Like just about everyone else in the country, we are sitting in our homes under orders from our state governments, with little to do but follow coronavirus statistics. And they look fearsome.
There are almost 140,000 active cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Nearly 20,000 new cases were reported on Sunday alone. The death toll in the U.S. is now close to 3,000 — with more than 2,000 of them occurring in just the past week.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Sunday that the death toll could reach 200,000. Another model says 82,000 will likely die, with daily deaths peaking in mid-April at more than 2,000. By comparison, the last pandemic — the so-called swine flu — claimed 18,000 lives.
Over the weekend, President Donald Trump said he’s extending the federal government’s “social distancing” guidelines through April. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a “stay at home” order through June 10. School systems are starting to consider whether they will even be able to open in the fall.
It’s unprecedented, to be sure. But the problem with all the numbers being bandied about is that they lack any context.
On its own, 3,000 fatalities might seem like a tremendously large number. But that’s before you learn that an average of 7,700 people die in the U.S. every single day. Which means that over the past week, when the coronavirus took 2,000 lives, nearly 54,000 people died from other causes.
As a service to readers, here are recent annual deaths from other causes, many of which go largely unnoticed year by year, but most of which are preventable. (The data are compiled from the National Center for Health Statistics, the National Safety Council, and other sources.)
- 1,900: strep throat
- 3,000: food poisoning
- 5,000: choking
- 6,946: accidental hanging
- 7,450: pedestrians hit by a car
- 7,740: obesity
- 12,316: pregnancy-related
- 20,108: inflammation resulting from food or liquids getting into the lungs
- 35,000: antibiotic-resistant bacteria
- 35,823: alcohol-induced deaths
- 36,336: falls
- 40,922: blood poisoning resulting from bacteria
- 47,173: suicide
- 55,672: flu and pneumonia
- 64,795: accidental poisoning
- 83,564: diabetes
- 121,404: Alzheimer’s
- 160,201: chronic lower respiratory disease
- 169,936: all accidental deaths
- 250,000: medical errors
- 599,108: cancer
- 647,457: heart disease
Then there are all the scary stories about hospitalizations and how the health care system will be overwhelmed. Here, too, there’s no context.
According to the American Hospital Association, there were more than 36 million hospital admissions in 2018. So, on an average day, hospitals across the country admit more than 98,000 patients.
In that year, there were 139 million emergency room visits. That’s more than 380,000 a day.
Of course, a local area can be overwhelmed by a sudden influx of patients needing hospital care. But it will take a lot more than the predicted course of the coronavirus outbreak to overwhelm a health care system that successfully deals in volumes like this on a daily basis.
There’s another bit of context to consider when it comes to how the country responds to this outbreak. The focus has been almost entirely on how to save lives by limiting exposure to the coronavirus.
But every one of these actions will have second-order effects. Some good. Some bad. The highway death toll will no doubt drop sharply during the months the economy is shut down. Workplace fatalities will decline as workers are sidelined. No children will die walking to school.
There’s the other side of the coin to consider, though. Stress, for example, is known to be major factor in six of the leading causes of death in the country. Work-related stress alone is believed to cause 120,000 deaths each year. As people see their savings disappear, their businesses shutter, their lives turned upside down, stress will increase phenomenally. And that will ultimately lead to more stress-related deaths.
Depending on how deadly the coronavirus actually turns out to be — and at the moment we have no idea — the cure could truly be worse than the disease.
Let’s be clear, we are not suggesting that the coronavirus isn’t a serious threat, requiring extraordinary measures. And we understand that deaths due to a lifetime of bad health habits are different from a death sentence that people can pass on to each other.
But in any situation, context matters. Unfortunately, that’s the one thing missing from the 24/7 coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.
— Written by the I&I Editorial Board