Of all the major disasters that have occurred in my lifetime, the coronavirus pandemic is by far the most…confusing.
Usually, when a disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane strikes, it’s very clear what happened and what needs to be done. But with this disaster, we have no idea how bad it actually is, and no one can agree on what needs to be done.
Some people say it’s no worse than a bad flu season. Others say it will be worse than the Spanish Flu and World War II combined. There are experts on both sides, so who should you listen to? And how worried should you be?
In order to answer this question, we need to take a look at what’s happening in the worst-hit areas and determine whether the rest of the country will fare better or worse.
A top CDC official, Ann Schuchat, says what’s happening in New York City is a preview of what’s to come in other U.S. cities, so we’ll start there.
Note: This article was last updated on March 28th, 2020.
The Crisis In New York City
Right now, New York is getting more emergency calls per day than it got on September 11th, 2001. It’s gotten so bad that ambulances are taking up to three or four hours to reach people’s homes. And the crisis isn’t expected to peak for another three weeks.
Meanwhile, about 10% of the NYPD has been calling in sick, and healthcare workers have already been reduced to using trash bags as protective gear. Things are so bad that they’re even building a makeshift morgue outside a NYC hospital.
Now, the state of New York is on full lockdown, but since the incubation period for this virus is up to two weeks, it will take a couple of weeks to see the effects. Remember, Italy locked down the entire country almost two weeks ago, yet they are still seeing record-breaking numbers of daily deaths, with nearly 1,000 yesterday.
With coronavirus spreading fast in all 50 states, it seems likely that we will see similar situations in cities all across the country. But how bad will it actually be?
How Many People Will Die?
This is a very controversial question, and it depends on many factors such as the case fatality rate, how many people get infected, and whether hospitals are ready.
We’ll start with the first one…
What Is The CFR (Case Fatality Rate)?
No one knows for sure. If you look at the data in Italy, the CFR is over 10%, but a big reason for that is the lack of testing. There are no doubt tens of thousands of Italians with coronavirus who simply haven’t been tested because they have few or no symptoms. In fact, some scientists believe that as many as 86% of cases are going unreported.
So instead, let’s look at a country where they’ve done massive amounts of testing: Germany. When all this is over, I think everyone will look at Germany as an example of how a Western country can handle a pandemic without letting it get out of control.
In Germany, they’ve been testing people since mid-January. Up until recently, they were doing 150,000 tests per week, but now it’s up to 500,000 tests per week. Anyone suspected of having coronavirus is told to self-isolate. As a result, the spread there has been relatively slow, and they still haven’t required any draconian lockdown measures.
So what is their death rate? About 0.5%. That’s 1 in 200. Still about 5 times more deadly than seasonal flu, but not apocalyptic. And since about half of patients show no symptoms, the actual CFR is probably half what they’re reporting, close to 0.25%.
How Many People Will Get Infected?
However, we have to remember that even though coronavirus is spreading slowly in Germany (at least compared to other countries), the virus is expected to infect up to 70% of Germans. It’s just too contagious to stop.
Even in China, where they did a full-scale authoritarian lockdown—arresting anyone who went outside with a mask or permit—they’re still seeing new cases every day.
But let’s be optimistic and say coronavirus only infects about 50% of a country’s population. (I believe this is a reasonable expectation, and it’s what many scientists are predicting.)
That means Germany will still have 100,000 deaths by the time it’s all over. That’s still a helluva tragedy, and certainly not “just the flu” as some people call it.
If those numbers work out the same way in the United States, it will have at least 400,000 deaths. Again, not the end of the world, but still the most deadly disaster since World War II.
So we have to remember that even though COVID-19 might only kill 1 in 400 people, it’s still a huge crisis, one we’re not ready for.
And sadly, we can’t stop it from spreading. However, we can slow it down as much as possible (what is being referred to as flattening the curve). The more we flatten the curve, the fewer people will die.
Most Hospitals Aren’t Ready
Hospitals are already near capacity. They’ve been challenged by a severe flu season (many of those were probably undiagnosed cases of coronavirus), and now they’re dealing with a virus that is spreading exponentially.
Many hospitals are already running out of protective equipment like masks, gowns, and gloves. As a result, healthcare workers are starting to get sick. (In Europe, the virus has already knocked out thousands of healthcare workers.)
