Happy Cinco de Mayo. When this thing is all over, we need to have a two-week festival of all the holidays we’ve been forced to celebrate under limited circumstances. On the menu today: some blunt talk about death projections, why even fatality rates that seem really low will still add up to many deaths before herd immunity is reached, and why the American media shouldn’t trust Russian boasts on the coronavirus or any other topic.
The Death Projections Are Not Promising
The big story this morning is a study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, used in a draft government report, that projects the United States will have 200,000 cases of coronavirus infection per day by June 1, “a staggering jump that would be accompanied by more than 3,000 deaths each day.” The White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention insisted it was a draft report and not officially endorsed, even though the report has the CDC logo on it.
Those 200,000-cases-per-day and 3,000 deaths-per-day sound like a lot more than where we are now, but it isn’t that far away. Our daily deaths have gone past 2,400 several times in the past few weeks. A common cry at the beginning of this outbreak, from those who deemed the threat overstated, was that the flu killed 80,000 Americans per year. (It turns out that number is a debatable estimate as well. The CDC takes the reported rate of hospitalization, extrapolates that out to the entire U.S. population, and calculates the total deaths and non-hospitalization cases from that sum.)
As of this writing, we’re almost at 70,000 deaths; it will probably surpass that threshold by the time you read this. We’re going to hit 80,000 deaths sometime in the next few days if we’re unlucky and next week if we’re lucky. If you don’t like a particular model or doubt its assumptions, fine. It shouldn’t really alter the broad conclusion: This is a really bad public-health crisis, and even if we’re past the worst, we’re a long way from out of the woods.
On Face the Nation this past weekend, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb warned Americans to expect numbers along these lines:
SCOTT GOTTLIEB: I think when you look out to the end of June, it’s probably the case that we’re going to get above a hundred thousand deaths nationally. I think the concerning thing here is that we’re looking at the prospect that this may be a persistent spread, that while the doubling time has come down dramatically to about twenty-five days. So, the amount of days it takes for the epidemic to double in size is about twenty-five now, from day– days or less than a week at the outset of this epidemic. We may be facing the prospect that twenty thousand, thirty thousand new cases a day diagnosed becomes a new normal and a thousand or more deaths becomes a new normal as well. Right now, we’re seeing, for about thirty days now, about thirty thousand cases a day and two thousand deaths a day. And if you factor in that we’re probably diagnosing only one in ten infections —
MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-Hm.
SCOTT GOTTLIEB: — those thirty thousand cases are really three hundred thousand cases.
It’s worth noting that our number of cases has steadily increased, even with almost all of the country in various states of quarantine and lockdown over the past seven, now going on eight weeks. Gottleib noted, “while mitigation didn’t fail, I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t work as well as we expected. We expected that we would start seeing more significant declines in new cases and deaths around the nation at this point. And we’re just not seeing that.”
This doesn’t mean social distancing and all of our other measures are useless. But it appears that between America’s essential workers, people going to the supermarket and picking up take-out food, going to the pharmacy or needed medical treatments, and other necessary violations of the social distancing ideal — and yes, some unnecessary ones — SARS-CoV-2 is still spreading around at a frustratingly persistent rate.
With parts of the country gradually and partially reopening, we should expect the virus to spread at least a little further and a little faster. As the numbers get worse in the coming weeks, you’re going to hear a lot of people who oppose reopening insisting that various states are being reckless and those who are demanding an end to the full lockdown are being selfish. As I’ve tried to emphasize over the past few weeks, most Americans wanted to help protect others from the virus, and they’ve been willing to pay a terrible price, mostly economically, to do so. They also delayed their own medical treatment for non-life-threatening conditions, put off vaccinating their kids, and stayed out of hospitals so much that some are furloughing staff. They’ve accepted a catastrophic hit to their jobs and businesses and life savings. They’ve accepted a de facto suspension of their children’s education, or at least accepted a barely acceptable substitute. Our food supply chains are starting to buckle under the strain.
Medically, the best possible response to the virus might be to keep Americans in their houses and apartments for months upon months. But that’s just not physically, economically, socially, or psychologically possible.
I frequently hear people insisting that the most-frequently cited death rate figures for the virus are useless, because we don’t know how many people have the virus and are asymptomatic. (We’re probably undercounting the deaths, too; our overall mortality figures are jumping outside the normal range.)
Here’s a simple but dark way of looking at it: We have 250 million adults in the United States. Some medical experts think we can achieve herd immunity with as little as 60 percent having the virus, some think it’s more like 82 percent. If we only need 60 percent of Americans to catch it to achieve herd immunity, we’re talking about 150 million American adults. One-tenth of one percent of that sum is 150,000 people. For every tenth of a percentage point in the fatality rate, count 150,000 dead Americans.
The University of Bonn researchers studied the outbreak in the region of Heinsberg and calculated the fatality rate of 0.37 percent.
A .37 percent fatality rate, applied over 150 million Americans, calculates out to 555,000 fatalities.
Hey, Remember When Russia Was Supposed to Be a Coronavirus Success Story?
We can gripe about how the U.S. government has responded to this virus, but not many countries have handled this particularly well. The European countries have had way more deaths per capita. Back on March 21, CNN reported, with way too much credulity, “does Russia have coronavirus under control? According to information released by Russian officials, Putin’s strategy seems to have worked.”
By early April, it became clear that the Russian government, with its far-reaching surveillance, top-of-the-line propaganda, and extensive authoritarian powers . . . was in about as much trouble as our free societies. “We have a lot of problems, and we don’t have much to brag about, nor reason to, and we certainly can’t relax,” Putin told senior officials April 13 in a televised video conference. “We are not past the peak of the epidemic, not even in Moscow.” Today, “Russia now has the world’s second-fastest rate of new infections behind the United States. It is the seventh most-affected country in terms of infections, having surpassed China, Turkey and Iran last week.”
ADDENDUM: If you’ve been enjoying ESPN’s The Last Dance, chronicling the life of Michael Jordan and the rise and reign of the Chicago Bulls, you’re probably wondering, “who could ever defend the late Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ general manager for the Jordan era and the designated villain of this epic sports story?
The answer is Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski, who points out that Krause did make a lot of good decisions in the draft and free agency, and who makes an all-too-convenient villain in ESPN’s storyline. As entertaining as The Last Dance is, a lot of it amounts to the greatest basketball player of all time, the charming guy who had commercials of children singing how they wanted to be like Mike, taking on a guy who looks like the Penguin from Batman comics and who always seems to be scowling. Sielski astutely observes, “Aside from a token compliment here or there from Kerr or Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, no one is standing up for Krause in the documentary: no family member, no colleague, no one. There is something cheap, unseemly, and quite telling about the inclination to continue bullying a man who isn’t around to defend himself.”