Virologist and MSNBC contributor Dr. Joseph Fair told a TV panel earlier today that if COVID-19 goes widespread in the United States, “we know 80 percent of the population is going to survive.”
Well, that’s nice.
Currently, COVID-19 has a mortality rate of 3.4%, so where is Fair getting a number three to six times higher? Fair reminded viewers of the “typically 15 to 20 percent rate of mortality for those individuals that are both elderly or have underlying conditions.”
There are about 53 million Americans aged 65 or older. A 10% mortality rate would kill over five million of them. 20% would mean ten million dead or more. It’s harder to get a grasp on how many more Americans suffer underlying conditions like poor respiratory health, weakened heart conditions, or compromised immune systems. If it’s half again as many people (trying to account for crossover between age and health risk groups), that could be another 2.5 to five million deaths. That would 7.5 to 15 million deceased Americans.
That would be akin to wiping out every living person in Washington State, plus maybe Georgia for dessert.
Before you go on yet another masks-and-toilet-paper run to Costco, take a deep breath. But not until after you’ve washed your hands for 20 seconds, and don’t touch your face.
The 3.4% mortality rate is a bit misleading, and in no population anywhere have we seen a 20% mortality rate. ABC News reported early this morning that “it’s possible that COVID-19 isn’t as fatal as most people think.” Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency medicine doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston told ABC, “Kids and adults have done extremely well in terms of recovery so far.” He’s also quoted saying, “There’s actually a lot of reason to be reassured that the numbers are a lot lower” than the official 3.4% figure.
So what’s the actual mortality rate? It depends almost entirely on how old the victim is, and how sick they might have already been before contracting COVID-19.
The mortality rate for those under the age of ten is mercifully, and at least for now, exactly 0.0%.
Also note that these figures come from mainland China, where pollution-related respiratory issues are much more common than they are here in the West. Even so, mortality among China’s very oldest, the 80-and-up cohort, doesn’t quite reach 15%, and it declines very rapidly to 3.6% in the 60-69 age range.
If you’re in otherwise good health and under the age of 80, your chances of dying of COVID-19 are quite small — and you still have to catch the damn thing first.
I put together a chart of my own to show you just how dangerously misleading Dr. Fair’s panic mongering is:
Even if we assumed that literally everyone in the country were to get infected by COVID-19, the total deaths in this country would be about 4.24 million. That figure is dwarfed by Fair’s implied estimate of up to 7.5-15 million deaths.
But a 100% infection rate is crazy. It just doesn’t happen.
The highest infection rate we’ve seen so far was aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess. Cruise ships are lovely places for infectious disease to run wild, what with thousands of passengers crammed together in tight living and entertainment spaces. Even better for our plucky little virus, cruise ship passengers tend to be older people more susceptible to infectious disease. Even then, the infection rate aboard the Diamond Princess was 6%.
But life in these continental United States isn’t exactly the same as it is onboard a cruise ship. So let’s look at the infection rate here in this country during the flu season.
The CDC estimates that between 33 and 49 million Americans got the flu from October 1 of last year through February 29 of this year. This has been one of “the worst flu seasons in decades,” which might make 2019-2020 an unnecessarily alarming place to take our figures.
Let’s plan for the worst and hope for the best. So if we take the top-end number of 49 million flu cases from a particularly bad year, that’s an infection rate of about 15%. We got to that 15% by taking no more precautions than we usually do, which is to say: Probably not nearly enough. COVID-19 is so serious that it even has people like me, who prefer not to see the doctor for anything less serious than a compound fracture, acting as though the risk is real.
Experts will tell you that the best way to avoid catching something nasty is to behave as though you very well might catch something nasty, which is exactly what Americans have been doing in recent weeks.
But even if we assume that COVID-19 brings about zero changes in behavior — even though it has already brought about real change — that 15% infection rate would give us about 636,000 dead. A crowded cruise-ship-level 6% infection rate would kill about a quarter-million Americans.
Given how quickly Americans began our own prophylactic measures, and how quickly the government/private response is gearing up, a 3% infection rate might be too high. Or fewer than 125,000 deaths.
The actual number of deaths in America so far: 22.
Hundreds of thousands or even “merely” tens of thousands of COVID-19-related deaths in this country would be nothing to sneeze at, if you’ll forgive the dark pun. But it’s still a whisper of a shadow of a fraction of the number of deaths pitched by MSNBC’s Dr. Joseph Fair this morning.
On the other hand, MSNBC is the same network that insisted last week that Michael Bloomberg could have given every American ONE MILLION DOLLARS if he’d written us each a check instead of blowing half a billion on his failed presidential bid. The actual figure came out to about $1.43 each, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly staring at the mailbox waiting for that check to come in. If Bloomberg really wanted to give us each ONE MILLION DOLLARS, he’d need to have about $327 trillion dollars (the entire U.S. economy produces about $23 trillion annually) sitting in his checking account. And we’d need 5,450 completely liquid Mini Mikes.
So if you’re looking for anything other than bad math and scare-mongering, do yourself a favor and change the channel to anything other than MSNBC.
Just be sure to wash your hands after.