The media is trumpeting recent geographic increases in documented COVID-19 cases to implicitly or explicitly shame states that are reopening their societies. “Record spike in new coronavirus cases reported in six U.S. states as reopening accelerates,” reads a recent Reuters headline.
Inexplicably, many of these scare stories make no mention of the corresponding vast increases in COVID-19 tests. “There are a lot of reasons why coronavirus cases are spiking around the country,” writes Politico, which proceeds to list several so-called contributing factors, including “state leaders [who] were slow to impose COVID restrictions and quick to lift them.”
Missing from this list: Any mention of vast increases in testing. Over the last week, the country has conducted 3.4 million tests, about 40 percent more than one month ago. Given numerous antibody studies showing that the disease is far more widespread than just those with official positive diagnoses, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that case counts are rising with testing capacity.
What’s more of a surprise is that, in spite of this testing increase, the number of documented new infections nationwide has remained flat. Even in states that are supposed “hotspots,” the number of new cases has generally tracked new tests. Same story here in California.
This testing data, then, hardly justifies pausing societal reopening as the media claim. Rather, the latest virus information provides additional justification to proceed with the return to normal life.
The CDC recently revised its estimated COVID infection fatality rate down to just 0.3 percent. That’s more than an order of magnitude lower than the original estimate used to justify societal lockdowns. The number of COVID deaths continues to decline, falling in half nationally over the last month, according to a seven-day moving average. The curve hasn’t just been flattened, it’s been crushed.
Yet the media and some politicians, including California Governor Gavin Newsom, have shifted the shutdown goalposts from flattening the curve to eradicating the virus. Even this revised death rate overestimates the danger of the disease. Nearly half of all COVID deaths have occurred in nursing homes. About 93 percent of all deaths have occurred among those with an average of 2.5 comorbidities.
More than 80 percent of all deaths have come from those aged 65 and older. In other words, if you’re young or healthy, this disease poses a similar threat to the seasonal flu and, at worst, the 1957 Asian flu or the 1968 Hong Kong flu, neither of which brought about economic lockdowns.
It’s worth investing resources to protect the most vulnerable among us — the sick, aged and institutionalized — but COVID doesn’t justify maintaining current societal restrictions, which have significant consequences of their own. The biggest impact of lockdowns that I’m seeing as a physician is people delaying needed medical treatment for fear of catching COVID. Cancer tests and diagnostic screenings are down about two-thirds, according to one analysis. People with chronic diseases are skipping the chronic care needed to treat them. Given the importance of early treatment, the lack of doctor visits poses a major threat to lifespans.
There are also socio-economic consequences that cause mortality increases. Roughly 45 million Americans, and 5.4 million Californians, have filed for unemployment benefits over the last three months. The relationship between unemployment and all-cause mortality clear. Every percentage point increase in unemployment is associated with 37,000 excess death.
Alcoholism, depression, and domestic abuse are all on the rise. Hard liquor sales are up by 75 percent, according to one estimate. There’s a national shortage of Zoloft, a popular antidepression medication. And community activists around the country, including in California, are sounding the alarm about rising domestic violence rates. Suicides will almost surely rise.
These are the types of stories that need to be told. We don’t need more click-bait about rising infection rates that ignore associated testing increases. We’ve flattened the curve. Now it’s time to restart the moribund economy, which poses a much greater threat to the average person than this disease. People should follow these facts over the media’s fear.