The Spike

I’ve been having a running debate with a good friend about COVID-19 versus the seasonal flu. My friend basically argues that our government’s reaction to COVID-19 is way overdone. I suspect some of you have friends saying similar things.

My friend makes these two general points: 1) More people in the U.S. die of the seasonal flu each year and we don’t lock down (stay-at-home orders) our society over that, and 2) the current mortality rate of COVID-19 (calculated at around maybe 2%) is wrong (way too high) because the current lack of broad testing means we don’t know how many people actually have (or have had) the virus—and it’s likely to be much higher—to be able to say with any accuracy what the actual mortality rate is among those who’ve contracted the virus. So, as he says, the current “numbers and charts mean nothing.” My friend thinks the mortality rate of COVID-19 will be somewhere around 002% or less when all is said and tested. In other words, he thinks, there is nothing to be alarmed about since seasonal influenza is in the same mortality rate ballpark.

Regardless of the debate over statistical measures, the problem I have with my friend’s arguments is what’s happening on the ground. The simple and stark reality is in hot zones where this virus is running rampant, like New York City, the hospitals began filling with people sick and dying from COVID-19 infections. That doesn’t happen during your typical flu season.

No matter how anyone want’s to debate the lethality of COVID-19 compared to the seasonal flu, the stark reality is we know for a fact that where COVID-19 did spread fast and wide, the hospitals began getting hit hard with COVID-19 patients, many of them sick for weeks and many others dying. So instead of talking statistics let’s just talk in simple math. Take a look at this simple graph from the New Atlantis that tracked reported new deaths, per week, from various causes we have data on, and our current COVID-19 epidemic.

As the data shows, and the New Atlantis piece explains, the spike (in red) of COVID-19 deaths is fast and almost straight up. On the horizontal line you see the weeks into the epidemic. On the vertical line the number of newly reported deaths per million. And let me remind you that during the 2017-18 flu and 1957-58 Asian flu, the nation didn’t lock down or require social distancing. So those numbers happened while our society was open and operating as normal. Notice there is no drastic spike in reported deaths. The drastic COVID-19 spike in reported deaths happened largely while the nation was locked down and people were social distancing. Imagine the numbers and the graph line for COVID-19 deaths if we weren’t social distancing right now and just carrying on business as usual, like we do during a typical seasonal flu?

When your friend tells you “Well, there were about 45,000 deaths last year from the flu and we didn’t do this,” you might want to remind him or her that number is for estimated deaths for seasonal influenza OVER AN ENTIRE SEASON or year. In the chart above the period of measure is about 33 weeks. As of this writing, it’s been about 8 weeks since the first death of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S., and the current reported death toll is at 46,785. Just do the math. And remember our society has no vaccine currently. We have no herd immunity, unlike we do with seasonal influenza.

Left unchecked COVID-19 would continue to spread rapidly and our hospital and healthcare systems would become completely overrun. If we had just let our society carry on as usual, like we do during the seasonal flu, there is little doubt the death toll would reach into the hundreds of thousands, probably millions. As the New Atlantis points out, “In the worst week of the 2017-18 flu season, New York saw 445 deaths from flu and pneumonia and 3,481 total from all causes. Last week, the state saw 4,694 reported Covid-19 deaths alone.”

COVID-19 cannot be compared to a seasonal flu. The simple arithmetic demonstrates it’s much worse. We will beat this virus once we have a vaccine, and let’s pray that’s soon.