What Are Your Risks of Getting Infected by COVID? If Infected, How Likely Are You to Die?

Every few weeks I read a particularly well written and researched article on COVID. An article from the BBC – called Coronavirus: How scared should we be? – is the most insightful from the last month or so.  The author, Nick Triggle, writes “There are two factors that influence the risk we face from coronavirus – our risk of becoming infected and, once infected, our risk of dying or becoming seriously ill.”

For the first factor, the risk of becoming infected, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center is a key source. If you live in the US, you can see how many people infected with COVID are in your county. If you are outside the US, the site shows these statistics by nation. The reported cases are undercounted unless a locale is doing very extensive testing. Nevertheless, if you compare the reported cases to the population of your county, you get a much clearer understanding of the magnitude of the risk.

In my county, Middlesex county in Massachusetts, on May 26th there were 20,539 people reported as infected. That sounds like a big number. But over 1.6 million people live in my county. So about 1.2% of people in this county can pass the virus on.  Even if there is significant undercounting of the infected, at most 2% of the folks living near me pose a threat of infecting me. And I live outside Boston, a hotspot. The BBC article reported that in the UK around one in 400 people is currently infected.

The chances of coming into close contact with one of those individuals – for those able to practice social distancing – is slim.  But clearly some people, depending on their jobs, are at higher risk than others. That is why it is critical that warehouses, factories, and truck depots follow the Center for Disease Control guidelines. The recklessness, for example, of several meat packing plants in the US is unforgivable. As is the fact that they have been designated a critical industry, sheltering management from the lawsuits they deserve to face.

Then, the article points out, “if we do become infected, the fact remains that for most people, coronavirus is a mild-to-moderate illness – only one in 20 people who shows symptoms is believed to need hospital treatment.”

The article goes on to point out that COVID mortality rates should be compared to statistics that show how probable it that a person of a certain age would die in the next 12 months. “What is remarkable about coronavirus is that if we are infected our chances of dying seems to mirror our chance of dying anyway over the next year, certainly once we pass the age of 20. For example, an average person aged 40 has around a one-in-1,000 risk of not making it to their next birthday and an almost identical risk of not surviving a coronavirus infection. That means your risk of dying is effectively doubled from what it was if you are infected.”

And that is the average risk. For those with underlying health issues, the risks are higher. If you are generally healthy, your risk of death is lower.

In the US, there is a debate about how fast to open a variety of businesses and start to get our economy back on track. Clearly there is a balancing act that needs to take place between society’s health risks and the risks associated with almost depression level unemployment. In my mind, the fulcrum of that balancing beam is our hospitals. If hospitals are beginning to become overwhelmed, tightening needs to occur. If the hospitals have the capacity, society must open, albeit with safety guidelines being followed. Theory of constraints, a critical supply chain operating philosophy, becomes the governing logic for making effective trade offs.

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