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Pandemic: Endgame, Part II

May 25, 2020 | health | 2 Comments

“Be Safe” is the official mantra of our age, and has been for quite some time now. No wonder we're anxious. While 21st century America emerged as the safest time and place in human history, we came to perceive our pampered vantage point as a reality against which the most trivial of threats seemed terrifying. The terrorist attacks of 2001 briefly shattered our illusion, but that didn’t last long. A new generation arose for whom 9/11 was just history.

Now we face a new threat. A global pandemic called COVID-19 has once again disturbed our reverie. This should not be! We must be safe! Government and science will save us! On a recent interview, a former director of the CDC used the word “safe” fifteen times in the course of a 10 minute interview.

There's just one wee little problem......

The world is not a safe place.

The world was never a safe place.

In Part 1 of this series, “COVID-19: Was the bark worse than the bite?” we noted early indications that the disease was far less deadly than initially predicted. Contrary to earlier and more dire forecasts, it was becoming clear that the true average fatality rate was coming in at under 1%. On April 9 we speculated that the US was at or near peak infection. The death curve for New York indeed peaked on that precise date, but other states were still catching up. Based on a rolling 3-day average, the US death curve peaked 9 days later, on April 18.

In Part III of this series, “Covidistan, Coronacita, and Carnivals” we saw how COVID infection fatality rates could vary dramatically between different populations, depending simply on which age group bore the brunt of the illness.

As the pandemic approaches its fifth month, and America begins slowly to emerge from isolation and economic shutdown, there is much we have learned. What do we know now that we didn’t know, or could only guess, at the beginning of March?

What have we learned?

#1. While COVID-19 is much worse than the seasonal flu, it is not nearly as deadly as initially believed.

It is now firmly established that most infections are mild or asymptomatic, never come to medical attention, and are not reflected in the daily statistics. We’ve already mentioned that in prior posts. The evidence continues to mount.

In Eagle County, CO recent antibody testing indicated that 11.5% of the population had been infected by mid-May, with only eight recorded deaths. According to Chris Lindley, the medical director of Vail Health, this meant that 6,300 people in the county have had COVID. Yet only 570 cases were officially recorded and only eight deaths. This meant that over 90% of cases were minimally or asymptomatic, and the true infection fatality rate was less than 0.15%. (8 out of 6300).

Now, the extremely low fatality rate in Eagle County is not The Ultimate Final Number. Breaking news, folks: there isn’t one. Death rates vary widely, depending various factors, but especially the age of the population that is infected. At the very lowest end, Singapore (as of May 24) has recorded only 23 deaths out of 31,616 infections, for a case fatality rate of 0.07%. Their population fatality rate is, to date, 4 in one million. What we do have is a range – and that range is well below 1% (as correctly called by John Ioannidis in mid-March to the consternation of many doomsayers).

At the upper end of the range, the most severely affected region of Bergamo, Italy may have experienced a population fatality rate of 0.57%, or 5700 per million. Almost all of that was attributed to excess mortality in the extreme elderly.

#2. COVID-19 will not be contained or cured.

As of this writing there have been 5.5 million cases of COVID-19 reported worldwide. There is no longer any possibility of containment. Many still speak as though we could halt its spread if we identified every person who was infected, traced all their contacts, and quarantined everyone for two weeAtlantic headlineks (like they nearly succeeded doing in Taiwan or South Korea). That is wildly unrealistic; it is simply not going to happen. This has been known for some time, though few seemed to notice. On February 24, The Atlantic announced “You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus”. It quoted Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch saying “I think the likely outcome is that it will ultimately not be containable.” The article explained:

“Lipsitch predicts that within the coming year, some 40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. But, he clarifies emphatically, this does not mean that all will have severe illnesses. “It’s likely that many will have mild disease, or may be asymptomatic.”

Social distancing only slows the progression. The more who abide by the restrictions, the more slowly it will spread, but whether we have 100% compliance or only 95% makes almost no practical difference. Those who are most fearful of catching the illness can very effectively self-isolate but can never reduce the chance to zero.

#3. The nation’s healthcare capacity was never stressed.

