The Journal Gazette
Thursday, May 21, 2020 1:00 am

A fuller picture

Close examination of the numbers reveals deadliness of COVID-19

Steve Graves

As with other issues we've faced in recent memory, Americans are polarized over COVID-19.

While many view it as a serious threat, others insist it's a hoax or at least wildly overblown. We often hear the argument, for example, that what's happening now is no worse than the flu. We don't shut down our economy or social distance during a bad flu season, so why should we go to such extremes for COVID-19?

Let's look at the data. Admittedly, data isn't perfect, mainly because human beings aren't perfect. None of us are as unbiased as we'd like to think. We tend to cherry pick statistics to promote whatever argument we're trying to make, conveniently ignoring anything that doesn't conform to what we already believe. It's called confirmation bias, and we're all guilty of it to some degree.

So let's keep this as bare bones as possible. And let's assume, for the sake of argument, that our local officials aren't fudging the numbers as part of some vast, deep-state conspiracy.

We're fortunate to live in an era when so much information is so freely available online. To its credit, the Allen County Department of Health posts links to every annual health report since 2004 on its website. According to these reports, Allen County has averaged 8.75 flu deaths per year since 2004.

While this seems like a paltry amount for a county that includes a city as large as Fort Wayne, this average was actually skewed more than 50% higher by just one year's total.

For our nation as a whole, the 2017-18 flu season was the worst in more than four decades.

If not for the surge in mortality in 2018, Allen County would have averaged fewer than 5.7 flu deaths per year since 2004.

Let's compare that to COVID-19.

As of May 16, 65 Allen County residents had succumbed to this novel pathogen. Some claim this is a minuscule number in the scheme of things. They may even cite the recent surge of flu mortality we just discussed to support this conclusion. Since Allen County recorded 55 deaths from the flu in 2018, they might argue, 65 deaths from COVID-19 is not that big a deal. After all, that's only a difference of 10 deaths. Ergo, COVID-19 is no worse than the flu.

This would be a solid argument if not for two glaring flaws.

The first involves the scope of the comparison. The surge in mortality in 2018 includes the peak months of the 2017-18 flu season on the front end as well as the first few months of the 2018-19 flu season on the back end. It's an annual rate, in other words, consisting of 365 days.

The first confirmed death from COVID-19 in Allen County, on the other hand, occurred on April 7, which means COVID-19 robbed life from 65 of our fellow citizens in a mere 40 days.

Averaged on a daily basis, this makes COVID-19 11 times more lethal than the worst flu year in decades.

The second flaw with the flu analogy is that it's premature. The data is incomplete because COVID-19 is still going strong.

Our statewide stay-at-home order has been lifted, businesses are reopening and some safety guidelines have been relaxed. But this doesn't mean the virus is relaxing.

While there is evidence to suggest Indiana may have bent the curve, as they say, the same cannot be said for Allen County. For the week ending May 16, another 204 of our fellow citizens tested positive for COVID-19. That may not seem like many in a county of 380,000, but it's our highest weekly tally yet.

In other words, COVID-19 is accelerating in Allen County, not slowing. And contrary to what some suggest, this acceleration has nothing to do with testing more people because we are not testing more people. According to the state of Indiana's COVID-19 Data Report, which is updated daily, the number of people tested in Allen County has been falling since mid-April. And even if this state data is incomplete, the overwhelming majority of those being tested for COVID-19 in Allen County are already experiencing symptoms, which drives a stake through the heart of the “it's-just-because-we're-testing-more” argument. That may be true elsewhere. But not here.

COVID-19 is not a flu virus; it's a coronavirus, and a darned nasty one at that. So for those who still insist on comparing it to the flu, at least do so correctly.

Compare it to the 1918 flu pandemic, if you must. Because that's the only one that comes even close to what we're up against now, a century later.

And bear in mind, these kind of pandemics usually come in waves. So if you're shrugging your shoulders or shaking your fists because “it's just old people” who are dying from COVID-19, remind yourself that the first wave of the 1918 flu targeted the elderly and infirm, too.

And while you're at it, say a prayer. Pray that, when the second wave of COVID-19 does arrive, one of those statistics you're so callously disregarding now does not end up becoming your own.

Steve Graves of Fort Wayne is retired from the motion picture industry, where he worked as a best boy grip and camera rigger.

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