After blogging about COVID-19 early on (my first blog on the subject was late March), I, for the most part, moved on to other things because I risked repeating myself and because the Black Lives Matter hysteria seemed a more pressing topic on which to focus. After all, the problems with the societal reaction to SARS-CoV-2 were clear early on. It just took somebody to make others aware of them, I believed. I always hold out hope that people are susceptible to facts and reason. It’s why I write in a scientific fashion, a practice for which I am oddly criticized. I am, above all, an educator. However, several posts on my Facebook newsfeed and continuing establishment news media distortion inspire me to return to the subject. It seems that ignorance of the obvious and resistance to scientific thinking are stubborn things. The facts only strength the argument I have made all along.
First, there is puzzlement—if even acknowledged—that Covid-19 seems to be killing far fewer of the people it infects. If you remember, back in April and May, there were as many as 3,000 deaths per day. This produced a high case fatality rate (CFR), which the media used to scare the public. (I wrote extensively on the moral panic in the spring. (See, for example, Viruses, Agendas, and Moral Panics and When a Virus Goes Viral.) The number of daily deaths is now closer to 600. Yes, there is a rise in hospitalization and deaths in a few states, but by CDC standards, the daily number of deaths looks to be on track to fall below epidemic levels. What explains this?
It may be that the virus is mutating into a less lethal form. While viruses may not technically be alive, they are subject to the principles of natural selection. When copying themselves, virus make errors scientists call mutations. Some mutations make viruses more lethal, while others make viruses less lethal. Evolutionary pressure favors those variations that are less lethal, since the more lethal variations are less successful in spreading and thus reproducing themselves over space and time. To put it simply, the more lethal strains die out. Hence, there are more people with the virus but fewer people dying from it.
Another possibility is that, in the early days, when testing was a far lower levels than it is today, the virus was much more widespread than it is now but authorities were not detecting its actual extent. This is why the infection fatality rate (IFR) is more useful metric than than the CFR (Asking Critical Comparative Questions About the Coronavirus Pandemic; We Should Stop Citing the Case-Lethality Rate for COVID-19—or Start Using it for Influenza). The IFR is determined with extrapolations based on inferential techniques. As we see with other viral patterns, which are far worse in the winter and spring and then drop off with warmer weather, the virus is may be fading, but aggressive testing keeps the number of cases high.
Diagnostic testing for the coronavirus has risen significantly, with more than 600,000 tests administered each day in the United States. In contrast, there were 100,000 tests per day in early spring. This represents a six-fold increase in testing over the course of the pandemic. Despite the media spin that this does not explain the rise in cases, John Hopkins Center for Health Security reports that increased testing is identifying many more infected individuals with mild or no symptoms (as I reported this spring, most of those who are infected have mild to no symptoms). This rise in the number of identified cases drives down the overall proportion of COVID-19 deaths.
Here’s how to think about this. If COVID-19 remains as lethal as before, then it must follow that there were many more cases than authorities were detecting (there still are). The decline in deaths per day is five-fold. That is a significant number. If the number of cases were actually rising, which is the evidence marshaled by the media and the naysayers against reopening the economy and schools, and if COVID-19 were just as lethal as it was in the spring, then the death rate would go up, not down. So either there were far more cases than were detected or the virus is becoming less lethal.
Of course, all of these things can be simultaneously true; they are not mutually exclusive possibilities. It is possible that there were far more cases than were detected early on, cases are on the rise due to reopening the economy, and the virus is less lethal than it was early on. However, all that is good news. It means that the virus was never as lethal as we thought (because there were always many more cases that were detected) and that more people are acquiring antibodies. (See Future Containment of COVID-19: Have Authorities Done the Right Thing?) This is the reason why the media has stopped talking about deaths and focuses instead on the gross number of rising cases.
Not wanting to talk about deaths directly also explains why the media spends very little time telling the public about how earlier intervention and new therapeutics and practices are saving lives. The medical industry is now more familiar with the virus and is doing a better job of treating it. However, if the media isn’t going to talk about declining deaths amid allegedly rising cases, in order to leave the impression that deaths are going up because cases are going up, then they aren’t going to report the medical success story.
As we have seen, the media frenzy over studies showing the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine was met with hyped scientific studies showing the drug did not work and was even dangerous (see the Lancet article, RETRACTED: Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis). At the same time, careful scientific studies showing the drug did work and was not dangerous (Hydroxychloroquine ‘Significantly’ Reduces Death Rate From COVID-19, Henry Ford Health Study Finds) have been largely ignored.
The media frame is clearly resistant to presenting any positive news about COVID-19 for the purposes of keeping alive the moral panic they’re using to diminish the president and marginalize populist resistant to authoritarian control, for which the virus is used as a pretext.
