COVID-19: Milder than We Thought

The latest numbers from the state and hospital-association COVID-19 dashboards suggest that the coronavirus in Virginia still is retreating. The seven-day moving average of test-positive cases for COVID-19 tests continues to fall, hitting a new low of 5.8%.

Meanwhile, two measures of intensive hospital utilization have hit new lows. The number of COVID-19 patients in Intensive Care Units fell t0 219 yesterday, down from a high of 469 in early April, while the number on ventilators declined to 99, from a high of 302 in mid-April.

New research from the federal Centers for Disease Control suggest that only one in ten COVID-19 cases have been identified through testing, so the number of confirmed cases, which stands at 60,570, is likely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If the national rate holds true here, more than 600,000 Virginians have contracted the virus. In other words, about 7% of the population has been infected. The bad news is that the virus still has a long way to run.

Here’s the good news: If that 600,000 figure holds up, and if the Virginia Department of Health’s 6,071 figure for the number of hospitalizations is reasonably accurate, it means that only 1% of the population that gets the disease ends up hospitalized for it. Given the 1,700 Virginia deaths so far, it also means that only three out of 1,000 who get the disease die from it.

Bacon’s bottom line: COVID-19 is definitely worse than the run-of-the-mill flu, but not orders-of-magnitude worse. It does not justify shutting down the economy. Governor Ralph Northam has loosened up his emergency restrictions to some degree, but continues to hamstring businesses and schools with excessive regulation, as Steve Haner, Jim Sherlock and Kerry Dougherty have vividly demonstrated in this blog.

Northam has said that he is basing his decisions on the science and the numbers, yet I see no indication of any science or numbers behind many of his directives.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the optimal balance between saving lives and salvaging the economy involves three simple things: (1) prohibit large indoor gatherings with the potential to become super-spreader events, (2) focus testing and contact-tracing resources on preventing and containing outbreaks, particularly in long-term care facilities, and (3) urging — not mandating, but urging — everyone to wear masks when interacting with the public indoors.

That’s it. That’s all we’ll need. We’ll get 90% of the life-saving benefit of the lockdown with only 10% of the economic pain. OK, OK, I’m pulling those percentages out of a hat. The precise numbers don’t matter. What matters is the principle: optimizing the trade-off. And those three things will do it.


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