Coronavirus Update: What Do We Know?
The United States is still in the early stages of the coronavirus, COVID-19, outbreak. One of the Bible’s brilliant proverbs, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” may prove great advice in sifting through the coronavirus coverage. From a broad perspective, here’s what we know:
The numbers are still relatively low, but they can grow quickly.
In the U.S. there are about 3,600 reported cases and close to 70 people have died. Over 1,100 new cases were reported over the weekend. The major fear in a pandemic is exponential growth. The growth rate is more important right now than the number of confirmed cases. In some places the growth rate has been close to 30% day to day, which means the number of cases doubles every two days. Growth by addition is relatively easy to control, but exponential growth, like what’s happened in Iran, Italy, and the Wuhan region of China, is the major concern.
High risk groups include the elderly, immunocompromised, and those with previous lung damage.
In the United States especially, and elsewhere, those over 70 account for an extremely high percent of deaths. Almost 60% of U.S. deaths have come from King County in Seattle, Washington, where several nursing facilities have been overrun by the virus. One facility alone has seen 27 deaths, over a third of all U.S. fatalities. This situation in Washington is tragic and we should pray for those who have lost loved ones and for those who remain in these facilities. Elsewhere, these statistics have also proven true. Italy, the country with the most deaths outside of mainland China, is the second oldest country in the world.
These statistics bear out several important points. The total number of deaths in the U.S. outside of Washington and the elderly population is extremely small. This should calm some of the hysteria over the death rate. However, given that the virus can be spread by those who have no or mild symptoms to those who may be at risk, younger and healthier people still bear responsibility to keep others safe. The social distancing and large group bans do the greatest good for the most vulnerable.
Social distancing will slow down the spread of the virus.
Because of the way the virus spreads, social distancing is one of the most effective precautions. Here’s one important clarification - social distancing may not drastically change the number of infections, but it will spread them out. This Washington Post simulation is one of the best resources available for understanding the impact of social distancing.
Will it really be that bad? There have been many attempts to put the spread of the virus into perspective. Heather MacDonald points out that the global death toll (5,123) is still just a fraction of traffic deaths (~38,000) on a yearly basis. Her question, “Compared to what?” is worth asking and does cast a different light on some of the apocalyptic language. She ends on a persuasive note, we should be concentrating efforts on the nursing homes and hospitals that are bearing the brunt of the load. She could turn out to be right, but the downside of being wrong is worse in this scenario than the downside in overreacting. The UK has decided to take this same kind of calculated risk, and while they’ve faced severe pushback, their modified strategy may work.
Different places are approaching things differently. For the most part, governors and mayors have been the ones driving local policies, but now that the President has declared a state of emergency, the federal government could take a more active role. In New York, governor Cuomo set up a containment area managed by the National Guard in New Rochelle. Ohio and Illinois have joined other states in closing down restaurants and bars statewide. What measures should be taken by the government is a debatable topic, especially in the U.S. as compared with other countries around the world, but social distancing only works when people, including young people, actually do it.
Overwhelming the healthcare system is the worst case scenario.
Get ready for some really big numbers. So far, the effect of tracking every single case in the U.S. has acquainted us with very small numbers in relation to the overall population. This does not diminish the fact that every life counts. However, the total number of cases still represents 0.0011% of the population. In Italy, only 0.042% of the population has been affected. If that happens in the U.S., it would mean 140,000 cases. If only 1% of the US population is affected, that will be 3.3 million cases. With a death rate of 1%, that could mean 33,000 deaths. That number is still smaller than traffic deaths in the U.S. every year, but it’s a huge increase from what we’re looking at right now. Obviously we hope and pray this doesn’t happen, but the population of the U.S. is so large that even tiny percentages make a huge difference in scale.
The most pressing potential threat of the virus is that the nation’s healthcare system will be overwhelmed. This tipping point could make the difference of tens of thousands of lives. To put things in perspective, somewhere around 10% of people will go to the hospital for their symptoms. There are around 100,000 ICU beds in the country, and many of those are already full. It wouldn’t take a huge increase in severe cases of the coronavirus to max out our capacity to treat people who need it. This is why delaying elective procedures, ordering more ventilators, and equipping as many healthcare professionals as possible to safely respond are such important measures to take.
The financial markets are also a growing concern. This morning stocks plummeted again, triggering a third pause in the market in the last week. The Fed cut rates on government bonds to zero and pledged $500 billion to buttress the economy.
There are a lot of people who will need help.
The government is taking precautions to help those in need. The House has passed a bill that would pay for coronavirus testing, sick leave for many American workers, food assistance programs for school cancellations, and boost unemployment insurance benefits. Even as many disagree over the underlying problems that have led to the need for the emergency relief package, it’s hard to disagree that this is the government at its best in responding to the virus. It’s time for the government to move past partisan disputes and do what they were elected to do.
The government shouldn’t carry all the responsibility to help those who need it. I’ve loved seeing how many NBA players have donated money to pay arena workers who won’t work due to cancellations. We all have this responsibility and we should be generous, proactive, and creative in using what we have to help people who need it.
God is still in control, and this may be an opportunity for revival.
In the wake of all the panic, news coverage, closures, and cancellations, it’s easy to lose sight of our bedrock: God is still in control. He’s not surprised. He’s not threatened, He’s not cancelling any of his plans. The best things we can do are to think, pray, and watch for what God might be doing in all of this.
The coronavirus is a stress test for our world; not just for the economy or our social institutions, but for the spirit of people around the world. It is a shock to the spirit of the American people but we are responding. Fighting this virus doesn’t look like sending people to war or stoking the fires of American production, but it will demand our care for the most vulnerable, patience, courage, and fortitude. We need great leadership, and in the coming months, we’ll see who the great leaders are, some we already know and many we don’t. But even more than that, we need every person to do their part, to band together, to be generous, and to trust in strength and the wisdom of God. No virus can thwart his plans or his purposes.
As Christians, we expect that this will lead to God’s glory in our lives and in our world. We hope and pray for revival. Let’s see how God comforts the brokenhearted, humbles the strong, fulfills his word, provides for his people, and draws people to himself in the coming weeks.
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