COVID-19 and the Fear Factor

by James A. Bacon

The COVID-19 virus poses a real threat to the public health. I’m not minimizing that. According to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus map, more than 17,000 people around the world have died from the disease. But is the magnitude of the health threat so great that it warrants shutting down half the U.S. economy?

I don’t know the answer. But, then, I don’t think anyone else does either. What I do know is that humans are subject to a herd mentality. We are not so different from the wildebeests in the photo above. You may not see the lion stalking the herd, but if all around you are stampeding in panic, you’d be a damned fool not to join the stampede. And it strikes me that Governor Ralph Northam, who had been relatively restrained in his approach to the virus, panicked yesterday when he put into place some of the most restrictive measures anywhere in the country to slow the spread of the virus. (The only saving grace: State-owned liquor stores are classified as essential businesses to keep open!)

As the Governor’s epidemiologist acknowledged yesterday, Virginia does not yet have an epidemiological model to forecast the spread of COVID-19. Northam is making critical decisions on the basis of incomplete data. What he does know is what’s in the headlines. Is it a coincidence that he acted so forcefully the day after the Washington Post characterized him as under-performing Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser in dealing with the epidemic? The article — commentary disguised as news — equated effectiveness with aggressive action.

Perhaps history will prove Northam acted correctly. But it’s critical at a time like this, with lives and the economy hanging in the balance, for someone to push back — to offer an alternative to herd thinking and media hysteria. So, let’s take a look at the limited data we have to see whether the hysteria is justified.

As of yesterday, the Virginia Department of Health had reported that 3,697 Virginians had been tested for COVID-19 and 254 had tested positive. What does that tell you?

It tells me a lot more than the fact that 254 Virginians were shown to have the virus. It tells me that 3,443 people, or 93%, did not have the virus. These weren’t random people pulled off the street. Because testing kits were limited, hospitals and health authorities limited the testing to individuals who appeared to display symptoms most closely matching the sickness. In other words, this was a highly selective test. One would expect the ratio to be reversed — that 93% had the disease and 7% tested negative. But, no, only a small minority had it.

That data point also suggests to me that the number of people carrying the virus is probably a lot smaller than commonly believed. Look, I’m not an epidemiologist, my ignorance of the subject is profound, and I’ll happily stand corrected. But that’s the way it looks from my vantage point.

On the other hand, it is true that asymptomatic people can spread the disease. Also, we can see from the course of the virus in other countries that the spread can gain momentum with frightening speed. I emphasized that fact repeatedly in my previous posts, in which I began asking (long before anyone else in Virginia) if Virginia hospitals had enough beds to handle an inundation of patients.

But at this point, we’re not even close to overwhelming the system. The number of hospitalized patients — 38 as of yesterday — isn’t even a decimal point in hospitals’ patient populations. Admittedly, as I’ve pointed out in other columns, 38 could become 3,800 in three or four weeks if present trends continue. If….

But there are no “ifs” involved with what’s happening to the economy. We have no idea if Northam’s new measures will make a measurable difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19. But we do know thousands of Virginians have lost their jobs, and that the new measures will ensure that thousands more do as well.

Now, let’s look at the mortality rate. Yes, six individuals have died from the virus so far. In 2018, Virginia experienced 1,283 deaths from the flu, according to Centers for Disease Control data. That didn’t rate a single story. The year before… 1,245 deaths. Not worth a single story. No one freaked out. No one thought it necessary to shut down the economy.

The nation is in panic mode, reinforced by the media fixation — a fixation which Bacon’s Rebellion, admittedly, has shared — on the virus. A corporate executive on CNBC this morning made an astute observation. If the media focused on automobile accidents as it does with COVID-19, we’d be running daily tallies of traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities. Governors would be urging people to stay home and restricting travel to mass transit and bicycles. Bernie Sanders would be denouncing greedy auto manufacturers. Congress would be clamoring for trillions of dollars in new spending.

