I often think that television “news” is based on the premise that you can always find defeat in any victory. Much like the Weather Channel now names winter storms, the more fear you can whip up the better the ratings.
There is certainly enough trauma from COVID-19 without making it worse for people. The good news that we are not suffering quite as many deaths as anticipated is a wonderful thing. This appears to be related to variables in the pandemic in different locations, evolving treatment expertise for seriously ill individuals, as well as the remarkable public health response. This is a huge victory.
Instead, the media is full of individuals who are claiming that lower death numbers mean the pandemic is a hoax. I found examples from right- and left-wing sites, that vary in their specifics but fall into two hypotheses. The right argues that there never was a pandemic but the “illusion” was thrust on the American people to give the leftists in government more “control” over personal freedom and the economy. The left believes that there is a much more serious pandemic that will go on for “a long time,” but information is being suppressed by the right. They argue most patients who are dying from coronavirus are not being counted, but the deaths are being attributed to pneumonia, heart failure, or other causes.
The facts contradict both of these contentions. There is an ongoing pandemic due to a new coronavirus with over 65,000 deaths worldwide. The virus itself certainly appears genetically unique and is making its first “visit” to the human population. The impact of this infection in different countries differs significantly related to multiple different variables, including the quality of the local healthcare system, the age and well-being of the population, and the public health response to the infection. Most dying patients also have confounding conditions that make it difficult to determine the exact cause of death.
A good example occurs in the NYC area, which is the hardest hit in the United States. The severity of COVID-19 in NYC relates to many variables, including (but not limited to) population age and density, fewer ICU facilities per individual, and lifestyles that make social distancing very difficult. Some of the deaths in NYC are individuals with pre-existing medical problems who did not want to go to the hospital and, therefore, may not be diagnosed with COVID-19. While the combination of these factors is somewhat distinctive even among urban areas in the US, since most of the national news comes from NYC every night, it brings extreme stories of death and despair that appear “representative” of the entire country.
Also, not helping the discourse around COVID-19 are performances by some public health and medical “consultants” beamed 24 hours a day on multiple news outlets. Many of these individuals have no definable credentials and mouth hysterical commentary while Skyping from their basements. One doctor on CNN claimed that the President and Vice President are “going to die” from attending the daily briefing! While I can excuse a few of the theatrics as a means to get the attention of the populace, this noise is now adding to the credibility problems.
Social distancing was never a means to forever prevent people getting infected with COVID-19. It was merely a way to spread out the impact of this pandemic on the healthcare system. Eventually, almost everyone in the United States will be exposed to coronavirus one way or another. We will learn to live with this infection, just as we did with AIDS and influenza. This does not mean we don’t need drugs or better approaches to treat COVID-19.
James Freeman talks about restarting the economy in a thoughtful column in the WSJ today. Unfortunately, he leads with the concept that the number of COVID-19 deaths in the US will be the same as the number of annual influenza deaths. Yes, but they all came during just a few weeks! There was a reason to take aggressive action that should not be forgotten.
We cannot stay isolated forever. We must appropriately make moves towards normalizing activity; otherwise the population will distrust public health officials in the future. I’ve argued that now will be the most difficult time as rational economic concerns and cabin fever push for a return to normal. (They certainly are for me!) However we need data to understand what steps we can safely implement–how many have been exposed, does immunity actually prevent reinfection, can drugs we are testing effectively treat COVID-19 patients in the future.
We must start normalizing our activities in some progressive way. It would be nice to make knowledgeable choices rather than being swayed by ill-informed people arguing about it from their basements.