As the United States entered national lockdown, we joined in unison to the chorus of “Flatten the Curve”. Amidst a barrage of panicked reporting from Italy it seemed inevitable that short of drastic action, our future scenario was one of overwhelmed hospitals choosing who would live or die. If only we could at least slow the virus’s progression a bit, there might be an open bed in the ICU when your number was called.

The flood never came. Even in hard-hit New York City, at the peak of infection in mid-April, hospital and ICU occupancy remained below 90%. Was that because of the lockdown? Even that would be arguable, given that the case curve for New York from March 15 forward wasn’t remotely flat. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the United States empty hospitals were facing bankruptcy and healthcare providers faced mass layoffs, furloughs, work reductions, and pay cuts. This was a strange pandemic, indeed.

#4. In hindsight, is difficult to prove that the sacrifices justified the benefits (and it is totally fair to ask).

In early March, there was much we did not know about COVID. All we had was the data from China, and that formed the basis for early models. The unfolding events in Italy pushed policymakers to the brink. We were going to shut down the world’s economy to slow or stop a disease without even knowing the true danger. We were between Scylla and Charybdis – if we waited for more data, it could be too late. It was fair to argue we couldn’t afford to wait for data, though the responses could have been more measured. Shutting down the nation’s healthcare system, banning outdoor activities, returning ill patients to nursing homes were foreseeable errors. (Admittedly, the nation’s healthcare providers were in a tight spot over a nationwide shortage of personal protective gear).

With almost three months of learning behind us, “flattening the curve” seems like a dubious justification for the drastic measures that were imposed. That’s not just because the healthcare system had plenty of capacity. It’s also because there is little evidence they even worked. As of today, eight US states (NY, NJ, CT, MA, LA, RI, MI, PA) and the District of Columbia have witnessed per capita COVID death rates higher than Sweden, which never locked down. Collectively, those eight states and DC account for approximately 2/3 of total US COVID fatalities.

#5. The surest path to a falling infection rate is to start with a really high one.

Federal guidelines currently recommend that States should see 14 days of steadily declining cases before loosening restrictions. Some have been criticized for opening up while their infection rates aren’t dropping. But that’s a moot point, if those rates were low to start with. Infections in New York and New Jersey have been declining rapidly – but only after they attained per capita mortality levels much higher than Spain and Italy. Wyoming peaked at 26 confirmed infections on April 22 and reported 25 new cases on May 24. Statewide, it has recorded 12 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Mathematically, it is incredibly difficult to achieve a sustained reduction from such a low baseline. Wisely, Wyoming began reopening on May 1.

#6. We’re only beginning to comprehend the consequences of the global shutdown.

On April 30, the New York Times reported that because of the COVID-induced world economic shutdown “a half billion people could slip into destitution by the end of the year.” Reversing the extraordinary progress of the last three decades, we may soon again witness starvation on a massive scale.

Other consequences yet to be reckoned include:

Unknowns

There are many things we still don’t know and won’t for some time.

When will a vaccine become available?

In a recent broadcast, Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of health, mentioned that a vaccine had never been developed and brought to market in less than three to four years. Now, there are some ways of speeding up the process, for instance, by having the manufacturing capability already in place. But there is no guarantee that a vaccine will be developed, that it will work, and that it will be safe. (I'm no anti-vaxxer, but I think I'd prefer to see how the first million fare before I roll up my sleeve.) Every other day seems to bring a new report of progress in the vaccine arena. On the in-between days, there is often a new setback.

How many have to be infected for herd immunity?

The consensus so far has been that "herd immunity" would only be attained when 60-70% of a populace became infected. This seemed to be the case for Bergamo. But there are suggestions that herd immunity might be achievable at significantly lower infection rates.

In one pre-publication study, a multinational team of researchers examined the role of individual susceptibility in the rate of spread. While this should be regarded as no more than a tantalizing hypothesis, the authors explain how herd immunity could be achievable with an infection rate as low as 20%:

“A crucial caveat in exporting these calculations to immunization by natural infection is that natural infection does not occur at random. Individuals who are more susceptible or more exposed are more prone to be infected and become immune, which lowers the threshold. In our model, the herd immunity threshold declines sharply when coefficients of variation increase from 0 to 2 and remains below 20% for more variable populations.”