There is no evidence that Northam’s more cautious approach (before yesterday) was any less efficacious than Hogan’s or Bowsers. The incidence of COVID-19 was no higher in Northern Virginia than in Maryland or D.C., And I question whether the new, tighter measures will make any difference.

I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. But it’s worthwhile for the wildebeests to take a look around before stampeding off the cliff. Maybe there wasn’t a lion after all.

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17 responses to “COVID-19 and the Fear Factor

  1. My family was scheduled to go into a blind panic about covid-19 last Saturday at 7:00 pm, but at the last minute we decided to hold off for a few more days…

  2. I repeat here a comment I made about an earlier piece. Governor Cuomo among others has joined with the President to speak about a need to pivot soon to getting people back to work while the seniors and those with underlying conditions stay sheltered in place. The Wall Street Journal has editorialized about the same thing. Causing another Great Depression by being totally imprisoned by the singular remedy of social distancing and applying it to all Americans is the biggest danger of what we are doing. As of March 19, the CDC estimated deaths from the regular flu had already killed 22,000 Americans. We don’t shut down the economy for the flu. I understand the difference, so no calls and letters please, but the restoration of the economy before it is permanently damaged is as high a priority at some point soon as social isolation against COVID-19. Elected leaders will make that tough call. We can just hope that they have enough good advice on the two competing goals to make the right decisions. At that point having a Governor who is a physician may not be optimum. We’ll see.

  3. Jim,
    As I noted in my Roanoke Times column Saturday, relative risk analysis is not easy for homo sapien to easily grasp. Today’s WSJ carried a good piece on understanding the differences between uncertainty and relative risk.

    Uncertainty drives fear and fear of course drives panic. Understanding risk, on the other hand, requires data. Decisions makers need a lot more of that, as you well opined on Gov. Northam’s rash decision to close schools.

    You guys at BR have been doing a great job of providing data and raw information in order for us to better understand our risks – individual and/or collective risks. Hats off to you.

    Here is link to WSJ commentary.

  4. “Admittedly, as I’ve pointed out in other columns, 38 could become 3,800 in three or four weeks if present trends continue”

    And this is the thing: humans do not do well with exponential numbers or randomness. Humans do not do well with things we cannot see or experience directly. We’ve been social-distancing and people want results now. Unfortunately, we won’t know whether this has worked or not for several weeks.

  5. In the early stages of a crisis facts are always hard to come by. Is the death rate for COVID-19 3.4% as the WHO maintained or about 1% as the Trump Administration said? How infectious is Coronavirus? Can it live on metal surfaces for a few hours or 17 hours (as was recently reported)? Does it hang suspended in air for up to 3 hours?

    In times of uncertainty aggressive action is warranted. Was COVID-19 going to be just another flu season, another H1N1, another Spanish Flu or a modern bubonic plague?

    In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 all commercial airline flights in the US were grounded. This was a responsible reaction. Once the situation was better understood the flights resumed. This was also a responsible action.

    Once the facts settle down the question arises as to how we will work our way back to normalcy. That’s the question that Cuomo and Trump are considering. Good for both of them. Maybe it’s too early to start unwinding the restrictions, maybe not. Given that a number of countries like South Korea have apparently contained the virus with an impact more like a typical flu season than a new bubonic plague perhaps we need to consider the path back.

    The problem is that while Gov Cuomo deals with the worst outbreak in America while looking forward to a future after the outbreak Virginia’s state government falls all over itself stumbling and mumbling despite the fact that we have a very low count of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

    What’s the plan Ralph?

    • djrippert – Insert BR Like Button here. Well said.

      From my own experiences at Virginia Tech in 2007, I can reaffirm that getting facts in early stages of a crisis is exceedingly difficult.

      • Ralph is a gnat on a dogs butt in the overall scheme of things in many respects.

        In terms of knowing things upon which to base decisions. The scientists have never wavered. They have, from the very beginning said that this is not a normal flu, not even a normal epidemic but people have not believed them and continue to want to have someone else tell them something different. Trump did it but so incompetently that it’s not really surprising but Cuomo is an accomplished talker… he’s NOT saying what Trump is saying.. he’s actually sticking with what the scientists are saying but then he’s arguing that Govt needs to be smarter than one-size-fits-all but many folks are not listening carefully enough and think he and Trump are on the same page.

