Some argue COVID19 is like the flu. Others scream in outrage that it isn’t at the slightest implication that it is. Both are right, yet dangerously wrong.
Those who say it’s nothing like the flu are right. In many ways the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is potentially much more dangerous, especially to certain segments of society. It is especially devastating to the health care system for two key reasons: it spreads quickly, and while the total numbers becoming seriously sick appear smaller than influenza it has a much higher complication rate for those who do get sick with it. If we don’t take action, the US we will run out of respiratory support equipment (and people trained to use it) quickly, and it’s going to get ugly. South Korea has four times the hospital beds per capita than Italy – 12.4/1000 vs 3.4/1000. Most areas of the US are under 3 per 1000. South Korea is farther along the progression than Italy, yet has a hospitalized/identified mortality rate of less than 1%. Italy is currently at 6.6%.
But those who say “worse than the flu!” are also wrong in a very dangerous way. In societal terms, the hospitalization and mortality rates are comparable to influenza. As of yesterday evening, those numbers in the outbreak areas in China and South Korea are still converging to the same range as influenza. In areas that are still in the “exponential” part of the curve, Italy, Iran, and now Seattle, the day to day increases are scary, but are progressing in about the same way. (As an aside, beware mathematicians who extrapolate the exponential expansion numbers: that is only one phase of the progression and doesn’t last forever …) This is manageable with some common sense: concern is justified, appropriate and measured action is justified, fear and over reaction is not. The societal and economic impacts of fear are significant, and our economy in particular has a number of fault lines (especially in the areas of liquidity) that this has the potential to cause a major recession or worse.
Those who say it is similar to influenza also have a point, in general terms. As noted above, the overall number of people who are getting sick, dying, etc. are about like bad influenza year. In total number terms, based on what we saw in China and are seeing in Italy, about 400 thousand Americans will need hospitalization, and sadly about 30,000 will die. But, again, the H3N2 influenza out break of 2017, against which the vaccine was only partially effective (and only 37% got anyway), hospitalized 810,000 and killed 61,000. But, saying “it’s just the flu” misses the point just as badly as saying “it’s a bazillion times worse than the flu!” for the reasons noted above: it’s moving faster, and a greater strain on the health care system that doesn’t handle the annual flu outbreaks well.
This is a fascinating exercise in how people deal with risk. It is also yet again a depressing example of a major societal threat we knew was coming, that experts warned about for many years, and recommended plans be made to deal with it. But the short-sighted leadership class (of all political stripes) utterly failed in their responsibilities to get ready for it, and are now failing to react appropriately. And it’s the average person who pays the price for that failure. Sigh.
Usual reminder that the CDC web site has consolidated information and links on the current situation, and as to what actions various at-risk groups should do, as well as what the general public can do to help stop the spread to those groups.