Another probable factor in the decline of COVID-19 deaths is that the demographic profile of the virus is changing. It is shifting towards younger people. Because the virus is relatively harmless to healthy adults, a proportional shift towards younger and healthier population groups will to some degree reduce the overall rate of death. This is particularly good news in that it means that healthy Americans are developing immunity to a virus that is likely, as are other viruses, to come back in the fall. It also may signal that authorities are doing a better job in protecting those in longterm care facilities—or, grimly, those most likely to die already have.
Stanford University’s disease prevention chairman, John P. A. Ioannidis reports, “There are already more than 50 studies that have presented results on how many people in different countries and locations have developed antibodies to the virus.” The studies “suggest that about 150-300 million or more people have already been infected around the world, far more than the 10 million documented cases.” That means that actual cases are 15-30 times greater than documented cases. Ioannis also reports, “For people younger than 45, the infection fatality rate is almost 0%. For 45 to 70, it is probably about 0.05%-0.3%.”
With this in mind, why is it even a question as to whether teachers and students go back to school in the fall? I have heard the complaint that a significant proportion of teachers are in the age group imperiled by the virus (we should keep in mind that more than half of all deaths among the elderly have occurred in long-term care facilities, which distorts the actual threat to those active in the teaching profession). Moreover, it is noted that there are others who have immunocompromised systems and other health conditions (such as obesity) that make the virus more lethal for them. However, influenza and others viruses present the same threat to these populations (vaccines, which only cover some strains and are highly variable in their efficacy, at best moderate this effect, not negate it). Indeed, influenza is far more dangerous to children than SARS-CoV-2. Yet the fact that it has never before been the policy concerning other serious biological threats to these populations to move to online instruction or wear masks and shields and practice social distancing rarely occurs to anybody.
In other words, many in the public are reacting to COVID-19 in a way they do not and have not responded to comparable threats. The public is overreacting and the overreaction has harmed the economy and education, and will continue to do so if we continue to operate on fear instead of reason. Tragically, people perceive COVID-19 differently than influenza because the authorities and the establishment media have terrified them with corpses, pushing a frightening narrative that COVID-19 is uniquely deadly while ignoring the IFR that shows that it isn’t. Remember, the authorities and establishment media know better. They are lying about this.
Now that cases are rising mainly because of testing, while deaths are falling both absolutely and relatively, the news media dwell on cases and not deaths. They are substituting cases for deaths because the numbers are larger and scarier. After months of scare mongering, it’s time the American public push back and demand that we return to a normal life.
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The New York Times wrote a nasty piece on Sweden’s experience with COVID-19. It was based on perceptions of Sweden by surrounding Scandinavian countries. An objective examination of the demographics of COVID-19 deaths, as well as the character of institutional integrity, suggests that the problem in Sweden is not their approach to SARS-CoV-2 but other factors, for example an aging population. More than one in twenty Swedes is beyond the standard retirement age of 65, a number higher than in Denmark and much higher than in Norway, and Sweden is a much larger country.
Most COVID-19 deaths have occurred in a very small proportion of the population. Those 70 years of age and older account for 88.9 percent of deaths. Moreover, more than half of them were in long-term care facilities. Of the 5,420 total deaths as of July 3, only 9 people below the age of 30 have died from the virus in Sweden. As the research indicates, most of those who die young have comorbidities, such as a compromised immune system. They are at risk from other viruses, as well. The case fatality rate of those under the age of 70 is less than 1 percent in Sweden. Applying a bottom end factor of 15, the infection fatality rate is 0.05% for those under the age of 70. For all age groups, a conservative estimate of infection fatality race is half of 1 percent.
This virus is comparable to influenza in its lethality. No country stops society on account of the flu. While death is tragic (albeit inevitable), the statistics do not suggest the more restrictive approach other countries have taken would have been markedly better. Sweden has performed better than Great Britain and Spain, to take two notable examples of countries with restrictive policies. Moreover, Sweden’s approach is likely the only viable long-term approach to SARS-CoV-2 if societies want to avoid economic calamity and its consequences, for example diminishment of the material capability of supporting the health care sector.
Beyond the demographics of age, two factors stand out:
First, Sweden’s neoliberal approach to health and welfare has been more aggressive than other countries. High quality healthcare is increasingly difficult to come by in Sweden. The system is rationed, with restrictive access and long waiting times. There is a tradition in Sweden of stalling until patients are quite sick. There are chronic shortages of medical personnel. As a result, a large proportion of those who died from COVID-19 died outside ICU. The effects of neoliberalism are particularly felt in long-term care facilities. While most elderly care is funded taxes and government grants, an increasing number of municipalities are privatizing elderly care. Shortfalls in care in private long-term care facilities is well-known in Sweden.
Second, Sweden’s health and welfare systems have been severely strained by a large immigrant population heavily dependent on government resources. Other Scandinavian countries have not been nearly as generous to immigrants as has Sweden. The Swedish government has responded by reducing immigration, but the damage done to its systems of health and welfare systems (as well as public safety) will be felt for a long time.