Uncertainty about COVID-19 warrants our humility
COVID-19 is so new and information is changing so rapidly that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction and truth from partial truth. Like everyone else, I'm just trying to make sense of the evolving information.
Many of us have been monitoring the daily reports measuring the number of deaths relative to the number of cases. We've been treated to crash courses in lay epidemiology via daily press briefings and voluminous articles.
We understand that the administration and state governments have been trying to "flatten the curve" of the coronavirus by slowing its spread. The main purpose, as has now been clarified, is to reduce the velocity of the contagion so that our hospitals and necessary equipment are not overwhelmed, which would result in more deaths.
Though many didn't grasp this initially, flattening the curve doesn't greatly reduce the overall number of deaths, except for those saved by reducing the burden on hospitals and others saved by lifesaving therapeutic treatments and vaccines developed with the extra time flattening provides.
Many have suggested that the estimated death rates have been grossly overstated because the numerator (number of deaths) has been exaggerated and the denominator (number of people infected) has been understated.
They say the numerator was inflated because many deaths actually caused by the flu were attributed to COVID-19, and because every death of a person with the virus in their system was treated as a death caused by the virus even though some other accompanying illness may have been the proximate cause.
The denominator was likely understated because so many people had the disease before we were aware it was circulating here; many were asymptomatic and never got tested; and many who were symptomatic assumed they had the flu. Several recent studies have confirmed, through randomized antibody testing, that in certain locations, exponentially more people were infected than we'd assumed.
Stanford University researchers found that Santa Clara County in California had between 50 and 80 times more infections than officials were reporting. A separate antibody study showed that the number of coronavirus infections in Los Angeles County could be 28 to 55 times higher than the official count. A just-released study estimates that some 2.7 million New Yorkers may have been infected -- more than 10 times the state's confirmed cases to date.
Obviously, we'll know more when antibody testing is conducted throughout the country. But these tests strongly indicate that the virus is less lethal by orders of magnitude than previously known.
Many argue that this emerging data proves we overreacted by shutting down our economy and wreaking such financial devastation. If we knew in December what we think we know now, this may have been true. Until comprehensive testing is performed and the data analyzed, however, we won't be sure of the virus' lethality. I suspect it will be more than that of the flu. If so and it is in fact as contagious as we fear, we might think twice before making final judgments as to what should or shouldn't have been done.