Column: Important coverage trends for COVID-19

By Don Paul
Published Mon, Mar 16, 2020|Updated Mon, Mar 16, 2020

The global pandemic has a very uneven distribution, as seen in this Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health map.

Before I get to the meat of the discussion, there is one potentially deadly myth I’m still seeing on social media which must be dispelled. Many uninformed posters are still telling one another the whole crisis is tied to media hype, and that the flu kills more people than COVID-19. True enough, up to this point the flu has killed more than the novel coronavirus. That’s because we are still early in the tragic game, particularly in the United States. The other myth tied to this is the completely false notion the mortality rate of the flu is as bad or worse than that of COVID-19.

The flu has a mortality rate of 0.1%. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health Allergies and Infectious Disease division, has testified COVID-19 has 10 times the mortality rate of the flu. The earlier World Health Organization estimate of a 3.4% mortality rate, which would be disastrous, is now thought by many epidemiologists to be somewhat too high (that would be immensely higher than the flu mortality percentage), but still many times greater than the flu.

However, for a worst case scenario we need look no farther than Italy. They’ve been taking the right actions during the last week but, like the U.S., they got off to a late start. As of Sunday, Italy had 24,747 confirmed cases with 1,809 fatalities. That produces an astounding mortality rate of 7.2%. So, if you’re seeing the myths I’ve mentioned, put them out of your mind. They’re dead wrong, no pun intended. Most epidemiologists note demographic differences between Italy and the U.S. skew toward an older population in Italy, a first-world country, more at risk to the worst levels of infection and complications. On Sunday, 368 new deaths occurred. Italy’s first-rate hospitals have been overwhelmed, with physicians having to take on harsh triage practices due to far more patients arriving than could be treated. The worst hit city thus far has been Lombardy, in the north.

The late start in the U.S. for testing will cost many lives, though there is no good way to estimate how many this soon, as cases are just beginning to multiply faster. As of Sunday, the U.S. had 69 deaths and around 3,500 confirmed cases. That’s where the myth-spreaders jump in and make their false analogies. We have no way of knowing how many infected people are out there in our nation. The test count will begin to rise more rapidly this week, but the CDC has removed the number of tests performed from their website.

As for New York State, the Sunday count was 746 cases with six deaths. Here are Erie County and Western New York counts as of Sunday.

Western New York has a fairly large older population, with 18% of Erie County residents being 65-plus, according to census data supplied by the Center for an Urban Future. We definitely skew older than, say, Charlotte or Los Angeles. But we are not near the top of elderly percentages nationwide.

Back to the Johns Hopkins map.

It’s hard not to notice the much sparser coverage in Africa, parts of South America and Mexico. Mexico has diagnosed only 43 cases. It might be tempting to form a hypothesis about a hotter climate playing a role, but the counts in a number of Middle Eastern countries, previously low, are now beginning to go up more quickly. There are 113 cases in Saudi Arabia. Might there be a humidity factor? Densely populated India has had 143 cases, a strikingly low number for that nation. Many of us have a stereotyped view of the Indian climate as being simply tropical. However, the climatology of that vast nation is very diverse, with many arid regions. And, India is coming out of its cool and dry season.

As I wrote last week, no one has a good answer to the weather/climate factor.

I have been scouring search engines for more information on this topic, and there is nothing I can find close to conclusive. Some virologists are predicting a lessening of the infection rate as weather gets warmer, and others throw cold water on that hypothesis for COVID-19. Some viral episodes do persist into the warm season, such as the 1957 flu epidemic.

The other great unknown is the accuracy of the reporting system and tests performed in many third-world nations, as well as reports from despotic regimes like Putin’s Russian Federation. There also can be less influx of infected visitors in some nations, slowing the spread. WHO is doing its best to catalogue the cases. In our nation, the problem remains the low number of those tested, allowing the virus to spread undetected with unreliable numbers. On Feb. 6, WHO announced they had produced 250,000 effective test kits and offered to send a good number to the US. Instead, CDC turned down the offer and set about to design its own kits. A high percentage of the initial CDC shipments were not usable and had been poorly designed, setting us back still further in the delayed U.S. response to the epidemiological data.

The goal for public health experts, the medical community, and the public has to be “flattening the curve.”

The red surge on the left is what has occurred in Italy, Spain and some other European nations, much of it due to slow reaction. Whether we will be able to flatten the curve at this stage could be called an open question, but the probabilities are probably less than 50/50. We’ll be finding out soon enough.

In the meantime, good ol’ Moe Howard had a large part of the behavioral answer for all of us.

To close on a serious note, here is an interview with University of Minnesota professor of epidemiology from KARE-TV, a few days ago. Dr. Michael Osterholm is a highly accomplished expert, and an elected member of the elite National Academy of Sciences. He has spent decades in the study of pandemics.

If you REALLY have more time, here is a much longer interview with him conducted by, of all people, comedian Joe Rogan. The first 24 minutes are critical to gain more understanding, followed by a short sojourn into a dangerous deer disease of high interest to farmers and hunters, then followed by a return to COVID-19.