Burbank, Calif., June 13, 2020. Photo by Cory Doctorow.
With COVID-19 as with anything else, numbers don’t lie – but they don’t always tell the truth either, especially if you are getting a story from the wrong numbers.
The number of new cases reported daily has been climbing in close to half the states, and matching or reaching new heights in several. Depending on who is doing the talking, this is attributed either to increased testing (the positive spin) or increased spread of the new coronavirus in the population (the negative spin).
Both statements are true to a certain extent, but there is a crucial fallacy in the underlying data: The information presumes the number of cases reported every day right now means the same thing as the numbers reported in March or April or May.
It doesn’t. The people who are catching COVID-19 today appear to be, on average, substantially younger and otherwise healthier than the people who were catching it in the early stages of the pandemic’s spread. And COVID-19 is a disease that is much more dangerous to people who are older and sicker. A far greater share of those who are testing positive today have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. They would not have gotten tests when testing supplies were scarce and were being reserved for health care workers, first responders and patients who were markedly sick.
Researchers and state officials have noted this phenomenon in California, Texas and Florida. It is also evident in the diverging trends between the number of new cases being reported – which have been essentially flat, on a national level, since economic activity began to resume in early May – and the number of deaths being reported each day, which have fallen by about half in that period.
We need to assess this data with caution, however, because COVID-19 deaths tend to happen several weeks after infection. The people who were dying when lockdowns were first relaxed had typically fallen ill either before or during the lockdown period. We will see over the next three or four weeks whether the positive trend in the death rates can withstand the uptick in cases in certain regions.
Still, The Wall Street Journal reported this week that about 50,000 deaths – more than 40% of the nation’s total COVID-19 fatalities – have occurred among patients or staff at nursing homes and other elder care facilities. These are not the people who are returning to jobs, beaches, restaurants and bars as such venues reopen. Some facilities are beginning to allow visitors, but often only outdoors and under strict social distancing procedures. We probably won’t be able to shield this exceptionally vulnerable population entirely. But a repeat of the pandemic’s initial devastation of our elderly is unlikely.
In short, we are learning how to live with the virus. That is not exactly good news; the only genuinely good news about this virus comes from progress we are making in deploying effective therapies and developing one or more vaccines at unprecedented speed. Otherwise, news about COVID-19 comes only in flavors of bad and worse.
This is not a disease anyone should trifle with. Being less vulnerable at certain ages does not mean being invulnerable. And those who harbor the virus but resist its symptoms can be its most effective spreaders if they do not follow proper precautions. These precautions are not always being followed as well as they ought to be.
There is a chance, although my guess is not a high likelihood, that economic reopening and the recent protest gatherings will give the virus enough velocity to escape the less-vulnerable age groups and trigger a new surge of serious illness and death. We should know by mid-July if this is happening.
If it does not, the implications are pretty positive for the formerly flattened economy, not to mention the pocketbooks and sanity of millions of individuals. While some localities have either implemented or threatened a pause in their reopening due to local viral resurgence, a return to general state or national lockdown conditions seems unlikely. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said as much earlier this week.
Most public schools across the country will probably reopen for in-class instruction around the usual time near summer’s end. Our experience has suggested that the greatest risks of bringing college students back to their campuses and dorm rooms will be to the older instructors and other school employees on campus, and to the older relatives the students encounter when they return home for Thanksgiving or the winter holidays. Schools will take varying approaches. But I expect that most will bring those students, and their tuition payments, back to campus in the fall.
Autumn will bring new challenges. Even the most advanced vaccine development efforts will not show results before the changing season brings students back to school and restaurant patrons in much of the country are forced indoors, to the extent they are permitted. Other industries are trying to just make it through the summer, with travel and lodging being the worst hit. Many retailers rely on Christmas season purchases; brick-and-mortar stores may still be under pandemic-control restrictions by then, and tapped-out customers are apt to reduce spending anyway.
We are still a long way from the end of this pandemic and its pain, but the daily case count no longer offers much useful information on its own. Even where those numbers have been getting worse, the situation has been getting better.