When sirens sound and storm clouds threaten, Minnesotans head to their basements or severe weather shelters. They don’t stand around scoffing at a tornado’s imminent danger because statistics show that far more people die each year from heart disease, cancer or car accidents than twisters.
Yet even with the World Health Organization officially declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, there remains a stubborn skepticism about the serious risk posed by this new coronavirus strain. Over the past week, this has surfaced in reckless comments about “overreacting” made by small but diverse set of public figures, including Jerry Falwell Jr. and sportscaster Clay Travis.
Many justifying their denialism cite the yearly death toll from influenza to downplay the new COVID-19 threat, a point that President Donald Trump regrettably made until recently and one that is still embraced by too many Americans. While it’s true that influenza complications kill thousands of Americans each year, COVID-19 is so new that no one knows what its death toll might be.
Saying “But the flu is worse” is the equivalent of standing next to the living room’s large picture window as a funnel cloud descends from the sky. Yes, far more people die from causes other than a tornado, but the circumstances of this storm require taking protective action.
Unfortunately, delaying or avoiding such measures doesn’t just put you or your family members at risk. It appears that those infected with COVID-19 may be contagious even if they aren’t showing symptoms. The virus can also live on surfaces for hours or possibly days. Social distancing, such as telecommuting and avoiding crowds, is critical to breaking the chain of infection in the broader community.
If you are still seeing flu statistics being used to dismiss COVID-19, consider these additional points:
• COVID-19 presents many unknowns. The virus is so new that it’s difficult to predict how many people may be infected or how many may die from it. But what scientists do know from its early spread is that the mortality rate appears to be 10 times that of seasonal influenza. Dr. Tony Fauci, a member of the nation’s COVID-19 task force, made this alarming point clear in congressional testimony this week.
• A COVID-19 vaccine is at least a year away. An influenza vaccine has been available for decades, and it’s tweaked each year to adjust for the circulating strains. There is currently no vaccine for COVID-19 and one remains a year away at best even as researchers expedite development. Testing for safety and efficacy is still critical, and few shortcuts are available.
• There are no approved medications for COVID-19. Antiviral medications such as Tamiflu exist for influenza. Scientists are racing to find something similar for COVID-19, but clinical studies for one promising candidate, a drug called remdesivir, are just getting underway. Right now, medical care is supportive, meaning symptoms are assessed and managed.
• Hospital capacity is already strained. Influenza often fills up hospital rooms as it makes its winter rounds. COVID-19 would add to this caseload at the worst possible time.
• There is limited testing for COVID-19. Commercial labs will hopefully soon expand the nation’s testing capacity, but constraints on this have weakened efforts to track the virus’s spread.
There is simply no excuse for failing to take COVID-19 seriously. We all have a role to play as this viral storm blows in, with rigorous hygiene, social distancing and canceling events critically important. The weeks and months ahead will be a challenge, but the sacrifices are necessary to protect those most at risk — our loved ones who are elderly or have underlying health conditions. They are worth it.