The math of the coronavirus outbreak is like the math of the election – over time, as more is counted and more detail becomes known, the big picture is revealed and becomes irrefutable.
Yet big parts of society are stuck in denial about both.
“The anti-MAGA media clearly knows that the presidential race is far from over,” a local state senator, Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, wrote to his constituents the other day.
“Look for a lot of news about COVID-19 outbreaks as they try to distract people from the election.”
This is a fever that I naively thought would have broken by now. Here is a state senator, one of Donald Trump’s biggest backers in our state, who apparently believes that the current surge of the disease isn’t any more real than the fact that Trump just got fewer votes than his opponent.
Of course Trump himself has said he won the election and all this talk of “COVID, COVID, COVID” would be gone by now. We’re stubbornly all still talking about it – what to do about Thanksgiving is the talk of the town. So now they’ve come up with a new tack, which is that we’re only talking about the phony pandemic to cover up the stolen election.
It’s tenacious, this fever. When will it break?
It seems to be ebbing in some places. The Utah governor, confronted by jammed hospitals and a recent coronavirus case rate four times what we have here in Washington, finally declared an emergency, imposing a statewide mask order this past week. Exasperated, he said: “We can’t afford to debate this issue any longer.”
The governor’s former chief of staff told the Wall Street Journal that Trump’s defeat maybe had started to lift a sort of red-state fog.
“It’s harder when you have someone in Washington, D.C. — the president of the United States — perpetuating the idea that there are politics involved in masks,” he said. “We’ll see more of this.”
But meanwhile over in Idaho, the board of health for the northern Panhandle counties recently canceled its mask rules, after some board members said they doubted whether the coronavirus even exists.
One health board commissioner lectured doctors at the meeting that he believed every case of COVID is actually a “false positive.”
“The question I’d be asking myself if I were you is, something is making these people sick – and I’m pretty sure it’s not coronavirus – so the question you should be asking is, what is making them sick?” he said.
That guy’s on the health board! Here’s a strong hunch: He also believes all those Biden votes were “false positives.”
Now you can say, “Oh come on, Westneat, these are just some cranks, so what difference does it make?” Maybe that’s true, although one of them remains, for now, the president of the United States.
But the thing about a public-health crisis is it needs near universal buy-in, otherwise efforts to wrestle the virus down won’t work. If there’s an earthquake in Seattle, it doesn’t really matter if people in Idaho or Ferndale believe it. But the nature of a contagion, with its spreading waves, is that it won’t be contained with finality in any of the regions or states unless it’s contained in all.
As everyone was fixated on shifting percentages in the ballot counting, Fred Hutchinson infectious disease researcher Trevor Bedford did some math on what’s coming at us in the pandemic.
“Rarely have I been so depressed by a simple calculation,” he said.
It turns out the coronavirus last spring was like election night – we didn’t have enough data in the moment to really know what was going on. But since about July, the pandemic has revealed itself.
The percentage of infected people who die has declined markedly since the spring, Bedford writes. This is great news. But the catch is that it has settled into a steady, ruthless calculus, where for months now this “case fatality rate” has bottomed out at around 1.8%.
His review of all 50 states also shows there’s an average 22-day lag between when patients are diagnosed with COVID-19 and when a death gets reported.
Bottom line, Bedford says, is that in 22 days about 1.8% of cases diagnosed today will likely be reported as having died. So a seven-day average of 100,000 cases now equals 1,800 deaths in three weeks.
“I expect the U.S. to be reporting over 2,000 deaths per day in three weeks time,” he wrote on Monday, noting that there had been 118,976 new coronavirus cases that day, Nov. 9. “Importantly, this doesn’t assume any further increases in circulation and is essentially ‘baked into’ currently reported cases.”
By Friday, though, the number of cases had rocketed past 175,000. You do the math: 1.8% of that number – it’s brutal.
“Like so often during the pandemic, I’d love to be proven wrong,” Bedford wrote, after he was inevitably called fake news on Twitter.
Everyone, believers or non-believers alike: This is a dicey moment. We’ve got to face up to it — that until a vaccine is ready, more restrictions and closures are coming. Political leaders have got to somehow pierce the current climate of distrust to reset our course.
They should start with more financial aid to people and businesses, pronto. I don’t know, maybe if we pay people enough coronavirus relief, more people will believe the coronavirus is real?
The math has gotten simpler: Either break this fever, or it breaks us.