Nothing, really nothing, currently dominates the media and holds the public hostage as the coronavirus does. So why, do you ask, am I writing yet another post on this topic? — I do this because there is so much misinformation out there that it has become difficult to wade through all this information junk to find the pieces that really matter.
The public is divided among those who sleep with their masks, dread to leave their houses, and see a new plague descending upon us. And then there is the second camp who just sneers at those meek cowards and sees the coronavirus in the same category as a bad Halloween scare.
Let’s look at this blow-by-blow.
Is COVID-19 nothing more to worry about than a simple flu?
Yes and no. Its mortality is in the same ballpark as a flu: less than 1% calculated across the entire population. This says nothing about your personal likelihood to die from COVID-19 if you get it. It may be significantly higher if you are older than 70 or suffer from a chronic disease. On the other hand, if you’re young and healthy you will very likely only suffer from mild symptoms.
There are large differences in reported mortality on the net – ranging from 0.1% to 5% and more. These differ because of vastly different approaches in who is tested. If you test only people that are already seeking out medical aid you get a significantly higher rate than if you also include people who suffer from mild or no symptoms and who mostly go unnoticed. But, overall, COVID-19 is about as lethal to the general public as the flu.
But mortality isn’t everything. And in the case of COVID-19 it isn’t why experts and officials are worried.
There’s a flu wave every year, why do we not worry about that?
Each year, almost like clockwork, a flu wave sweeps over most countries and gets hardly any attention. People also die from it, yet schools stay open and public life continues unfazed. Why is everybody so worked up about COVID-19?
The seasonal flu is directly responsible for 200,000 deaths worldwide. But once in a while there will be a new flu virus which our immune system has not had a chance to adapt to. These new viruses will cause a flu pandemic (global epidemic), affecting significantly more people than the seasonal flu. The flu pandemic of 1968 had a mortality below 0.5%, yet it killed more than 500,000 people worldwide because it was a new mutation of the old flu virus. Nobody had developed any immunity to it yet.
We don’t worry about the seasonal flu because many people have acquired some kind of immunity to it and either won’t get infected at all or only develop relatively mild symptoms. But a flu pandemic affects a lot more people. It kills a lot more, too, not because it is inherently deadlier but because a lot more people get sick.
What we should worry about with COVID-19.
COVID-19 is a new virus. We can expect it to spread similar to a new flu virus. The fear is that it will become a pandemic and infect a huge number of people. It could easily reach 25% of the population, some even say 60% is entirely in the cards. Assuming that 5% of infected people – and let’s stay with the optimistic estimate of only 25% infection rate – need to see a hospital, that would result in 4 million people hospitalized in the US alone.
There are about a million hospital beds in the U.S. Let’s say 500,000 are unoccupied and available for COVID-19 patients. That would give 8 patients to a single available bed in the most optimistic case.
There are 160,000 ventilators available in the U.S. and 45,000 intensive care beds. Woefully inadequate for the wave of sick people with such a pandemic might cause within a very short timeframe. This is simply a load which brings every health care system to its knees in short order.
Taking into account that also medical staff would get sick, the situation will be even worse. People that need urgent medical care would have no access to it and die. The situation would get out of hand pretty quickly.
Why should we take public and personal measures against COVID-19 seriously?
Those measures – like preventing public gatherings, closing schools, imposing quarantine, washing hands, etc. – have the sole reason to prevent the disease from spreading. They aim to delay the peak of infected people and flatten it. This will go a long way toward reducing the sudden and enormous inflow of new patients and help ensure that medical care will be available for all that need it.
The image below says it all.