Why We Need Numbers—and Why Neither Side Wants Them

In an earlier blog, I mentioned research going on in Germany that is getting at the true mortality rate for COVID-19. Here’s a CNBC interview with Professor Hendrik Streeck, the Director of the Institute of Virology and HIV Research at the University of Bonn.

Professor Streeck and his colleagues have tested the population of Heinsberg, Germany, a city of 250,000 that shut down completely (and communicated with Wuhan for advice) when they discovered they had a high prevalence of COVID-19 cases. They found that because many people did not know they had the virus, the actual mortality rate is far lower than most of the earlier estimates, approximately 0.37%. (Source: Streeck study Heinsberg.)

This has huge implications for places like New York and London that have high density and have had a particularly bad experience with the illness. If you watch the video, though, you’ll hear a sound bite from Bill Gates, who says the study is “not very interesting” because, with the  “extreme containment measures” the US has taken, the number of total infections in the US should be approximately 10 million, so  “herd immunity” is not an option or a goal. I have a couple of questions for Mr. Gates. First, how do you know only 10 million people have been or will be infected? That works out to 3% of the population. Can you honestly tell me that you believe that the entire United States has been more vigilant than Heinsberg, Germany was? That was a contained area, with, by all accounts, a more compliant population. If they had an over 15% infection rate, with only about 3.1% showing any sign of the virus before testing, what makes you think the numbers in the US wouldn’t be similar? And probably even higher in high-density, hard-hit areas like New York. (And yes, probably lower in very remote areas that have not been particularly affected by the disease anyway.)

Why doesn’t Bill Gates want to pursue this particular line of research? I’m guessing it’s partly because we all have a tendency to want to continue in a path we’ve already committed to, but I think it’s also because there is a belief, in this case on the intellectual left (but I’ll get to the right), that people are stupid and if you tell them that the risk is far lower than they’d been told before (but still a sizeable risk), they’ll refuse to do the things that helped to contain the virus to begin with. What leads me to believe this? Well, one good example is the “Trump told people to drink bleach” trope. I went back and transcribed the press conference in which he mentioned disinfectant. Here’s the video:

What he said was:

And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute—one minute—and is there a way we can do something like that—um—by injection inside or almost a cleaning ‘cause you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number alone, so it’d be interesting to check that so that you’re going to have to use medical doctors with, but it sounds interesting to me.

Inarticulate? Absolutely. Inappropriate to a press conference? Yes. Trump treats press conferences like cocktail parties, where he can just talk in a stream of (semi) consciousness and he thinks great ideas will come out. There is nowhere in this little rumination, however, where he says people should go out and ingest disinfectant. Yet we had a lot of hysterical articles like this one in Forbes.

They assert that a spike in calls about ingesting Clorox or Lysol to the poison control centers of a number of states was a direct result of the president’s musings. I was—as I always am by nature—suspicious. First, all the articles I’ve read talk specifically about calls to poison control, not visits to A&E. Second, it’s funny that the same people who believe that Trump supporters are stupid enough to ingest disinfectant because the president suggested it also believe that those people are smart enough to understand that Clorox is disinfectant. Trump never mentions Clorox. I think it’s far more likely that those calls were an extension of the fake memes on Facebook—calls designed to make the situation seem more serious than it actually is. And to paint a group of people as complete idiots. And then to wonder why those people—Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”—can’t be persuaded by their obviously superior logic.

So, then, why does the right not want people to have the information they need? Their reasons are not that different from the left’s. First, they, too, have a course of action they want taken. In this case, it’s opening up the economy. They want things back to normal. One right-wing friend tells me I’m wrong about needing more tests so we have a denominator. She thinks we need to get on with things and develop herd immunity. I don’t think that’s a reasonable path to take at this point, but I also don’t think waiting until the virus goes completely away is reasonable or possible. I think the right in the US is concerned that if people get all the information, including the actual rate of transmission, they may not want to open up, at least in harder-hit areas, and so will prolong the shut-down of the economy.

The other main reason I think both countries’ right-wing governments do not want people to think too hard about the need for testing is that they are unable to deliver on those tests. Look at the UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s rash promise of having 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. According to the government, after a shaky start, they managed to get 122,347 tests on April 30. But then we found out that 27,497 were home test kits that were counted when they were sent to people and 12,872 were kits, not processed tests, sent to satellite offices, which means that only 81,978 tests were carried out (Source: https://fullfact.org/health/coronavirus-100k-tests/). So if the experts say we need far more testing to get the country back to normal, and if, because of bad pandemic planning, the government is incapable of carrying out that testing, they won’t be able to convince anyone to get back to normal. Instead, they’ll rely on slogans (Stay Alert: Control the Virus: Save Lives) and charts to try to convince people that they know what they’re doing. But by keeping it vague, they are making people more concerned than they would be if they were armed with information, even if the information wasn’t what people wanted to hear. As a result, some people are getting tired of lockdown and breaching common-sense rules about social distancing, and some people are refusing to go back to work when it would probably be fine, and mentally healthy, to do so. Neither one of these is a result the government wants, but it seems locked into a “don’t blame us” mentality that inhibits it from moving forward in a reasonable way.

Tomorrow: A question on the BBC today was “What is an acceptable mortality rate?” I’ll talk about this, and the answers of the two experts to whom the question was put.

2 thoughts on “Why We Need Numbers—and Why Neither Side Wants Them

  1. Part of the problem all round is that for testing (which we obviously need to do much more of) to be a reliable reality snapshot, we need to test everyone all the time to assess their current situation and therefore the country’s (and world’s) situation. To do that, what is needed, and how far away are we ?

    1. Accurate (very low false positive/false negative rates) and available to all.
    2. That show if C-19 is current active in that person and/or whether immunity has been gained or that person has no trace of C-19.
    3. Easy to self-administer, and get quickly get results. With companion app that reports centrally for statistical purposes.
    4. That then in someway (as with your previous suggestion) links with other commonly used apps (pub, restaurant, cinema, hotel, airlines as starter set) and alerts the “user” and the facility of person’s status.
    5. The list is practically endless…

    Unfortunately, we as a world are so far away from this, and are so focused on (IMO) the wrong things that it will never happen. On the positive side every little helps!

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    1. For the most part, I agree, although I don’t think we need constant testing of the same people. I think we have to separate what one person might want to know about him- or herself and what we as a community/country/business may want to know about the population. The second will help people on the individual level as well. I think we do need to figure out a way to make this workable.

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