Whatever slows it down

OK, if you insist that COVID-19 is just like the flu, I could agree if you dropped “just.” It’s like the flu, sort of – but much deadlier and, in all likelihood, more contagious. I’ve seen the COVID-19 mortality rate estimated at 2.3%, which would have implied 800 thousand deaths in the 2018-19 flu season in the US (35.5 million cases). If the R0 ratio is 2.2 for the coronavirus compared with 1.3 for the seasonal flu, then the former is 70% more contagious than the latter so we can increase the number of cases to 60 million and the number of potential fatalities to 1.4 million.

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that less than 500 thousand people were hospitalized during the 2019-8 flu outbreak. Some 10%-20% COVID-19 patients develop a serious condition so one would expect at least 3.6 million people to require hospitalization in the US. Around 5% – 1.8 million – would have to be placed in “critical care.” It’s way more than the American health care system can handle. It’s a like a panic bank run or demand for natural gas on an extremely cold day, only much worse, obviously.

All of this seems self-evident today but it is wisdom of the hindsight. It helps understand why the Chinese built the makeshift hospital in such haste and why they crippled (as it seemed) their economy through quarantines and travel bans. They had more time to estimate the contagiousness and mortality than anyone else. The downside risk was that hospitals would soon be overwhelmed, increasing mortality, and the people would rightly blame the government for failing to provide an essential service.

This said, Trump’s latest travel restrictions are steps in the right direction although more limitations on movement are probably necessary to slow down the spread of the virus in the US.

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