“Covid is a Lie,” shouted a sign carried by a protester in Pacific Beach on Sunday. It’s a view apparently shared by many conservative activists as the stay-at-home orders stretch into a second month.
Behind this is a strongly held belief that the new coronavirus is no worse than the annual flu and therefore America in general, and California in particular, are overreacting, applying a cure that is far worse than the disease.
To defend this view, conservatives are grasping for proof that the number of infections is far higher than the 1,037,526 reported Wednesday afternoon, and therefore the death rate is far lower than the current 5.9%. By comparison, the 2019-2020 season death rate for the flu in the United States was around 0.1%.
Fox News celebrated two heretofore unknown doctors in Bakersfield whose haphazard testing suggested most cases are mild. The Wall Street Journal highlighted a controversial study in Santa Clara County that showed a much higher infection rate than that county’s own statistics.
Sweden is regularly championed by conservatives because it hasn’t closed down under a policy of quickly developing “herd immunity,” though so far at the cost of a 12% death rate.
But if you really dive into the statistics, it’s hard to reconcile a view that coronavirus is everywhere and not dangerous with the reality of testing and mortality to date. For example, consider San Diego County, which currently leads California in per-capita testing.
As of Wednesday, the county had tested 50,271 people, recorded 3,432 positive cases and seen 120 deaths for a case fatality rate of 3.5%.
That’s already more deadly than the common flu. During the 2019-2020 season, which was worse than most, there were 20,591 diagnosed flu cases in San Diego County and 105 deaths for a fatality rate of 0.5%.
If COVID-19 in San Diego County has already exceeded the death toll from the common flu, what’s next? Will it get worse, or will we find as conservatives suggest that most of the cases are mild? Here are three observations from the statistics:
- The trend in testing doesn’t suggest undercounting. The testing is currently skewed toward those who have symptoms. But with each passing day, testing increases and the percentage of positives recorded declines slightly. If the virus was widespread in San Diego County, you would expect the percentage to increase — not decrease — as testing ramps up.
- The case fatality rate is not falling. Four weeks ago, on April 1, it was 1.8%. Two weeks ago, on April 15, it was 3.0%. On Wednesday it was 3.5%. Deaths are currently doubling every 32 days, suggesting the total will reach 240 at the end of May.
- It’s all happening very fast. The annual flu season lasts 14 weeks. We’re only eight weeks into coronavirus in San Diego County.
At Wednesday’s media briefing, Supervisor Greg Cox put this into perspective, comparing national deaths from coronavirus with the 58,318 killed during America’s 18-year-long military involvement in Vietnam.
“We’ve hit 58,000 COVID-19 deaths in just two months. I cite these numbers not to scare people, but to put into context our discussions,” Cox said.
The truth is, we don’t know how many people will ultimately be infected, or how many will die. But this virus is clearly no lie.
Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of Times of San Diego.