Coronavirus Fact and Fiction

Alan Zendell, March 8, 2020

If you read only one paragraph, it should be this one. The only place to find accurate information about the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/summary.html.

Amid all the information and misinformation in the media, there are only two important questions for the average person: how contagious is COVID-19 and how likely is it to kill me if I catch it? It goes without saying that those questions should be answered only by competent scientists and medical professionals, but we live in Trump’s America.

We know COVID-19 is highly contagious based from physical contact. We also know that infected persons can be asymptomatic for up to fourteen days. The Chinese government understood that almost immediately, which explains the draconian measures they enacted to attempt to contain it. But anyone with a rudimentary sense of statistics knew instantly that containment was a fantasy.

Can you list all the people you touched, kissed, hugged, or were intimate with in the last fourteen days? An infected person who traveled by plane, train, bus, or ship would have touched seats, tables, restroom surfaces, trays, doors, and perhaps any number of other passengers. What if you were relaxing in a spa next to an infected person on your luxury cruise? If that went on for fourteen days before it occurred to anyone that all those surfaces needed to be sterilized and the infected people quarantined, the transmission vectors would have multiplied geometrically. For the lay person, that means growing faster than anyone could track until it was far too late.

It’s clear now that unless you live in a bubble, you’re likely to come in contact with someone who has COVID-19. Which means there’s a fair chance you’ll catch it. What you really care about is how sick you might get and how likely you are to recover. No one knows, but based on reported data, the older you are and the more compromised your body is by other health problems, the more likely you are to become very sick and/or die. Ignore that at your peril.

Data reported by the Chinese government suggest that on average, COVID-19 kills about two percent (one in fifty) of the people it infects, but it’s worth repeating that the younger and healthier you are, the less likely you are to be in that two percent.

Let’s talk about that two percent estimate. It’s a very simple number to compute – just divide the number of reported deaths by the number of reported infected people. But the result has been problematic from the start for several reasons.

Since Beijing is notorious for misreporting unfavorable data, we don’t really know if what they reported was accurate. Early on, there were questions about whether China was cooking the data to make the fatality rate look low to avoid repercussions from other nations and the World Health Organization.

As of today, there have been 3,500 reported deaths among the 105,000 reported COVID-19 cases, worldwide. You can plug those results into your calculator. The result is a fatality rate of 3.33 percent, or one in thirty. That’s scary, but it’s probably not correct either.

It’s absolutely irresponsible for our president to tell people to disregard either number because he has a hunch that the fatality rate is really only a fraction of one percent. On the other hand, it’s easy to make a rational argument that he might be right. We can probably count the number of COVID-19 deaths accurately. But how accurate is our count of the number of people infected? If it turns out that the great majority of those people develop only minor symptoms and fully recover, there could be thousands, even millions of people who were infected who were neither reported nor tested. The more of those people that exist, the more we over-estimate the fatality rate.

The only way to know for sure is to test everyone. Since the CDC protocol requires at least three negative tests over a two-week period to confirm that someone is virus-free, that would require over one billion test kits just to evaluate Americans. As we’ve seen, our leaders can’t even tell us when a million test kits will be available. If you don’t remember your high school math, a billion is a thousand millions.

What Americans, what everyone in every country needs right now is effective leadership and transparent information from reliable sources. We have not gotten that. Both our president and vice president have to be contradicted and corrected every time they address the subject. Neither of them is qualified to speak unless he is reading a press release from CDC Director Robert Redfield or Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Let’s all be smart and stay safe.

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