  6. To give him credit, the President raised the issue of acting soon to restore normalcy except for the most vulnerable to protect the economy the day before Gov. Cuomo raised it. They are both very smart and experienced New Yorkers. Perhaps an Eastern Shore upbringing, VMI and a Norfolk medical education and career did not properly prepare Gov. Northam to consider economic impacts alongside of medical impact. Virginia should shelter the most vulnerable and unwind restrictions on the rest of Virginians soon.

  7. I think the idea than the younger folks are not at risk is wrong if the science is correct. The young will die at lower rates but many will die also. It’s pretty repugnant to see this as “let the old folks die and the rest of us will go on”.

    You can shield the elderly but this contagion may well still rage like a wildfire through the younger and if it does, we do not have the healthcare capacity to save the lives of those who are seriously affected. Many more than the elderly will be hurt.

    I see a big difference between what Cuomo is saying and Trump – and Northam to be honest.

    Cuomo railed that Trump and company are NOT focused on hospital capacity but rather choosing to restart the economy while the hospitals are overwhelmed. Cuoomo is advocating a walk and chew gum approach. I have no faith that the Trump administration is capable of that and to be honest, not Northam either. Face it, neither of them are configured to do this. If you want to call Northam “weak”, fine but I bet there are a lot of states that are similar. One WOULD expect New York to be more capable…

    • I see no reason why New York’s governor should be more capable than Virginia’s governor. New York has a litany of problems. It’s losing people faster than any other state and is likely to drop in Congressional representation in 2022 once the 2020 census is taken and calibrated. People are voting with their feet and they are voting “no” on New York as a whole.

      In the current crisis Cuomo is proving to be a capable crisis manager / leader. What he is doing is not that hard to understand. He is very publicly getting out in front of the problem. Why is this hard for Northam to do and why should we accept politicians that can’t lead in a crisis?

      • RE: Losing people faster than any other state – In January, 2014 Mr. Cuomo essentially told everyone who disagrees with him that there is no place for them in New York. Maybe people listened.

        • Cuomo now is beginning to wear a little thin. A detect a hidden agenda, old nature, and brass knuckle pol peering out through a disguise.

        • and the critics in Virginia pining away for Cuomo instead of Northam…… 😉

          one might think that Cuomo is in a pissing contest with Trump and DeBlasio at the same time.. A group contest!

  8. >>If you want to call Northam “weak”, fine but I bet there are a lot of states that are similar.

    C’mon, Larry. Could we hear analysis from you other than, “…And so’s your momma”

    • @Crazy – same question to you. What state Gov would you prefer to Northam besides Cuomo? Hogan or the Gov of NC or WVA or Iowa?

      see.. the critics don’t know guano… but they got lots to say… ugh

  9. Don’t compare Cuomo just to Northam. Compare him to Hogan or Newsome or NC Gov or others…

    Why is the Gov of New York on prime time TV and no others?

    He’s clearly an accomplished leader and gawd knows he talks and talks…and give himself credit – good lord… but Northam is not Gov of a major population state where such candidates have to meet higher standards of expectations to go forward.

    What would be your alternative to Northam? His GOP opponent?

    What other GOvernor besides Cuomo would you want Northam to emulate?

    I think you’re way over the top on this.

  10. Northam is no Cuomo – for sure.

    But you criticize Cuoma like ya’ll are criticizing Northam and there would be major push back from the Gov office. Listen to Cuomo – he’s armed and cocked to hit back at his critics… Northam is a wimp compared.

    And I suspect that because he is a “wimp” that it emboldens attacks from the chattering class… of which we seem to have plenty of these days.

    Northam actually has made judgement calls. And the guy who criticized him for NOT making decisions NOW are on him for making decisions. It’s the same type folks – the once who are going to criticize…they just have to figure out what to criticize over so they don’t look like dumasses.

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