The Morning Jolt

Health Care

Yes, Coronavirus Is Worse Than the Flu

South Korean soldiers in protective gears sanitize shacks at Guryong village in Seoul, South Korea, March 3, 2020. (Heo Ran/Reuters)

On the menu today: how the coronavirus is both more deadly and more contagious than the seasonal flu, wondering about the track record of “old warhorse” presidential candidates, and Mike Bloomberg breaks some more promises.

Why We Fear the Coronavirus More Than the Seasonal Flu

“There have only been [insert current number here] coronavirus cases, way fewer cases and deaths than the flu!”

As mentioned a few days ago, the term “going viral” means something that “spreads rapidly through a population by being frequently shared with a number of individuals.” This means numbers don’t grow steadily and gradually. They grow quickly and exponentially.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the coronavirus primarily spreads when someone coughs or sneezes and the droplets get on someone else. The secondary way of spreading is by touching contaminated surfaces or objects.

There is some research from Chinese epidemiologists indicating that the virus may spread much easier than originally thought:

The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 can linger in the air for at least 30 minutes and travel up to 4.5 metres – further than the “safe distance” advised by health authorities around the world, according to a study by a team of Chinese government epidemiologists.

The researchers also found that it can last for days on a surface where respiratory droplets land, raising the risk of transmission if unsuspecting people touch it and then rub their face.

The length of time it lasts on the surface depends on factors such as temperature and the type of surface, for example at around 37C (98F), it can survive for two to three days on glass, fabric, metal, plastic or paper.

This research is fascinating and ominous. On January 22, an infected passenger boarded a fully booked long-distance coach and settled down on the second row from the back. He stayed on the bus for four hours and the windows remained closed. Reviewing security camera footage, the researchers found the passenger did not interact with anyone else. The person next to him was not infected, but he did infect two people behind him, one person three rows ahead of him, four people who were six to seven rows ahead of him, and one person who got on the bus after the initial passenger disembarked.

Scientists are still getting a handle on how contagious the coronavirus is, but the current estimate of the R0 (reproduction number) is between 2 and 2.5 — meaning that the average infected person spreads it to two or two-and-a-half people. For the seasonal flu, the R0 is about 1.3 people.

Coronavirus cases in the United States and broader world are not going to stay level; they may eventually level off, but we are probably a ways away from anything resembling “herd immunity” — that is, when a significant enough portion of a population is immune to a disease, making it more difficult for a disease to spread. In the absence of dramatic steps to reduce people’s interaction with each other, the number of cases will continue to increase.

Scientists are still calculating the death rate from the coronavirus, and the death rate is probably going to continue to vary from country to country depending upon the country’s quality of medical care and preparedness. But it is already clear that the coronavirus is much more deadly than the usual seasonal flu.

The CDC’s current estimate of the death rate for the flu in the 2018–2019 flu season is 35.5 million cases, and about 34,000 deaths. That is a death rate just shy of 0.1 percent, or one out of every 1,044 people.

Many doctors and public-health officials strongly suspect that there are a lot of Americans walking around who have already caught the coronavirus and are asymptomatic — and they either will not show symptoms, or they will suffer such mild symptoms that they won’t even realize they have it. As of this writing, the United States has 729 cases and 26 deaths. That comes out to a 3.5 percent death rate. That’s 35 out of 1,000 people.

Because there are people walking around who have it and who aren’t tested, it is possible that when all is said and done, the U.S. death rate will be significantly lower. But any way you slice it, the death rate for the coronavirus is significantly higher than the death rate for the seasonal flu. And with both coronavirus and seasonal flu, those most at risk are the elderly and the immunocompromised.

There is an odd tone to some of the commentary around the virus. Ann Coulter declares, “Average age of the coronavirus dead in Italy (the country they’re using to scare Americans since it’s European): 81.

What the hell is this, Logan’s Run? I guess your perspective on the coronavirus being particularly dangerous to octogenarians depends upon how many people you know who are in their eighties or approaching it. We’ve got about 13 million Americans over age 80. About 1.5 million Floridians are in their eighties. Sure, a death toll among the elderly, who have hopefully lived full lives, is somewhat less tragic than a virus that cuts people down in their prime or children. But that doesn’t make it any less sad or worth attempting to prevent or mitigate. A virus that has even a 2 percent death toll among elderly Americans is going to mean a lot of funerals.

