Our View: That bedeviling COVID-19 data

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An illustration of the COVID-19 virus. (Image/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
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April 2020 will be remembered as the month America was almost fully shut in and shut down.

States began closing in mid-March: School systems, colleges and non-essential businesses shuttered, while stay at home orders began taking effect. As the calendar flips to May on Friday, a few states are starting to lift some of those restrictions.

When April began, the media was awash with projections saying the death rate from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, could approach a quarter million people. As the month draws to a close, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the source of many of those projections, now estimates just under 73,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. by Aug. 4, with a range between roughly 60,000 and 120,000.

While significantly less alarming, 73,000 is still a lot of people. That’s a lot of grieving families. That’s a lot of communities – like Alexandria – that have lost beloved residents.

We are now reaching a point where difficult decisions have to be made, weighing the short-term physical health of residents against our economic health. We as a community and as a country can’t allow this decision to be seen as a zero-sum equation, because both factors have to play a role in easing the shutdown, and both key elements are multi-faceted.

We need to all strive to ensure that ending the shutdown doesn’t become simply another political weapon used to bludgeon those with whom we disagree for partisan gain in an election year.

Unfortunately, the polling trends on this topic are not encouraging. A mid-April Gallup Poll showed that almost three times as many Democrats thought the coronavirus situation was getting worse as thought it was getting better. Republicans were even more adamant in the opposite direction.

Interestingly, political independents were exactly evenly split, with 39 percent thinking both that the virus situation was getting better and worse.

It appears that to date we may have been relying too much in our decision-making on mathematical modeling, which the IHME uses, and not enough on actual data.

In a Wall Street Journal interview last weekend, Stanford professor/doctor/scientist John Ioannidis talked about an article he wrote in March that argued COVID-19 is far less deadly than modelers were assuming. He used data from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, on which nine of 700 infected passengers and crew members died – a fatality rate in line with that of seasonal flu – as a basis for his argument.

Ioannidis may or may not be correct, but the key point of the article – that there are biases in science and a wide range of opinions on most scientific topics – means that “making decisions based on science,” as many political leaders are now saying, isn’t going to necessarily lead to one clear course of action.

Available data about Alexandria’s COVID-19 numbers are similarly confusing. As of Wednesday, there have been 700 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in Alexandria. That’s a cumulative number, meaning that’s the number of people who have tested positive to date. Since Alexandria’s first case was diagnosed on March 11, it’s safe to assume that a significant number of those 700 people have recovered.

Furthermore, given that some projections indicate up to 80 percent of those with COVID-19 may have no or mild symptoms and thus never get tested, that 700 number in all likelihood wildly understates the true number of Alexandrians who have had the disease. The accuracy of the tests themselves have also been questioned. Some articles have indicated that as many as one in three tests may give false negatives.

A reasonable estimate, taking those two factors into account, would be in the range of 3,000 to 5,000 total COVID-19 cases so far in Alexandria – but no one knows for sure.

And that’s the point: We really don’t know. What we have been treating as the gospel truth to date may have been based on erroneous premises.

So, we all need to go a bit easier on those who want to proceed differently – opening more quickly or more slowly – than we prefer. We are all in this together, and no one has the market cornered on either knowledge or wisdom.

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