Covid-19 Will Soon Be Like Another 9/11 Every Day

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The sheer onslaught of horrible Covid-19 data can be hard for the human mind to process. So think of it this way: The way things are going, the disease will soon be killing as many Americans every day as terrorist attacks did on Sept. 11, 2001.

In recent days, the Thanksgiving holiday has made the data particularly difficult to read. A lot of people got tested last week before traveling to visit friends and relatives, so there was a big spike in the number of tests and the number of confirmed cases, both of which set new records. Probably a lot of asymptomatic people discovered that they were positive just as they were getting ready to go see Grandma.

Now, in the wake of that testing-driven surge, daily cases and the seven-day average are going down. But that’s no reason for relief: The decline merely reflects an enormous reporting lag from the long holiday weekend. Over the next several days, expect a big rebound in both confirmed cases and deaths.

Taking the artificial holiday fluctuations into account, the trend isn’t pretty. The U.S. is averaging more than 140,000 cases a day and — given the transmission potential of the holiday season — appears likely to keep doing so at least through the end of the year. This means there’s a lot of suffering yet to come.

How much suffering? Let’s start with deaths. Covid-19 kills an estimated 2% of the people it infects. So of the 140,000 getting sick every day, eventually about 2,800 will die. That’s nearly as many as on 9/11, for each day that new infections remain at about 140,000 — and we’ve already been at that level for 21 days. On average, the deaths will happen about 12 days after people get sick.  Depending on the state, they might take as long as another month to get recorded and appear in the official data.

That’s not all. A significant portion of those who survive will become “long-haulers” — people who do not fully recover within a few weeks or months, experiencing symptoms such as brain fog and fatigue that can render them unable to work. Studies suggest that they comprise half or more of hospitalized Covid-19 cases. So for each new 140,000-case day, expect between 3,300 and 15,000 people to join the long-haulers.

The deaths and suffering are all the more tragic given that, with vaccines on the way and looking very promising, they are largely avoidable. It was one thing to risk seeing a dear friend when we had no end in sight, but now that the light is appearing at the end of the approximately six-month tunnel, we should keep our risky behavior to an absolute minimum.

The 12 days comes fromScott Herr’s twitter feed, where he has superimposed trends of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Florida, which reports the day of death.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Cathy O’Neil is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a mathematician who has worked as a professor, hedge-fund analyst and data scientist. She founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company, and is the author of “Weapons of Math Destruction.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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