CHRIS POWELL: Government, journalism made virus epidemic scarier

Published on Monday, 5 April 2021 21:14
Written by

Government, journalism

Made virus epidemic scarier

While Governor Lamont's office has conscientiously produced detailed virus-epidemic data every weekday for a year now – a triumph of organization and persistence – his administration and news organizations have made too much of it and the governor himself is gently backing away from it.

The daily data has included three main components: the number of people newly testing positive for the virus, the new hospitalizations of people carrying the virus, and new "virus-associated" deaths. The data components may be the best that could be devised but they really aren't so meaningful.

The administration long stressed the first component, the "positivity rate," and news organizations still do. But this is the least meaningful component. When it is reported that, say, 4 percent of people tested for the virus on a particular day were positive, it gives the impression that this reflects the degree of infection in the whole state. Instead it is only a measure of the people who chose to get tested that day. Since many may have gotten tested because they weren't feeling well, the testing sample is doubly unrepresentative.

Further, the tests themselves are unreliable. They produce many false positives and many positives involve people who have no symptoms or only mild ones.

The governor lately has been annoyed by the continuing emphasis on the "positivity rate," since Connecticut's rate is higher than that of many other states, giving the impression that there is more infection here when the difference may be only a matter of Connecticut's doing more testing. So the governor wants to keep reopening the state and to pay less attention to the "positivity rate" and more to the second component of the data, hospitalizations of people infected with the virus. This component is indeed more relevant, bearing on the capacity of the state's medical system.

But the epidemic never has come close to incapacitating the system. Emergency field hospitals were set up briefly but never used. Reporting the total number of hospitalizations and the daily number of new hospitalizations tended to exaggerate the severity of the epidemic because it did not characterize the patients. Many ordinary ailments can push the frail elderly or chronically ill into critical condition, It is much more threatening when previously healthy young people need hospitalizing. But the daily data never made the distinction.

For the same reason the third component of the data, people who died with the virus (though not necessarily of the virus), could be misleading too. With or without epidemics, people are always dying, especially the elderly, and while the number of "virus-associated" deaths in various age groups has been recorded, it has not been publicized on a daily basis and so the raw death count also has made the epidemic scarier. As it has turned out, most deaths indeed involve the frail elderly.

The best way to evaluate the daily epidemic data probably has been to add the new hospitalizations and deaths and divide them by the new positive tests to calculate a serious case rate – the daily percentage of virus-infected people who have died or required hospitalization. The serious case rate long has been less than half the "positivity rate," and it has been declining toward 1 percent or less as medicine has learned how to treat infections better than to put people on ventilators and pray.

But even at the height of the epidemic and the panic about it, 95 percent of the people testing positive in Connecticut were just sent home to recover, and nearly all did. The recovery rate nationally is near 99 percent.

That's why the big lesson of the epidemic seems to be to protect the frail elderly and the chronically ill, especially in nursing homes, not to suspend commerce and education. Despite its good intentions, the suspension of normal life by many state governments, including Connecticut's, has caused economic and social damage that may never be fully remediated, and it increasingly seems like a catastrophic mistake.

Maybe this mistake was unavoidable, there having been no epidemic so scary since the polio epidemics of 60 years ago. But the current era was already hysterical before the epidemic, and government and news organizations have made the epidemic much scarier than it should have been.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Columns on Monday, 5 April 2021 21:14. Updated: Monday, 5 April 2021 21:17.