Letter: COVID by the Numbers

Letter to the Editor

Back when I worked with Buckminster Fuller’s organization, I learned that a few numbers on the back of an envelope can be worth 1,000 words. I encourage you to explore the following numbers using your own assumptions.

By July 1, six months in, less than one percent of Americans were infected (2.5 million cases out of population 330 million). At that rate, getting to 70 percent herd immunity would’ve taken 46 years. But because the rate has accelerated since January, at eight months we’re up to 1.8 percent infected, on pace to reach 70 percent in 35 years. (Globally, with a lower infection rate, the current pace to reach 70 percent is 144 years.) Those timelines will shorten only with accelerated cases or a viable vaccine. 

Meanwhile, a Columbia University study (May 21) found that if Trump had imposed the same distancing measures on March 1 that he did on March 15, then 82.7 percent of 65,284 U.S. deaths as of May 3 would not have occurred. In other words, by that date, 53,990 lives were lost due to just two weeks of Trump’s denialism. Further, the cases that would have been averted by acting on March 1 have continued to spread geometrically, such that today over 90 percent are due directly to his inaction. Of 188,000 deaths in the U.S. to date, 170,000 wear the Trump label.

Can we relate this to the economy? In valuing human lives, U.S. agencies (FDA, EPA, etc.) use various statistical estimates, which cluster around $10 million per person. Reaching ~300,000 deaths in a year would make $3 trillion in lost lives. Meanwhile, GDP is ~$20 trillion; Goldman Sachs expects it to drop nine percent this year, while the Whitehouse’s worst case is an 8.5 percent drop. A 10 percent drop in GDP would be $2 trillion; compare that to $3 trillion in lives lost. Of course, there are umpteen factors in the balance between distancing and “opening,” but at least on a macro level, it appears we’d do better in the long run to prioritize lives over premature commerce.

Opening should only be happening to the extent that we’re able to test, trace and isolate. Contrary to Trump’s CDC’s latest policy, we need tests for the asymptomatic the most, because carriers are most contagious just before symptoms appear. Until that changes, do what you gotta do, but be smart, patient and considerate.

Kraig Hill