Deconstructing the news: how deadly is the corona virus?

The short answer: we don't know because we don't have the data

Special edition


First, here are two excellent data tracker that might answer all of your questions at a glance:

Now, how deadly is the disease? It depends on where you live. Here in the US, we don’t yet know because we don’t have a handle on our infection rates.

The most recent World Health Organization estimates about the deadliness of the coronavirus do not say there is a fatality rate, but simply that about 3.4% of KNOWN infections globally have resulted in death.

Why isn’t the WHO calling it a death rate?

To thoroughly answer that question requires some context.

We can’t say with any confidence what the risk of death is for all groups combined until we have adequate data. While we have enough data to say with confidence that the elderly with underlying health conditions are at the greatest risk, knowing how lethal the disease is requires one data point we are nowhere close to having: the number of people in this country that are infected.

To date, we in the US have tested about 10,000 people in total while South Korea with its population of 51 million, has tested more than 210,000. Here’s another way to look at that: South Korea tests about 20,000 people a day. While we are testing about 5 people per million, give or take a person.

But wait. Once we administer the test, it has to be processed. In Pennsylvania, for example, only about a dozen fully completed tests are possible to conduct daily. But that’s a guestimate. This administration is not currently providing updates on the number of tests that have been completed. Not all states are either.

It also would be more accurate if we followed all confirmed cases for a set period of time that covered the entire arc of the infection, but we don’t know what that is yet, so people might eventually be dying of the disease even though they were not tracked long enough for them to be counted as a covid-19 related death.

In any case, if we don’t know the number of people infected, we don’t know the actual death rate per infection. All we can say for sure right now is the number of people with confirmed cases of the virus who then die. As of today, nationally, that number is 36. Or, about 2.7% of known cases that have resulted in death.

A week ago, POTUS called into Fox News Host Sean Hannity’s show and claimed he believes the WHO’s current estimate that 3.4% of infections that have turned deadly is false. POTUS has previously stated he has a “hunch” that it’s less than 1%. Here’s the transcript of that call.

The scientific reality, not the hunchy one, is that there is indeed a chance the ratio of deaths to infections is less than 3.4%. It might actually be less than 1%. As we see above, the number of deaths here in this country using the data points currently available to us is over half a percent lower.

Put simply, limited testing skews death rates higher. The more testing, the lower the fatality rate.

Having a handle on the actual infection rate would result in lower numbers of deaths per infection. So, wouldn’t it make sense to test like crazy so we could reassure Americans that this is not as deadly as we might think?

Trigger Alert: Because after watching how this very real public health crisis is being made far worse than it had to be by this administration, and because I am not interested in being neutral about it, now I will opine.

Yes, it would. So, why haven’t we done that? I simply have not found a competent and reliable answer to that, and neither has anyone else I trust in my professional circles of public health workers and healthcare reporters, or elsewhere in the media. This is directly related to why the markets have become a raging Dumpster fire.

Investors know there is no one at the top with a clue about what is happening and whether we can manage it.

Investors also understand that having robust data from testing would also allow us to create a heat map of where the virus is spreading fastest so we can contain it and prevent more deaths from its spread. This would also prepare our healthcare systems—the urgent care centers, the hospitals—for the inevitable onslaught.

All we can do is wait and theorize.

Here are the unknowns that should not be unknown:

Why are there not enough tests available to public health departments?
Why are the public labs that process the tests overwhelmed?
When will enough tests be made public?
Why isn’t the CDC being more forthright with publishing their data?

When asked what the answers are to these questions, POTUS and his White House staffers have not been able to give a single plausible response. The president himself has lied when asked about the availability of testing, saying “anyone who wants a test can get one”. Vice President Mike Pence promised that by this weekend we’d have 1.5 million tests conducted. That has not happened.

The now beleaguered head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, Anthony “Tony” Fauci, MD, himself has been searching for answers. He has called it a “fail” that we are not doing much of any testing. He said recently on 60 Minutes he has not been muzzled by the White House, but I do think that there are some restraints being put on our top federal public health officials. Data is the CDC’s stock and trade and when I covered the Ebola (2014) and Zika (2015-2016) viruses for Frontline Medical News (now Medscape), the CDC pumped out data constantly and consistently. They were among the world’s leaders on investigating and containing the outbreaks.

So, why don’t we know how deadly COVID-19 is? My theory is that it is too frightening to this administration to see the inevitable happen: greater numbers of completed tests will mean greater numbers of infections. This statistic would make things look “bad.” (NB: They are bad!)

Although this would ironically mean that there would be the opportunity to ultimately save more lives, even if initially the numbers look scary, it’s not something this president is willing to gut out. This will absolutely result in unnecessary deaths because we aren’t able to adequately prepare by flattening the curve of infections.

That’s how deadly the coronavirus is when manged by incompetents.

More on this from the NYT.

Earlier today, I watched as yet another of the helicopters in the Marine One fleet headed from the White House, this time to the National Institutes of Health. I watched it fly back south, too, although I can’t say where it went ultimately, as I was busy shopping for the coming apocalypse.

It’s the second time in about a week I have witnessed one of the choppers in the presidential fleet visit the NIH. During a week when POTUS has come into contact with at least 8 people who have had to self-quarantine after exposure to the virus he once referred to as the latest Democratic attack on his presidency, I wonder if yet another stroke of incompetence by this administration is to avoid testing the man exposed to at least 8 infected people, or to test him and not tell us the results. But, so far, at least officially, testing and POTUS are not integers in the same calculus as the rest of us use.

I wish you health.