Understanding COVID-19 Risk
Medical risk can be difficult to understand. This is a HUGE issue right now as we all look around us, now almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and access our risks. So what is your personal risk of dying from this awful disease? Let’s dig in.
Having a Serious Apolitical Discussion of COVID-19
I’m hoping that now that the election is over, that we can stop politicizing COVID and begin having serious discussions about this disease. Frankly, both sides of the aisle were playing politics with COVID-19. In fact, I stopped writing anything about this topic some months ago as it was getting way too political.
On the one hand, this a very serious disease that can kill. I personally have a valued clinic team member who lost her mother to COVID-19 and her husband was briefly in the ICU. On the other hand, as more data has come in, it’s very clear that the risks of dying from COVID-19 for the average person are very low. In addition, most in the media haven’t made it any easier in trying to understand what the risk really is or isn’t.
Before you read this, I should say the following. Do as I do:
- Wear a mask everywhere CDC tells you to do so (I wear a mask at all times when seeing patients and in all other areas where my community requires one)
- Socially distance
- Wash your hands MANY times a day
- Listen to local authorities concerning appropriate density for various spaces
Life Has Risks
Everything we do has risks. Hence, we can’t put COVID-19 in context without understanding those risks. While physicians are taught how to quantify and weigh risks for our patients, the average person just isn’t trained to look objectively at risk.
Let’s look at some common risks (1). Lots of people in the U.S die every year. These are the main causes of mostly preventable deaths and the numbers that perished in 2016:
- Heart Disease 647,457 people
- Kidney disease-50,633
- High Blood Pressure-35,316
Here’s a list of common injury-related deaths per year:
- Drug toxicity-58,908
- Car Crashes-39,404
- Firearm Deaths-13,958
Understanding COVID Deaths by Age
Here are COVID Deaths in the US for the past almost year (Jan-November 12th) (2):
- Under 14: 81
Find your age group above and compare that to something meaningful to you in the disease and injury stats above. For example, if you’re young, your risk of dying from a heart attack is low, but you’re more likely to die from a car crash while texting. If you’re older and have been told you have heart disease, then you likely worry more about that than you do dying in a car crash while texting.
For example, let’s say you’re 30 years old. There are 1,725 people who have died with COVID-19 in that age group and 39,404 total (all age groups) that died from car crashes. Hence, you’re more likely to die in a car crash than from COVID. Even if our number of deaths goes up substantially in the final 6 weeks of this year, you’re still more likely to die in a car crash. That doesn’t even count total accidental deaths which were 169,936.
This Is a Thought Experiment
The goal here is to introduce you to the concept of medical risk and to have you see how many in each age group have died from COVID-19 versus other causes. First, use common sense in interpreting this information. For example, you could also break down car crash deaths by age group where you would see younger drivers under 25 and older drivers over age 65 have the most deaths. Second, I’m sure I’ll get comments about excess deaths, so let’s cover that now.
For me, this is an issue that cancels out. Early in the pandemic, when testing was hard to get, I would agree that there were people who died of COVID-19 that weren’t counted. However, since then, almost all states have been reporting COVID deaths as “Died with COVID-19” rather than “Died of COVID-19”. When Colorado (one of the few states that has adjusted this number) changed, we lost 25% of our reported COVID-19 cases (3). Given that you would expect more deaths late in the pandemic than early when the virus had yet to spread widely, we’ll just call this one even.
What About People Who Don’t Die But Have Long-term Consequences?
There are certainly people who contract COVID-19 and don’t die but have long-term problems. However, each of the common death statistic categories above has long-term consequences. For example, for every car crash death, there are many people who don’t die but who end up with life-changing injuries (quadriplegia, paraplegia, chronic disabling pain). The same holds true for illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. For each death, there are many more people who are living with disabling disease.
The upshot? As I tell my employees, family, and friends. COVID-19 is not something to be trifled with, but at the same time, fomenting panic is also counter-productive. Instead, get educated on your real risks and take all the reasonable precautions that are advised.
(1) Insurance Informatyion Institute. Facts + Statistics: Mortality risk. https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-mortality-risk Accessed 11/15/20
(2) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Weekly Updates by Select Demographic and Geographic Characteristics. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm Accessed 11/16/19
(3) The Colorado Sun. Nearly a quarter of the people Colorado said died from coronavirus don’t have COVID-19 on their death certificate. https://coloradosun.com/2020/05/15/colorado-coronavirus-death-certificate/ Accessed 11/16/20