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What We Have Learned About Coronavirus and Common Misconceptions

By March 29, 2020Commentary

Here is my summary of some learnings and some areas to be careful in thinking about.

This virus is a very strong discriminant in regard to the age and health of the people who are exposed to it and who are infected with it.  For some unknown reason, it does not appear to infect a large proportion of the population even after exposure.  And even for those infected the rate of serious illness is low.  But for some groups it is an incredibly serious, deadly illness.  There is very strong association between age and likelihood of serious illness and death.  There is a very strong association between serious pre-existing illnesses, particularly respiratory ones.  So if you are older, have a respiratory illness, or are not in the best health, take very, very strong precautions.  If you are younger and/or in good health, your risk appears quite low.  Because of the enhanced virulence for the elderly and at-risk, this coronavirus variant is more concerning than what we experience during a typical or even severe flu year.

The virus is likely very widespread at this point.  I believe that thanks to Chinese government suppression of information and widespread global travel, it has likely been in the United States for longer than we realize, spreading and infecting people.  The virus is going to be here, it can’t be “eradicated”.  Its spread may likely be slowed, but I believe the most rational approach at this point is to assume that it will become a widespread, community dwelling infectious agent.

Coronaviruses tend to be highly seasonal with a strong infection peak in winter months.  The factor most likely to slow the spread, I believe, is warmer, more humid, weather.  There is some support for this notion from the apparent case that there is more infection in temperate zones than tropical ones.  So let’s hope this variant shows the same seasonal tendency.  But it will then likely be back in some strength by late fall or early winter.

Common misconceptions, in my opinion, include a misunderstanding that the mitigation measures being employed, including what I consider extreme economic lockdowns, will save lives.  They are designed to spread out the timing of the same number of infections and deaths.  The only case in which they may save lives is if we truly had a situation where very sick people were unable to get needed care that would have saved them.  It is not apparent to me that we are in that situation or will be.  So understand, eventually, unless we have an indefinite very extreme quarantining of everyone, people are going to get infected and some are going to die from the illness.

Another misconception, mitigation measures are all or nothing in terms of either their impact or their economic cost.  They aren’t, they are each incremental.  If a set of moderate mitigation measures reduces the speed of spread significantly and has a minimal economic cost; adding more extreme measures may further reduce speed of spread, but also has a higher economic cost.  You need to weigh the benefit and cost of incremental measures separately.  This is not an easy calculation and inevitably involves some subjective judgment.

Be very, very wary of death rates.  See the information in another post on this topic.  Death rates being described now are too high from what they will be determined to be retrospectively.  In particular, because the virus is particularly dangerous to the elderly, you have to take into account the likely of mortality of those people in the absence of coronavirus.

We are doing enormous damage to the economy and consequently to people’s jobs.  That loss of jobs and financial resources has a large amount of non-economic damage associated with it.  It severely depletes government revenues as well, and ultimate resources to solve problems.

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