And instead of working together, hospitals are competing with each other. Some of them are panic-buying tons of supplies, leaving other hospitals unable to get the things they need. The preparedness of your local hospital really depends on whether the management had enough foresight to see this disaster coming.
(Here’s a tool that estimates how prepared your local hospitals are.)
As the number of severe cases in the United States grows exponentially, beds and ventilators will be in short supply. If hospitals don’t have enough ventilators for everybody, they’ll be forced to decide who lives and who dies, just like in Italy.
You might be thinking, “America has the best healthcare system in the world. I’m sure we have enough beds and ventilators.” Well, we don’t.
Studies have shown that about 17% of patients need to be put on ventilators, and the United States only has about 160,000 ventilators. So if the number of cases keeps growing exponentially (which it is) and we end up with over one million confirmed cases in the United States next month, we will run out of ventilators just as the crisis is peaking.
When that happens, the CFR will get a lot higher. Remember, the CFR of 0.5% in Germany is what happened when they were able to give everyone the help they need. In the United States, we will not be able to help everyone because it’s simply spreading too fast, even with all of our quarantines and social distancing.
So now, do you see why you should be worried? Even though the CFR is as low as 1 in 400 people, our healthcare system could still collapse due to the sheer number of patients, pushing the CFR much higher and causing over one million people to die.
So How Worried Should You Be?
Personally, I think you should be very worried. Why? Because with this type of disaster, the more people are worried, the less damage will be done. Let me explain…
People who are worried about a pandemic tend to be very hygienic. They only go out if they have to, they avoid touching their faces, and they wash their hands obsessively. As a result, the virus stops spreading exponentially.
On the other hand, people who aren’t worried about a pandemic are more careless. They might work from home, but they’re still going to go out if they want to, they’re going to touch their faces without realizing it, and they’re going to forget to wash their hands.
If these people keep dismissing the threat of coronavirus, it will keep spreading fast. Maybe not as fast as it would have (thanks to the people who are taking it seriously), but it will still spread too fast for us to handle.
Remember, novel coronavirus doesn’t show symptoms for up to a week, so you could be spreading it without realizing it. That’s what makes this particular virus so difficult to stop.
Unfortunately, it looks as though 30% of Americans aren’t worried about coronavirus at all. They think this pandemic is overblown and that the media is just using it to hurt Trump’s chances of getting reelected.
The thing is, they’re right. The media is using this crisis to attack Trump. But that doesn’t mean the crisis isn’t real. It’s all too real, and Trump knows it.
And now, the President is having to walk a fine line between minimizing the number of deaths and keeping the economy afloat. Personally, I think if you save as many lives as possible, the economy will take care of itself, but that is a topic for another article.
The point is, if 30% of Americans don’t take this virus seriously, it will continue to spread too fast for hospitals to handle. Research shows that at least 80% of people need to comply with social distancing guidelines to stop the virus from spreading. 70% isn’t going to cut it.
If you’re one of the 3 in 10 Americans who aren’t worried, I have a message for you:
By not worrying about this pandemic, you’re turning it into something to worry about.
It’s Up To Us
A few weeks ago, the London Imperial College released a study that suggested coronavirus will kill 500,000 people in the United Kingdom and 2.2 million people in the United States. This study is what prompted Boris Johnson to finally take major actions to stop the virus.
However, more recently, the study authors have said it will only kill 20,000 people in the United Kingdom. So why did they change their estimate by so much?
They didn’t. What they said is that 500,000 people in the United Kingdom will die, if the government does nothing. Now that the government has closed schools and non-essential businesses and told people to stay home, the number of deaths will be much lower.
The same is true in the United States. If we do nothing, we will see millions of deaths. But if we keep schools and non-essential businesses closed across the nation, then hopefully we can get the death toll down to a few hundred thousand.
But we can’t stop yet. If we reopen America too soon, then countless more people will die. We’ll start seeing more exponential growth, and when it gets so bad that thousands of people are dying every day, we’ll have to shut everything down all over again.
So in my view, we may as well have a national shutdown for a month right now (as most experts suggest) and get this problem over with, rather than playing whack-a-mole for the next year and a half.
I know it sucks being stuck at home all the time, but we must persist. Stay home as much as you can. And when you do go out, stay at least two meters away from others. By doing so, you will avoid infecting (and possibly killing) other people.
I’ll close by sharing a meme I saw on Facebook.