As we prepare to turn the corner on 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic is still with us. There is a sliver of positive news. At the time of writing, the U.S. numbers seemed to be on the downside of the peak associated with the most recent surge, and two vaccines are in circulation. It remains to be seen if there will be a post-Christmas surge. My naive hope is that people are enjoying family, staying home (if possible), wearing masks, washing their hands and practicing social distancing. I see a light at the end of the tunnel if people can “hunker down” a bit longer as we say at the University of Georgia. Meanwhile, there is something that has long bothered me throughout the pandemic. I decided to opine about the disappointing and telling narrative that goes something like this, “What’s the big deal and all the adjustments? There is a 99 percent survival rate so live your life”
I am certain that you have seen this in your social media feeds or heard a family member say it. It blows my mind that so many people do not understand the concept that small percentages operating on very large numbers is a lot of people. It is my understanding from experts that there is still some uncertainty about the exact mortality rate of COVID-19. Let’s assume that it is 1% for the sake of argument. The U.S. population was estimated at roughly 328.2 million people in 2019. If 1% of that population died, that would be over 3 million people. Heck, 0.1% of 328.2 million people is 328,000 people. I am not ok with either of those numbers. According to the Worldmeters.info website, deaths in the United States from coronavirus have already exceeded the 0.1% number (338,263). The website also notes over 19 million cases and over 11 million recovered.
Dr. Shepherd, why does everyone focus on deaths and positive cases rather than the number recovered? I am glad you asked. I will use my area of expertise to answer this question. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was crazy. There were 30 named storms, multiple Greek names, and billions of dollars in damages. When these storms approach land, we warn about the potential damages and loss of life rather than how many houses are likely to be left standing. The focus on “worst case” outcomes is at the heart of risk preparation and emergency management. It is wonderful that 11 million people recovered from COVID-19. However, medical professionals, hospitals, and other institutions must focus on current or future case COVID-19 numbers or potential illnesses for planning, budgeting, and emergency response functions.
Ok, let’s circle back to this “99% survival rate” stuff. Imagine if the National Hurricane Center issued this warning: “Hurricane SoandSo will make landfall in the Miami area tomorrow, there is a 99% survival rate so don’t take any precautions and we are sorry in advance for the 1% that we will likely lose.” There are over over 6 million people in Miami. 1% of 6 million people is 60,000 lives. That’s would be ridiculous.
Having grown up in a small rural town, I am sensitive to the urban bias problem in media. Let’s consider a small town in the middle of “tornado alley” that has a population of about 10,000 people. If we use the logic of coronavirus “downplayers,” we might be willing to concede 1% of the population if an EF-5 tornado is approaching – Don’t turn on your weather radios, ignore the outdoor sirens, forget about taking shelter. By the way, 1% of 10000 people is 100. I grew up in a small town. You would likely know someone in that number. My point is that these narratives about survival rate are shortsighted, statistics-challenged, and sad.
Unfortunately, a new narrative has recently emerged. Some people on social media are asking why vaccines with 90-94% effective rates are being lauded when the survival rate is 99%. Context is everything folks. Reuters has an excellent explanation. The debunk this foolishness by pointing out that, “The vaccine efficiency is the probability the vaccine will prevent someone from catching COVID-19, while the survival rate is the likelihood that someone who has already contracted the disease will survive.” It’s the well-known “apples vs. oranges” argument (or should I say “snowflakes vs. hailstones”).
As a meteorologist and atmospheric sciences professor, I have watched people struggle with concepts of probability and other statistics for decades. For example, concepts of “percent chance of rain” and the “hurricane cone of uncertainty” present messaging challenges. It is not uncommon for someone to ask, “There was only a 20% chance of rain, so why is it raining?” By the way, my explanation of why that question is ill-posed can be found in a previous Forbes article. The coronavirus pandemic has continued to expose the challenges with face with statistics and math literacy. However, it has also presented opportunities to increase literacy (and maybe compassion too).