Are there overlooked factors that make the disease less deadly?

Though it has been widely accepted that no one has immunity to the novel coronavirus, that is not necessarily the case. Other coronaviruses cause the common cold, and there is now some experimental evidence that previous exposure to these may confer at least partial immunity to COVID.

It has been known for decades that one side benefit of vaccines is that they can prime the immune system against other potential invaders. The BCG vaccine is used worldwide (though not in the US or most western European states) to enhance resistance against tuberculosis. There have been early indications that the BCG vaccine offers partial protection against COVID, and may account for the low infection and death rates in certain nations.

Predictions:

What is the chance of a mass deployable vaccine in 12 months?

Because it’s never been done before and the technical obstacles seem forbidding, I would not count on a vaccine within the next twelve months. On the other hand, the resources being mobilized toward this effort are unprecedented. Odds of success within 12 months: 50:50.

Is a cure on the horizon?

While there has been much excitement over the relatively modest benefits of Remdesevir, the odds of a highly effective treatment are remote. Viral diseases have been notoriously difficult to cure with medication, and it is very difficult to improve upon a survival rate that is already well over 99%.

How many Americans will eventually die from COVID?

By now we have good and reliable on the risk of death from infection as a function of age and predisposing conditions. The risk for anyone under 20 is nearly zero and for those over 70 it is quite high. The overall death rate for a population depends on whether it is more like Coronacita or Covidistan, Singapore or Bergamo.

Most COVID deaths occur among the elderly, who were already at risk of dying. The case fatality rate of COVID for those over 80 is somewhere between 13 and 20%. The infection fatality rate may be half that or lower. By comparison, the likelihood of a random male over the age of 84 dying in any given year in the US is 15%. There is clear and compelling evidence that COVID has caused an abrupt spike in weekly mortality rates in those areas where it struck the hardest. Still, those spikes could be averaged downward by lower mortality rates in the ensuing months. Or, they may remain elevated due to deferred elective medical care and missed diagnoses. There are many variables involved, and much we cannot yet measure.

The greatest uncertainty involves how many will ultimately become infected. The state of New York leads the US, and in fact the world, in per capita infections that so far generated a population fatality rate of 1500/million (0.15%). If the entire US saw the same infection and death rate as NY, that would total almost 500,000 deaths nationwide (400,000 additional deaths above the current tally). There seems to be little chance of that happening. The US death curve is flattening significantly. We presently stand at about 100,000 deaths but the average daily death rate has dropped by more than half from its peak and continues to decline. Barring another New York-style outbreak in a major metropolitan area, we should end the year below 200,000.

What about a second wave?

The famous “second wave” depends on a number of assumptions that may not hold. It also depends on intense suppression of the first wave, something we have not witnessed. In fact, it was defined as a potential hazard of flattening the curve too much. The present trends suggest neither complete eradication nor a second mass wave, but a continued slow burn with occasional spikes in densely populated regions or should mass gatherings resume.

Prescriptions

Public and private strategies can be categorized along a continuum, from continued lockdown in an effort to completely eliminate the virus, all the way to total indifference and allowing the disease to run its course. Let’s consider five possible responses to the COVID threat. They are not mutually exclusive.

#1. Containment: round up the herd and put ‘em back in the barn

As opposed to merely “flattening the curve”, the idea of containment was that if we could identify and quarantine every infected person, the virus could be stopped dead. Many seem to have thought that could be attainable. If that was ever the goal, the lockdown failed. In New York, while businesses were shut down, the subways were kept open and became a major avenue of spread.

“New York City’s multitentacled subway system was a major disseminator – if not the principal transmission vehicle – of coronavirus infection during the initial takeoff of the massive epidemic that became evident throughout the city during March 2020.”

Jeffrey Harris, National Bureau of Economic Research.

By early May, two-thirds of New Yorkers hospitalized for COVID were infected at home, while under “lockdown”. New York and New Jersey authorities ordered nursing homes to readmit infected COVID patients from local hospitals, leading to higher nursing home infection rates and fatalities. They quarantined the least vulnerable while exposing the most vulnerable.

An astonishing number of analysts, commentators, and possibly most of the public still seem to think and talk as if containment were our ultimate strategy.

