An epidemic of obfuscation

The Star Tribune site highlights Pulitzer Prize-winning health care reporter Jeremy Olson’s long explainer on the COVID-19 death rate: “Months into pandemic, Minnesota’s COVID-19 death rate still elusive.” The story seems to me an exercise in obfuscation at best, a contribution to the media’s panic porn at worst. Olson buries this key point:

Risk varies by age and with underlying health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. People 70 or older have suffered 10% of the known COVID-19 cases in Minnesota but 80% of the deaths.

Rhame said the death risk is “20% for people above 80 years of age, and less than a tenth of a percent for people in their 20s who are otherwise healthy, and it varies as a continuum in between.”

And he could have added that approximately 98 percent of decedents in Minnesota suffered from one or more specified underlying health conditions in addition to diabetes and heart disease. What are they again?

Having followed the politics and journalism of the epidemic in Minnesota, I should add that I found the death rate data presented by Minnesota Department of Health Director Kris Ehresmann at this past Friday’s press briefing more illuminating than Olson’s article. At about 25:00 of the audio that I posted in part 77 of my never-ending series, Ehresmann gave COVID-19 case fatality rates broken down by age. The fatality rates range from .01 percent in the youngest group to 59.6 percent among those in their 100’s. That’s why it’s good that the new cases skew heavily to younger demographic groups.

I asked Kevin Roche to take a look at Olson’s article. Kevin concurs in substance with my concerns about the story:

I don’t understand the point. The case fatality rate is obviously unknown but obviously also incredibly stratified by age, as is the population fatality rate. The overall case fatality rate is falling rapidly in the United States because the testing is at such a high rate that we are finding all kinds of asymptomatic and mild cases. But we still have no idea how many people have really been infected. The CDC’s estimate is ten times the reported number of cases. I think that would be 44 million cases in the US.

Nationally, 148,000 deaths (and I am more convinced after looking at the Minnesota death certificates, that we are wildly over-attributing deaths to coronavirus) is a 0.33 percent case fatality rate. It will go much lower because of what I view as front-loading of the most susceptible. In Minnesota for example, how many more long-term care residents could we kill?

The message that should be communicated is that unless you are over 70 or have some serious pre-existing illnesses, your risk is extremely low. It is truly less than the seasonal flu. For older people, it is very dangerous. It is just that simple.

These are the points to be made and obfuscating them is something other than a public service. Follow Kevin’s work at Healthy Skeptic.

On a related note today, the Issues and Insights editorial “Florida Is A Case Study In Media-Induced COVID-19 Panic” presents an extreme case.