The Pandemic: Where We Stand Now

The Wuhan virus appears to be peaking, both globally and in the U.S. The much-maligned University of Washington IHME model says that U.S. deaths should have peaked today, and are expected to decline hereafter. Given that model’s track record, no one is taking it to the bank. But it is an opportune moment to see where we stand today, in terms of fatalities, in the context of other diseases.

I have posted this chart, now updated with today’s numbers, several times before. It is simple: it shows, from left to right, the average number of annual deaths attributed to the seasonal flu, worldwide, according to the World Health Organization; the number of global COVID-19 deaths to date, per the same organization; the number of deaths attributed to seasonal flu in the U.S. two years ago, the 2017-2018 season; and U.S. COVID-19 deaths to date. Click to enlarge:

Worldwide, the COVID-19 fatalities add up to just under 20% of an average flu season. In the U.S., COVID-19 fatalities to date are 26% of the number that we suffered just two flu seasons ago. I am not sure why these numbers are not more widely known. They seem relevant to me.

Crudely speaking, if we assume that the U.S. is around 50% of the way through the COVID-19 epidemic, we might expect something like 33,000 fatalities, equal to an average seasonal flu year. An inevitable second round of infections after our governments finally let people go back to work, and out in public, may raise that number, but no one I know of has tried to guess to what extent. Still, any way you look at it, it is hard to see how COVID-19 deaths will exceed the flu fatalities we experienced two years ago. And that was barely a news story.

A final thought: What will happen when the catastrophic shutdown orders under which most of us have been living are finally lifted, in May or June? Since sheltering in place was only intended to delay the virus’s spread, not to prevent it, we should assume that COVID infection and death numbers will rise dramatically. But what if they don’t? Won’t that be strong evidence that the states’ extreme shutdown measures were not needed in the first place? Don’t expect any politicians to make the point, but I think the answer is Yes.

UPDATE: Last time I posted these numbers, I included a global fatality number that assumes China is vastly underreporting its deaths, as most believe. I will do that again: if China is underreporting by a factor of 10–i.e., the true Chinese number is 10 times the one being used by the WHO–then the current global fatality total is 26% of an average flu season, per the WHO.

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