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“If you torture numbers enough, they will say anything you want. If you are good enough, you will not leave any fingerprints.”
— As told by my father, recounting his college statistics professor’s opening lecture
There are all sorts of numbers being thrown around about the Chinese coronavirus, COVID-19. There are all sorts of political agendas underlying every aspect, from governments, to social media content providers (that could be you and me), to paid “journalists.” How are we to think about the risks, the odds, the potential dangers at present and stretching ahead? Also, how is President Trump to avoid a disastrous “Heck of a job, Brownie” moment?
“Heck of a job, Brownie!” Actually “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie.” Those were the careless words of President George W. Bush, as he flew over the unfolding disaster of Hurricane Katrina. He defended these words, later, by claiming he just wanted to buck up the troops, to encourage the federal disaster response team. However, every word uttered on camera or on an audio link is a message to the public as well. It will not do to point fingers at the Louisiana Democrats, governor, and mayor. Hurricanes are national government business, and “heck of a job”, while individuals and families are experiencing catastrophe, is a special kind of stupid, a Bush family kind of stupid. Watch President Trump’s statements closely, as every word said or unsaid will be used against him.
President Trump is already rightly deeply skeptical of the snakes in civil servants’ skins. He needs to strike the right balance of open sympathy for Americans first, and people around the world second, while openly holding our massive public health bureaucracies to strict account. So far, we hear from his team that they have been directed to be “radically transparent.” Disruptions coming on drugs or drug precursors? Already flagged as a known issue, and President Trump has 4 years now of beating the drum, with 3 years of action, to move manufacturing of all sorts back to American soil.
Notice the talk about virus filtering face masks is all about one or two factories in the United States running flat out now. Notice also that President Trump just came back from India, where he praised the progress of the world’s largest democracy. So, he is openly, obviously, working to reduce our dependence on a single foreign source of drugs and drug precursors. India is big in off-label drug production already. Consider that China, long praised by the left for its supposedly superior ability to command necessary actions, is stumbling all over this. Here, President Trump can beat the snot out of the Bernie-Squad “social democrats,” pointing to the relative failure of their preferred healthcare models.
Which brings us to the numbers. The last question in the February 25 HHS briefing was from a Voice of America reporter, who asked for a “reality check,” for a straight comparison of the lethality and transmissibility of the “novel coronavirus,” with “influenza, the current strain that is going around.” Here were the answers:
- Standard flu: 0.1 percent, that is 1 in 1,000 people who come down with the annual flu die of it
- Novel coronavirus: around 2%, but we do not have the denominator anywhere close to right, so estimates differ greatly
- SARS was 9 to 10% (also a coronavirus)
- MERS was 36% (this is also a coronavirus)
- Pandemic influenza, 0.5 to 0.6% over the years, with 1918 at 1.5 to 2%
First, the coronavirus outbreaks look very bad. Yes, and there were relatively few cases worldwide. They either burned out fast or were very successfully contained. They were no Black Death, no smallpox hitting a population without prior herd immunity.
So, what are we to make of the numbers available now on COVID-19? Look at the numbers given on the Worldometer coronavirus page:
Consider the top-line number first. If there are 2,771 deaths out of 81,406 known cases, that is 3.4% death rate. Ah, but wait. The virus has only been known for about 90 days, and many cases are not yet over. Many have not gotten over it. So, the total cases are not the total cases with outcomes.
Perhaps the closed cases are the right metric. Right now, that is 33,141. 2,771 deaths out of 33,141 closed cases. That would be 8.3%, which is in line with SARS.
What about the 2% number? That is caveated heavily by WHO. Basically, it is meaningless because the numbers are entirely too fuzzy.
Is that all as clear as mud? Well, let me give it another stir. The death rate percentage is very low on seasonal flu, but the sheer numbers are astonishing because there are so many cases. The 1918 influenza epidemic “only” killed 2% of those who are estimated to have caught it, but so many people caught it that the body count was stunning, so stunning that the U.S. military absolutely insists that every service member will be immunized every year, between August and December. Woe to any leader having to explain anything under 100% inoculation by late November. So, what is the actual level of transmission over the next few months?
