No doubt, understanding the coronavirus takes work. We hear a seemingly endless stream of arcane reports emanating from an alphabet soup of acronym-laden government agencies, and our heads start spinning. Then along comes a hopeful-sounding research paper, and suddenly many among us breathe a sigh of relief, believing, as President Trump would have us think, that things aren’t really as bad as CNN makes them out to be and we’re “rounding the corner.”
Case in point: A single research paper, published online over the summer by Dr. John Ioannidis, of Stanford University, indicated the Covid-19 death rate for those under age 70 was 0.04 percent, according to the Associated Press. That figure spread rapidly on social media, and many people took it as license to carry on with business as usual.
We see this irrational fearlessness reflected in the “herd immunity” approach to the virus touted by one of Trump’s top advisers, Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. Atlas, who cited the 0.04 figure in July, has suggested we should let the virus run its course among young people to build “natural immunity.”
We also see it reflected in an assertion by a Herald reader who wrote last week to say the survival rate for those under age 70 was greater than 99 percent. Thus, he appeared to suggest, we should think twice about shutting down again.
Many conservatives across the country latched on to the 0.04 percent figure, and have used it — or, rather, misused it — as evidence to support a push to fully reopen the economy and end what they say are intrusive policies, such as New York’s mask mandate in public spaces. The trouble is, that could lead to tens of thousands of more needless deaths, even among young people.
The 0.04 percent figure is likely accurate, but without context, it can leave the false impression that virtually no one under age 70 is dying of the coronavirus, when, in fact, tens of thousands are. At the Herald, we have written too many obituaries this year for people in the prime years of their lives cut down by this merciless virus — a firefighter EMT, a pharmacist and a philanthropist among them. You need not take our word for it, however.
National Institutes of Health statistics tell us that, among those killed by Covid-19 in the United States, 8.3 to 22.7 percent are under age 65. That is to say, of the more than 231,000 Americans who have died in the past eight months, 19,000 to 52,500 have been people under age 65. By comparison, 58,200 Americans died in the Vietnam War, which carried on for years.
When we look at Covid-19’s impact in this way, we suddenly see that America’s alarmingly — and unacceptably — high death toll includes many, many younger people, and we have no idea whom the virus will take next. It is an indiscriminate killer. It infects many, but leaves some unharmed; others come down with what is essentially a bad case of the flu; and others contract pneumonia and die.
Each life lost is precious. Each life lost is irreplaceable. Amid the flurry of statistical information generated by government agencies, it is all too easy to forget the human devastation that the coronavirus has caused.
Moreover, many Covid-19 survivors under age 65 now suffer long-term symptoms, including memory loss, known as “brain fog,” joint pain, high blood pressure and heart palpitations, and we cannot say for certain what their prospects are for future recovery.
Finally, we must remember that we cannot hermetically seal our elderly in virus-free bubbles. The greater the infection rate is in our larger population, the greater the chance that older adults will contract Covid-19 and die.
We must accept that the virus is with us, and we must do all we can to preserve life. We’ll say it again: Wear a mask. Wash your hands often. Keep your distance. Avoid mass gatherings. Work from home if you can. Get a flu shot. And pray for a vaccine.