My Turn: What COVID says about us

For the Monitor
Published: 1/20/2021 8:34:53 AM

Last year, I hoped that Granite Staters would continue their practice of physical measures to control the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and to be prepared for the delays in the implementation of a vaccine program. Unfortunately, since that time, our daily case rate has risen dramatically by approximately 3,000%, and the vaccine rollout is significantly behind schedule.

A small amount of this increase can be attributable to the addition of rapid antibody-based testing. Unfortunately, at this point, we have lost the ability to control this pandemic by physical means; only through the acquisition of herd immunity by vaccination can we expect to bend the curves of cases and deaths.

Now comes a dire report from the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 14) that the true death toll looks to be much worse than official reports. In this report, they show that in “the U.S. alone, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show more than 475,000 excess deaths through early December, a time frame that also included about 281,000 deaths linked to COVID-19.” This represents an additional 194,000 deaths over and above what attributable to COVID. Typically, U.S. deaths grow about 1.6% a year as the population grows and ages. Cerebrovascular diseases like strokes are up, as are deaths from diabetes and high blood pressure, and people avoiding hospitals and rationing medicine is likely a factor.

Medical experts have known that COVID is a multi-organ disease, so a spike in these cases is not entirely unexpected. However, a spike in deaths among patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia has been particularly acute, highlighting the risk of nursing home lockdowns on already fragile residents. Put another way, many of these deaths would not have happened had people with co-morbidities not contracted COVID. Why these deaths are not reported as COVID deaths is unclear.

Using this national excess death ratio from the Wall Street Journal, for Granite Staters, these “excess” deaths add over 600 deaths on top of the currently reported 900 COVID deaths. This assumes there is no change to the ratio of excess deaths to normally anticipated deaths. However, with the arrival of a new, more transmissible variant of the virus, B1.1.7, that could sweep the United States in coming weeks and become the dominant strain as soon as March, this may not be a safe assumption. Nationwide, an additional 92,000 could die from the virus over roughly the next three weeks, according to the CDC. If the curve does not flatten until we achieve herd immunity, the number of deaths would increase dramatically. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projects almost 3 million deaths by May of this year without factoring in the “excess” death numbers. This amounts to almost 1% of the U.S. population. These are terrifying numbers indeed.

The reason behind these troubling trends is clear. More and more people are disregarding the public health warnings about high-risk behaviors, such as traveling during the holiday seasons and gathering in family groups, and attending super-spreader events. Perhaps the yearlong duration of the pandemic has frayed our patience and being social creatures, there is a limit for some on how long we can remain vigilant and isolated. But if the ultimate cost of our social nature is the concomitant deaths of millions of our fellow citizens, one must ask if this ultimate expression of freedom of choice represents a clear and present threat to our values that bind us together as a society – values such as compassion, the dignity of all people, justice, integrity, and freedom from fear, all of which lead to responsible citizenship and promoting a civil society. Have we reached that point?

(Walter King lives in Dover.)

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