JACKSON — Nobody argues about whether the sky is blue. We all know that it is so.
We do study, debate and argue about issues for which there is no clear answer. When to cease “shelter at home” is a very important issue for which there is no clear answer.
We want to prevent deaths, no doubt. But we are all also aware that our livelihood and longevity are closely correlated to our standard of living — a standard of living afforded by our huge, complex, intricately interconnected economy.
A perfect example is the severe reduction of normal medical operations and procedures canceled, postponed or delayed because of COVID-19. These are real people with real medical needs, but they aren’t getting attended to as they were before the shutdown.
I went to the grocery store the other day and was shocked to see how much was missing from the shelves. If we stay shut down much longer, shortages will emerge.
We have lost 22 million jobs in the United States, and the number could double. This will cause enormous stress that will ultimately increase mortality. We all need strong immune systems right now. That is our best defense. Yet everyone knows that high stress weakens the immune system and causes sickness.
The numbers are pretty mind-boggling. COVID-19 is projected to cost 62,000 lives. So far, Congress has spent $2 trillion propping up the economy because of COVID-19. That comes to $32 million per death. I’m not sure any nation can sustain that, especially when the average age of death is 80 years old. When the federal government requires airlines to add safety features on an airplane, they require that it cost no more than $2 million per life saved. The shutdown costs are exceeding that by a factor of 16.
We all make decisions about money and death. When we speed to get somewhere quicker, we unconsciously calculate the time saved (time is money) compared to the extra risk of a fatal wreck. When we get on our roofs to blow off the leaves, we are making a calculation as to the danger versus hiring a professional. Ladders kill.
Interestingly enough, when individuals make their own danger versus money personal decisions, they usually value their life less than the federal government does. We increase our risk of dying all the time to save money.
This may seem heartless. Life is precious. But a society cannot exist if it does not exercise some rational judgment on this fundamental issue. COVID-19 will test our society’s ability to act rationally in the wake of fear and panic.
We are in need of better data. Fortunately, this is progressing, allowing our society to act in a more rational manner.
One source of great confusion has been the case fatality rate (CFR) versus the infection fatality rate (IFR). These are two very different numbers.
An infection is when the flu virus gets into the body and the body produces antibodies to fight it off. Usually the infection is mild or even asymptomatic. No medical attention is required.
A case is when someone gets sick enough to be hospitalized or diagnosed affirmatively by a physician in a medical environment.
One source of COVID-19 fear has been mistaking the CFR for the IFR. Let’s take the flu, for instance. The CFR for the flu is about 3%, three out of 100, about the same as COVID-19. But the flu’s IFR is one-tenth of 1% (one out of 1,000).
In other words, if you get sick enough to see a doctor or be hospitalized, the flu will be fatal for three out of 100 of those people, the same as COVID-19. But if you just catch the flu, it is only fatal for one out of 1,000 infected.
We have studied the flu enough to know the difference between the CFR and the IFR of the flu. But because COVID-19 is less studied, we have less understanding of its characteristics. We know its CFR is 3%, similar to the flu’s CFR, but we don’t know COVID-19’s IFR.
In the last few weeks, research is giving us insight into the IFR of COVID-19. It is looking very much like the IFR of the flu. That’s because for every COVID-19 infection that leads to illness, there are many, many more infections that are asymptomatic or mild.
In the last week, four separate studies are showing that far more people have the antibodies to COVID-19 than we ever imagined. One study argues that a majority of the U.S. population has already contracted the disease and herd immunity is causing a decline in both cases and fatalities.
Indeed, all over the world the stats are creating the same declining bell curve that has been the hallmark of epidemics since we began studying them statistically 200 years ago. It’s called Farr’s law. Look it up.
Even Sweden, which is the lone European country that did not lock down, is producing the same bell curve as its lockdown neighbors.
A new virus is scary. But the data is beginning to suggest that society has overreacted, at great cost. This is why ending the lockdowns and getting back to work is now a hot topic all over the news.