Losing the War

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So my local newspaper includes a little section where people can submit short comments on any topic and they print a handful each day. It is always with the comics so that is the only reason I notice it and read it. Today, there was a line that said something to the effect that even with the vaccines, we are seeing more deaths so something is wrong and we are losing the war on COVID.

Maybe it has always been the case but I’d like to think at some point in our history we understood that numbers presented out of context do not provide good information or knowledge. Maybe the newspapers have just gotten lazy and it is easier to just present numbers. How many new cases? How many deaths? As if the numbers by themselves tell the whole story. Which of course they don’t

It could also just be a side effect of the world we live in where everyone seems to have an attention span of a couple of seconds. And the news media is trying to capture eyeballs so flashing numbers is the easiest way to go. Who has time to read a detailed explanation of the numbers. Just give me the top line and I’ll draw my own conclusions.

The problem is that we as humans do a terrible job of understanding numbers. A number is really only “high” or “low” when compared to something relevant. If I only told you that the temperature was 48 degrees, is that enough for you to fully understand the weather? Well if it was 48 in North Dakota in December, that could be considered warm. If it is 48 in Florida in August, that’s a different story. Of course, with weather, we automatically get it in the context of where we live so there isn’t a problem. But other numbers just come at us and if we have nothing to compare them to, we struggle to understand what is really going on.

Which leads to the faulty conclusion that we are “losing” the war on COVID. Anyone who thought the vaccine was going to be a quick shut off just didn’t get the right information. There are two doses and you probably don’t get the full effect until the second. Plus, deaths are always a lagging variable. The two are not connected. The deaths are most likely coming from people who contracted COVID long before we started kicking off the vaccines. If deaths are rising but cases are falling (as they are), then we are “winning”.

I want to be clear that this is not meant in any way to make light of the situation. COVID is a very serious respiratory virus that does prey on the old and compromised and it has caused a significant number of deaths. But that does not mean we are “losing”.

Just to put things in some context, I took the following data from the CDC and made a little table. In this particular table, the CDC doesn’t include a COVID death until they get a death certificate so the number of COVID deaths is going to be lower than you’ll see in other places. This is date from January 1 of 2020 through January 16th of 2021.

Age GroupCOVID DeathsAll DeathsPopulationDeath Rate% Covid Deaths
1 to 4213388157936310.0%0.6%
5 to 14585440409941630.0%1.1%
15 to 2452534922426875100.1%1.5%
25 to 34227871710459403210.2%3.2%
35 to 445991102128416591440.2%5.9%
45 to 5416282186691408749020.5%8.7%
55 to 6440758431615424485371.0%9.4%
65 to 7473856661771314834332.1%11.2%
75 to8495848809670159698725.1%11.8%

I made the last two columns. The first is just a crude death rate (deaths divided by population). The last column is the percentage of deaths involving COVID. I should use that caveat because the CDC uses the phrase “All Deaths Involving COVID-19” which is important to understand. Many of the deaths have several potential causes and identifying the exact one is probably impossible so this just means someone died who had previously tested positive for COVID. I’m not going to try and argue about how many were deaths from and how many were deaths with but it is just to acknowledge that there is some disagreement.

Per this table, 347,131 people have died with some involvement with COVID. Is that a lot? Yes, it is. But, over that same time period, 3,329,907 have died from all causes. Again, not trying to minimize anything but over the course of a year, people are going to die. Now, the CDC does try to estimate excess deaths and I’m not going to get into their calculations, but it is true that more people have died this year than in other years with COVID being the cause of that.

But for context, COVID accounts for about 10% of the deaths over the last year. That likely makes it one of the leading causes of death although I haven’t fully looked into that. You can also look at the age skew which I don’t think has been properly presented or explained. Over 80% of the deaths have been in people over 65. Then again, 74% of all deaths have been in people over 65.

Again, this is not an attempt to minimize what is going on. COVID has caused a large number of deaths. But all of the trends are moving in the right direction. We had a significant surge in the fall that is starting to subside. It is possible we could get additional waves. The pandemic of 1918 had a third wave in early 1919 but it was not as bad as the second. But we are not “losing” this battle. COVID is not going to wipe us off the map. I actually feel sorry for whoever made that comment. If they feel that way, then they have been ill served by the sources that are supposed to provide us with information. Instead they just feed us numbers and scare headlines.

OK, I’ll end my mini rant now. But this is why I do this kind of stuff.

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