Will the Shutdown Cause More Deaths Than It Saves?

We are in the midst of a health care disaster in the U.S. and other developed nations. This is not due primarily to the Wuhan virus, but rather to the fact that “non-essential” medical treatment has been canceled. In England, concern is growing that the deferral of “non-essential” health care could ultimately be more damaging than the Wuhan virus. The London Times reports:

It’s chilling to know that many hospital wards, waiting rooms and car parks are now empty. Before this country was hit, only 800 of the NHS’s 4,125 critical care beds were vacant at one time. Now it’s 2,300. Even with some of the worst fatality rates in Europe, some hospitals now report being half empty since they paused almost all non-emergency work.

The same phenomenon is occurring here.

Richard Sullivan, a professor of cancer and global health at King’s College London, says: “The number of deaths due to the disruption of cancer services is likely to outweigh the number of deaths from the coronavirus itself over the next five years. Cancer screening services have stopped, which means we will miss our chance to catch many cancers when they are treatable and curable.” Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, says some tumours will become “inoperable” rather than survivable.

The terrifying conclusion must be that there will be a non-Covid health crisis when this pandemic is over. Far more will suffer and die from otherwise treatable conditions as many go undiagnosed and untreated for the next six months. Their families will not forgive or forget.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, refuses to give a figure for the potential non-Covid fatalities from this catastrophe but the cabinet was told it could be up to 150,000 avoidable deaths.

Our health care system is better than the NHS, but we too will see an unknown number of preventable deaths due to the suspension of much non-COVID related health care. Those who die because of the shutdown of “non-essential” care, including a large number of surgeries, will never be counted, and their names will not make headlines. But they represent one more cost of the reaction–overreaction, in my opinion–to the Wuhan virus.