I have a number of Conservative friends are who are making fun of the whole COVID-19/Coronavirus response. I’m sure you’ve got friends like that. The ones who insist that the name-your-flu-pandemic was worse. The ones who insist that events shouldn’t be cancelled; the high-risk population should just avoid going to them. The ones who believe this is just a conspiracy theory.
These folks are wrong. I’m taking a break from working at home to share why.
The charts in this post from Vox give a great summary of why the response you are seeing is warranted. In short:
- The virus is spreading rapidly. There are charts that explain this in the Vox post, but the updated SciVs podcast on the subject gives more detail, and it was an update of their first episode on the subject. Basically, there are standard equations that those who deal with epidemics use to predict the spread of an epidemic. These are governed by the R0 value of the disease. R0 a mathematical term that indicates how contagious an infectious disease is. It’s also referred to as the reproduction number. R0 tells you the average number of people who will catch a disease from one contagious person. It specifically applies to a population of people who were previously free of infection and haven’t been vaccinated. If a disease has an R0 of 18, a person who has the disease will transmit it to an average of 18 other people, as long as no one has been vaccinated against it or is already immune to it in their community. The estimates of the R0 value for the Novel Coronavirus was 2.2: If one person gets it, they will infect on average 2.2 other people. Working from that number, 20 to 70% of the population of the world will be infected. That doesn’t mean they will get sick: people can have a mild or no response to this. But they can go around infecting others. Even if we’re a bit off on that number, we’re looking at 20-60%. The risk is manyfold: not just person to person contact. We now know the virus can remain in the air for 3 hours, and on some surfaces for 3 days. So being out and about where an infected person has been can be very risky — and even if you don’t get sick, you can bring it back with you.
- This disease is deadly for certain populations. If you are young and healthy, you’re just going to get something mild and spread it. If you are older, have underlying health problems: this could kill you or land you in an ICU. So how does this compare with the Flu? According to Vox:The Spanish flu of 1918-’19, the most horrific pandemic in modern times, focused mainly on the young. It had biological similarities to a flu pandemic in the 1830s that gave some older people in the 1910s limited immunity. Covid-19 is not like that. So far, deaths in China have been concentrated among older adults, who have weaker immune systems on average than younger people and have a higher rate of chronic illness. People of all ages with chronic medical conditions are also at higher risk. The risk of death is real for younger people as well, but older people have the most reason to take care. Vox also notes: “It is tempting to compare Covid-19 to a more familiar disease: the seasonal flu. After all, the flu also has mild symptoms for most people, and can be dangerous and lethal among vulnerable populations like the elderly. But as the case fatality data shows, there’s no real comparison. About 6 percent of people 60 or older infected with Covid-19 die, according to data we have so far; that’s over six times the fatality rate for elderly people infected with the flu. The overall case fatality rate is at least 23 times greater (the fatality rate has risen since this chart was made). The LA Times also has a good article explaining why this is a greater risk than the seasonal flu. A later Vox article notes the real risk for the elderly: “In Italy, a country with one of the world’s oldest populations, a March 4 analysis by the national health institute found that of the 105 patients who died from the virus, the average age was 81. This put a 20-year gap between the average age of people who tested positive for the virus and the deceased, the institute said. On Friday, an ICU physician in Lombardy — the epicenter of Italy’s outbreak — told JAMA there have been only two deaths of people under the age of 50.”
- Our hospitals could be overwhelmed. When COVID-19 is lethal, it is often due to secondary lung infections that require ventilation in a hospital. If the hospitals are full, that treatment isn’t possible. So our goal must be to keep the hospitals below full. How do you do that? Delay the infection rate, and #FlattenTheCurve. If you can reduce the rate at which people get the disease, we can respond and it will be less deadly. Thus, the orders for social distancing and the cancellation of all the events.
- But couldn’t those vulnerable just not go to those events?. Sure. But that’s not the real risk. Remember that R0 number. Remember also that people can have this disease, be contagious, but have mild or no symptoms. So those not vulnerable go to the event and either spread the disease and/or get infected and bring it back home. We want to curb the spread rate. This disease is more contagious that the normal flu, which has an R0 of 1.3. The “Stomach Flu” (Norovirus) is 1.3 to 3.1; measles is 11-18; ebola is 2, zika is 3-6.6. This is 2.2-3.1. That’s bad. Remember also this is a new disease: there are no vaccines, there is no immunity from it.
- But Only A Small Number Have This. Actually, we have no idea how many people have this. You only know if someone has it if you test for it, and our testing has been woefully lacking. When China started testing everyone, their numbers jumped. So it is quite likely that a lot more have this than we know. That’s why President Trump’s delayed response was so bad: he delayed getting the testing done, which would have allowed us to contain the first few cases before they spread into the general population. It’s too late for that now.
- How Do We Fight This? The answers for most folks is easy: social distancing, to stay away from others who might have the disease and #FlattenTheCurve. Washing your hands and using hand sanitizer. If you look at the science of the Coronavirus, it is surrounded by an oily protective layer. Soap destroys this layer and destroys the virus. I’m going so far as to wash not only my hands, but my face as well to get rid of anything that got there through accidental touching. The right hand sanitizers do something similar.
- We Can’t Do It Alone As this Atlantic article notes: “Right now, one of the most important things Americans can do is deploy measures like social distancing and self-quarantining, even if they do not feel sick and are not at risk of the worst effects of the disease, in order to “flatten the curve” (epidemiologists’ term for slowing down the natural progression of an outbreak). This requires a radical shift in Americans’ thinking from an individual-first to a communitarian ethos—and it is not a shift that is coming easily to most, especially in the absence of clear federal guidelines.” It goes on to note: “If you are privileged enough to skip an event or work from home, you may save a life—even though the life you save may not be your own. It might be the life of your cousin with cancer, or your colleague’s brother, who has diabetes.”
In closing, I’d like to leave you with this, which is in tribute to Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby, which had its run shortened due to social distancing: