sounds like an extraordinarily wide-ranging set of predictions which are probably contingent on thousands of factors, many of which are beyond our control. Any one of you could comfortably predict a death toll somewhere between 327–1.7 million. These numbers need context.

Because partisans such as Andy Slavitt, an Obama-era bureaucrat, are out there telling followers and reporters that “experts expect over 1 million deaths in the U.S. since the virus was not contained & we cannot even test for it.”

First of all, the virus couldn’t be “contained” because we don’t live in a tyranny where we can send in the army and force citizens to shut down society. We live a sprawling and massive country. Yet there are some — Sen. Chris Murphy and news analysts at the New York Times, for instance — who lament the fact that Donald Trump hasn’t taken dictatorial federal powers to stop coronavirus. That’s not how it works, and the president is reportedly invoking emergency powers now.

As for the million expected deaths, the New York Times reported that one of CDC’s modeled scenarios found that between 200,000-1.7 million might die during the epidemic, with 2.4 million to 21 million people requiring hospitalization. A million deaths falls into the worst-case scenario category — not the “expected” number.

To put it in some perspective, China has reported around 80,000 cases of coronavirus in a country of 1.3 billion, and the number of new cases has been dropping and the death rate plunging over the past week. Of course China can’t be trusted with numbers, and the United States can’t take authoritarian measures to contain millions of human beings as China did. But, as I write this, there have been 5,056 reported deaths in the entire world. That number is sure to spike, but as the virus moves we learn more about how to mitigate its effects. We produce vaccines. We manufacture more — and more accurate and faster — tests. The FDA just approved a new coronavirus test that is ten times faster than the one used right now. We self-quarantine: South Korea now sees more recoveries than new cases.

During a congressional hearing this week Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — and probably the most helpfully even-keeled government official during coronavirus outbreak — noted that that media tends to report on the higher end of ranges predicted by models. “Remember the model during the Ebola outbreak said you could have as many as a million,” he noted. “We didn’t have a million.” Two Americans died of Ebola.

That doesn’t mean that COVID-19 can’t be a catastrophe. Maybe a million Americans will die. What happens, though, if coronavirus pandemic comes in at the lower ends of the death-toll predictions? Many people won’t view it as a success of preparedness but rather a media-generated partisan panic. Americans may be less inclined to listen to the warnings next time.

Dismissing concerns about the virus is stupid and dangerous. But so is spreading panic that induces people to unnecessarily use resources needed for the sick. People are already out there buying metric tons of toilet paper. What’s going to happen at the height of the epidemic? Around 80 percent of those who contract coronavirus don’t even need to be hospitalized, and the vast majority aren’t in mortal danger. Repeating the worst-case scenario of over a million dead as an “expected” result creates the impression that death is imminent.


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