The COVID Numbers You MUST Know

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Basic, basic math, and therefore, evidently, beyond the grasp of virtually all doctors, journalists, politicians, pundits, and all us terrified sheep:

  • Percentage of people in the US in nursing homes: approximately 0.4%
  • Percentage of COVID 19 deaths in nursing homes: approximately 60%
  • COVID 19 death rate doctors are throwing around today: 1%

Here’s the math-is-hard part. Since the US is approaching 100,000 reported COVID 19 deaths, we’ll use that nice round number to make it easier:

  • 60% of 100,000 is 60,000. That’s about how many COVID deaths have taken place among nursing home patients – 0.4% of everyone
  • 40% of 100,000 is 40,000. That’s how many COVID 19 deaths have taken place among everyone who isn’t a nursing home patient – 99.6% of everyone.
  • US population is about 330,000,000. Multiplying the total population by 0.4%, we find about 1.3 million nursing home patients in the US . (The CDC agrees)

There are some fancier philosophical considerations that figure into any fancier math, but let’s keep it simple: let’s weight the quoted fatality rate by populations in and out of nursing homes. We’ll start by establishing a ratio based on the (wild, maybe) assumption that everyone is equally likely to catch the virus:

  • 60,000 deaths divided by 1.3 million nursing home patients = 4.615%
  • 40,000 deaths divided by 328.7 million everybody else = 0.012%

Of course, not everyone has caught the virus yet, so we need to change these imaginary deaths rates based on everybody already having caught it to reflect the 1% death rate being tossed about these days. What if everybody catches the virus, and the 1% death rate holds, but split between the nursing home patients and everybody else? That would mean 3.3 million Americans die, up somewhat from the 100K we’re approaching. In this scenario, using the numbers up above:

  • 152% of all nursing home patients will die. That seems unlikely.
  • 0.4% of everybody else will die. That’s 4 out of every 1,000.

Four out of 1,000 is bad. If a person had 250 non-nursing home acquaintances, on average 1 would die of COVID 19. If, again, EVERYBODY gets infected, and 1% is the real death rate.

But nobody any more is predicting 3.3 million deaths. Trends suggest we’re very close to topping out at a little over 100K. But, hey, what do I know? Here’s where you get to plug in your favorite guess of how many Americans will, in fact, die of COVID 19, and see what happens to your chances if you aren’t in a nursing home:

Let’s start with the popular guess of half a million dead. If you’re anticipating 500,000 COVID 19 deaths (which would require a wild reversal of all observed trends followed by an explosion of deaths – but hey, never mind, we’re assuming it’s your number to pick) then the likelihood of a non-nursing home patient dying is:

  • 500,000 divided by 3,3 million is right around 15%
  • 15% of 0.4 is 0.06%.

That’s well above shark attack levels, but within bad flu season levels. Comparable to ‘die in a car accident on my way to work’ level risk. Do you panic over driving to work and demand the government destroy the economy in order to save you? No? If you had 1,167 non-nursing home acquaintances, you’d lose 1 to COVID 19, on average.

Putting in more plausible (but still likely far too high) numbers, like 200,000, gives even lower likelihoods. 200,000 deaths mean you have a 0.024% chance of dying if you’re not a nursing home patient, and so on.

Of course these numbers are just first-pass, get a feel for the landscape bogies. To get a more scientific estimate of the likelihood of any person dying of COVID 19, we’d need a team of actuaries to work on this. Actuaries are the highly trained mathematicians who estimate risk for insurance companies. Unlike us laymen, actuaries are really, really good at understanding risk. They divide people into groups or strata based on a number of risk characteristics, which characteristics are in turn based on years and years of experience and experimentation. Insurance companies have billions and billions riding on the accuracy of the numbers the actuaries come up with, which numbers are revised constantly in response to real-world outcomes. They’re good at their job.

The first thing an actuary would do is look at risk categories, and notice that 95% of the COVID deaths are of people already sick, generally very sick. Almost all are also very old. Sick, old people – the kind of people who end up in nursing homes. For otherwise healthy people, the risk of COVID 19 really is just background noise. (1)

People with no feel for numbers just cannot grasp how ridiculous this panic and resulting lockdown over COVID 19 are. YES, we should have done more to protect the elderly and sick; YES, it would have been prudent to restrict travel from hotspots; PERHAPS locking down NYC for a couple of weeks would have been prudent. But locking down suburban California or rural Montana and anywhere that isn’t a nursing home, hospital treating COVID patients, or perhaps megalopolis with decades of history of criminal mismanagement? For months on end? Shutting down small businesses and putting millions out of work – on purpose? INSANE.

What we have driving the panic are theories – highly dubious, emotion-packed theories. The ‘models’ are nothing but those theories and panic dressed in bad math and run on a computer – as anybody familiar with model building and data evaluation could have told you. (We certainly tried.)

Theories include the efficacy of general lockdowns – any science behind that? Cost benefit analysis? Social distancing – ditto? Nope – 6 feet is a magic distance in all cases; lockdowns save lives without costing other lives. We people who ‘believe’ Science! just *know* these things. To question them is heresy, punishable by burning at the stake!

And the government at various levels suddenly has the duty and power to unilaterally shelve constitutionally guaranteed rights of assembly and religious freedom, and effectively seize the property of business owners without trial or compensation, and throw millions out of work, due to a duty to manage risk just discovered lurking in some emmenation from a penumbra somewhere….

Bottom line: if you’re terrified of catching and dying from COVID 19 and don’t live in a nursing home, or are otherwise quite sick or very elderly, you need to start wearing a helmet at all times. NASA estimates 12-15 meteorites strike earth’s surface every day, after all. Sometimes, a lot more. A guy even died, once. An American woman had a meteorite barely miss her head, and leave her with a terrible bruise. Think of the children!

  1. In case you’re wondering, yes, I briefly worked as a number cruncher – like, adding up numbers from reports on a 10-key, very bottom of the totem pole – in an actuarial department as my very first real job out of college. I balked at the amount of work needed to get my math chops up enough to advance, and changed careers. Math really is hard, sometimes.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

2 thoughts on “The COVID Numbers You MUST Know”

  1. Boy! Have you hit the nail on the head! Risk vs. Benefit among groups. Makes me wonder why actuaries haven’t come out in groups against so much of the reaction. But, our society has become very “keep your head down and mouth shut”, i.e. very lacking in courage and effeminate. Thank you for being the man who will say truth even when others “keep their heads down” and remain Kool Kids. Kudos also, for taking care of M.I.L. in home.

    PS: Might want to edit your denominator from 228.7 million to 328.7 million even though the answer (.012%) is correct (meaning your writing was off, not your math).

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