But wait, there’s another factor to take into account. It is surprisingly difficult to get a reliable and recent figure for the number of Americans who are immunodeficient, immunocompromised, or otherwise have immune systems that wouldn’t be able to fight off the coronavirus. A 2008 estimate puts it at ten million Americans — and that’s only counting those with HIV/AIDS (diagnosed and undiagnosed), organ transplant recipients, and cancer patients.

Secondly, the elderly and immunocompromised who are infected but survive are going to use up a lot of beds and time in intensive care units, and that will have far-reaching effects for those who are well under age 80. As Christopher Mims puts it, “If we don’t collectively slow the rate of spread of this virus, what he called suppression, it endangers everyone else because of the capacity crunch: People who need surgery. People who have accidents. Cancer patients. Everyone who would normally use our healthcare system.” Every resource put towards controlling coronavirus is a resource that can’t be used towards other health problems.

Some good news is that South Korean health officials have found that so far, “only about 10 percent of coronavirus patients required hospitalization, while the rest had strong enough immune systems to fight the virus on their own.

When people ask, “Why isn’t there this kind of panic over the seasonal flu?” the answer is, “Because the coronavirus is both more deadly and more contagious than the seasonal flu.” As noted above, the death rate for the seasonal flu is one in a thousand; the current coronavirus figure is roughly 35 in a thousand. Even if that’s elevated because we’re not testing enough, if the figure is cut in half, you’re at 17 in a thousand — or nearly one out of every fifty.

For what it’s worth, the death rate in Italy is currently at 5 percent — one in 20!

Italy is more or less in lockdown. Japan is preparing steps to instruct residents to remain indoors. Major countries do not shut down their populations because of media hype or a desire to make the American president look bad.

This is why we have to “flatten the curve.” We — ordinary citizens — have to take those basic steps of washing hands frequently and avoiding big gatherings, to reduce the rate of increase in cases, delay the peak of cases, and ensure that the hospital systems don’t get overwhelmed.

The number of people who are currently insisting that preparedness is panic is amazing. None of us want a public-health disaster, but part of being responsible is being ready for the worst-case scenarios and taking action to ensure the worst-case scenarios don’t come to pass. We have a lot of mayors of Amity and Chip Dillers among us.

If You Need to Beat an Incumbent, Is an ‘Old War Horse’ Candidate the Best Choice?

An astute observation from Dan McLaughlin: “Parties looking to unseat an incumbent have settled before on Biden-style “old warhorse” candidates, and lost. John Kerry in 2004, Bob Dole in 1996, and Walter Mondale in 1984 are the classic examples of this type of campaign. Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and Tom Dewey in 1948 were rerun candidates who lost to an incumbent, as was Bryan in 1900. John McCain in 2008 and Hubert Humphrey in 1968 were both old warhorses who failed to hold the White House a third time for their parties. The most encouraging parallels for Biden in modern elections would be the two former vice presidents to win the big job: George H. W. Bush in 1988 and Richard Nixon in 1968. The 1988 election, however, was a choice for continuity.”

Yesterday I noticed that Biden campaign sources were mentioning both Senator Elizabeth Warren and Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, as a potential Treasury Secretary. Those two don’t agree on much in economic policy. The fact that Biden could conceivably pick either suggests his economic policies are currently something of a blank slate, to be decided, or at least forged in greater detail, later.

The nomination of Biden represents the Democrats preferring to not have to choose a particular ideological or policy path.

Bloomberg: Hey, Never Mind about Those Guarantees I Made

Mike Bloomberg may never be president, but he can break promises like one: “Mike Bloomberg’s shuttered presidential campaign is dismissing staffers across the country and inviting them to reapply for jobs on his new independent committee — despite extending guarantees of being paid through the November election when they were hired. The consolation prize: They get to keep their Bloomberg-issued iPhones and MacBooks.”

This is not surprising — Bloomberg just wasn’t going to need all of these people for his post-campaign “Elect the Democrat” effort. Judging from their own stories about their work ethic, he was wasting his money on them anyway.

ADDENDUM: Yesterday I chatted about coronavirus, the giant stock market drop, and the state of the presidential race with Brady Leonard.


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