Wuhan itself has an estimated population of over 11 million. If every case in the whole world was assigned to Wuhan, we would be looking at 82 thousand out of 11 million, or less than 1% of that city infected. Sure, we can make up numbers here and talk about communist lies, but that does not work so well when we get to advanced democracies like South Korea or Italy. South Korea has around 51 million people and reports 1,595 cases so far. Italy has a population of slightly more than 60 million and reports 470 cases so far. Japan? 126 million population with 172 reported cases. As you read numbers of cases per country, see if the population is reported. If not, you are getting misleading information, someone is torturing the data, with or without intent.
Watching the presidential news conference, I think the president is struggling with the need to talk up preparedness in his usual terms while not getting into a “heck of a job, Brownie” soundbite. He did make the point repeatedly that the medical professionals are the best in the world, and he called for unity in supporting their efforts, as well as pointing to his own lifetime habit of being a bit of a germophobe, washing hands all the time and avoiding close contact with people who are showing signs of being sick. He latched onto the reported number of cases in America, but this does not reflect the limited testing capability, which may be masking cases. As soon as a reporter ran out Speaker Pelosi’s attack on him, President Trump jumped on it and pulled in Senator Schumer’s comments as well. He framed their remarks as self-serving political remarks that were bad for the country and said everyone should be working together to protect the American people from this disease.
While “best prepared” and “best experts in the world” are objectively true, and while the range of outcomes is very wide, the president knew he was opening himself to the usual playbook. Every increase in the number of cases here will be paired with his best-case scenario words. President Trump did make the point that he was criticized first for restricting travel from China, called a racist. He also made the point, well inside his four-year-old consistent message about America first, that he was concerned first and foremost about our safety, and would restrict travel from any country that was not showing they had a solid grip on controlling disease transmission.
The transcript will be up later, but here is the full event video. President Trump opened with condemnation of a “wicked murderer” who took the lives of five people this morning at a Molsen-Coors brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and offered prayer and sympathy for the victims and their families. He then turned directly to the coronavirus. When the questions started, he quickly turned a question, off-topic, from an Indian journalist, back to the topic at hand. “I don’t want to talk about that (future U.S.-India relations) here, I want to stick to this topic.”
Within the body of the briefing, President Trump pointed out the number of people who die of the regular flu every year, commenting that he had never heard or thought that number could be so high. He then went into what his team had done and what would be done. He appointed Vice President Pence the administration COVID-19 response leader on camera, pointing to Governor Pence’s leadership among governors in healthcare reform and in response to a pandemic. Secretary Azar was asked, at the end, if he felt demoted. Azar emphatically said he was thrilled to get the biggest stick in the government to help him in the whole of government approach.
[Update, late Wednesday evening] John Hinderaker of Power Line watched the same briefing and concluded President Trump handled it well, “Trump Steps Out on Coronavirus:”
President Trump understands, no doubt, that the Democrats are waiting in the wings with their knives out, hoping that coronavirus turns into a disaster that impacts the 2020 election.
Around 23 minutes in, the president retakes the microphone for questions, mostly hostile and all from Democrats. He handled them well.
Democrats hope that coronavirus will be a deus ex machina that will turn the White House over to them, as a result of a Black Death-like pandemic or an international economic collapse. I suppose those things could happen, but my guess is that the Democrats will be disappointed, and their hoped-for catastrophe will fizzle.
May it be so.
- To track coverage, including hearings and statements, here is the C-SPAN coronavirus coverage search page.
- CDC has a Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) page with checklists for your consideration.
- Johns Hopkins University COVID19 statistics, updated frequently.
- The CDC’s US-specific COVID19 statistics, updated on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
- Watch the HHS front page and, if you want to hear what CDC personnel are saying, here is the CDC newsroom page with archived content.