#2. Control: pay me now or pay me later

The driving concept behind flattening the curve was to spread infections out over time so the hospitals were not overwhelmed. If any lives were saved, it would be those of heart attack patients, trauma victims, or critical COVID patients who might be denied care for lack of resources. It wasn’t about keeping you from getting it; it was about keeping everyone from getting it at once.

All fifty states are beginning to re-open to some degree. With the curve already squashed flat, the rationale for proceeding slowly is murky at best. Confident talk of "saving lives" is hopeful but unrealistic. The virus will continue to spread no matter what we do. Of all possible interventions, the prohibition of large mass gatherings is most likely to be beneficial. There was a very strong connection between the largest COVID outbreaks and large group events, as seen in New Orleans following Mardi Gras.

With no possibility of containment, no chance of a cure, and a vaccine a long way off, all our best efforts at social distancing serve only to postpone infection, not prevent it. Yet, there is one thing we can do to minimize the loss of life: protect those at greatest risk.

#3. Cocooning: protecting the most vulnerable

Those most likely to die from COVID are people over 65, or those with underlying conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Many of these have the ability to self-isolate until we are closer to herd immunity. We now have sufficient testing capacity to ensure that retirement communities and nursing homes should be able to identify and quarantine infected residents and staff. For at-risk persons who choose to go out and about, we know enough about how the disease is spread that it should not be so terribly challenging to avoid getting infected.

#4. Coming to terms with reality.

America, and much of the world, is now emerging from a dramatic experiment in induced economic coma. We may have saved lives, more probably just prolonged them a bit, but at tremendous cost.

All the talk of “saving lives no matter the cost” is brazen demagoguery. It’s not lives versus the economy. It’s lives versus lives. No one yet knows how many more will die of suicide, or heart attacks, or starvation because of the shock to the global economy.

The economic consequences have already been devastating and are likely to get worse. We need to reopen for business as soon as possible, but it’s not that simple. If governments lifted all restrictions tomorrow, many people would continue to self-isolate out of prudence or fear. That may be the best solution for all concerned – allowing individuals to make their own choices.

We have always allowed people to take risks. The CDC estimates that cigarette smoking continues to cost 480,000 lives per year. It would be simple to ban cigarettes. But they employ many people, and we let consumers assume the risk. We allow teenagers and the elderly to drive, even though getting them off the roads could save many lives.

#5. Courage - a neglected virtue

If this is the Age of Anxiety, then it is an age where Believers can testify through their thoughts, speech, and actions to something better. In the Bible, God commands his people to “fear not” at least one hundred different times. (But not 365!) How many times must a command be issued before disobedience qualifies as a sin? Then fear is also a sin. Now, some may object that fear is just an emotion, and we aren’t responsible for our emotions - but they would be wrong. Throughout Scripture, emotions, sin, and obedience are densely intertwined.

If you are a Christ-follower in this age of COVID, "fear not" applies to you. Just remember that we are accountable only for our own attitudes. This does not constitute a license to judge others still trapped in fear; they deserve our love and compassion.

COVID-19 is a disease to be taken seriously, but this isn’t the Black Death. Many of you will get it, and never know it. Many others will get it and know it, but nearly all will recover just fine. For some of you, or ones you love, it may be the pathway home, where a greater glory awaits. But that has always been true.

“Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’

Isaiah 41:10 NKJV

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About Author

about author

Steven Willing MD, MBA

Dr. Steven Willing received his medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia, completed an internship in pediatrics from the University of Virginia before undertaking a residency in diagnostic radiology at the Medical College of Georgia, and a fellowship in neuroradiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Willing spent 20 years in academic medicine at the University of Louisville, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). He also earned an MBA from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1997.

During his academic career, Dr. Willing published over 50 papers in the areas of radiology, informatics, and management. He is the author of "Atlas of Neuroradiology", published by W. B. Saunders in 1995.

Now retired from clinical practice, Dr. Willing serves as a radiology consultant to Tenwek Hospital in Bomet, Kenya both remotely and on-site. He is presently the Alabama State Director for the American Academy for Medical Ethics, an adjunct Professor of Divinity at Regent University, and a Visiting Scholar for Reasons to Believe.

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