Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician for the US Congress, briefed a bipartisan group of lawmakers and staff members about the expected impact of the Coronavirus in the United States this week. What he had to say was shocking.
Axios reported that at the meeting, which was held Thursday, Dr. Monahan told attendees that forecasting the spread of a virus is difficult but that he expects between 70 and 150 million Americans to contract the disease. This would represent an epidemic that impacts between 20 to 50 percent of the country. In contrast, the CDC estimates that the current flu season has seen less than 50 million cases.
Monahan isn’t the only public health expert who is sounding the alarm. Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch estimates that COVID-19 will spread to 60 percent of the world’s adults. Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton, a Republican appointee, estimated that the state already has more than 100,000 cases but notes that the lack of tests makes it impossible to know for sure.
“I don’t think the virus can be stopped anymore. It’s too late for that. In the United States, but also in Germany, we see transmission that isn’t linked to anything known,” Lipsitch told Der Spiegel. “So, the virus has already spread locally. That does seem to be a sign of things in some areas being out of hand.”
As I have explained before, Coronavirus has a much higher death rate than the flu. The CDC estimates that the mortality rate for the flu is 0.1 percent while an accepted figure for the mortality rate of the Coronavirus is two percent. In statistical terms, that means that COVID-19 is 20 times more dangerous than the flu.
So far, flu deaths have outpaced Coronavirus deaths but that is due to the fact that the flu has been more widespread than COVID-19. The flu outbreak also started months before the Coronavirus outbreak.
Now that Coronavirus seems to be uncontained and spreading, the number of deaths will continue to rise. At the low end of Monahan’s estimate, if 70 million Americans catch the virus, that would mean that about 14 million cases, 20 percent, would be severe. This would overwhelm hospitals around the country. If the two percent death rate holds, we could see 1.4 million Coronavirus deaths in this country alone. Compare that to the CDC estimate of about 50,000 flu deaths.
While the possibility of a severe outbreak is possible, that does not mean that Americans should panic. Approximately 80 percent of Coronavirus cases are light. The danger is that infected people with mild symptoms will spread the disease to those who are at a higher risk. This includes senior citizens and those who have other health problems, particularly respiratory issues.
Lipsitch says that taking early preventive measures to contain the virus could make a big difference. The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed more than 650,000 Americans, but the pattern was different based on how communities responded.
“American cities reacted quite differently then,” Lipsitch said. “Philadelphia didn’t respond until two weeks after the first influenza case when it closed schools and canceled public events. St. Louis, on the contrary, put in interventions early on, after two days. The peak death rate in Saint Louis was only one-eighth that of Philadelphia. The study showed that if cities intervened early and implemented aggressive social distancing, the epidemic slowed down and was less deadly in general.”
“We learned from the years 1918 to 1920 that lifting bans too early can cause the number of cases to increase again and you get a second peak,” he continued. “This is because the virus is, of course, still there. However, disruptive measures can’t be in place forever. So, it’s necessarily going to be a trade-off.”
In the meantime, the CDC website contains a list of recommendations for protecting yourself and your family from the virus. These include:
- Wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds after being in public places and coughing or sneezing
- Use hand sanitizer that is 60 percent alcohol if you can’t wash your hands with soap
- Practice social distancing
- Stay away from sick people
- Isolate yourself if you are sick
- Do not go to school or work if you are sick
- Wear a mask if you are sick
- Call ahead before you go to the doctor if you think you have COVID-19
- Clean “high-touch” surfaces in your home daily
Dr. Monahan’s estimate of 150 million cases of Coronavirus is just a possibility at this point. The best way to prevent such an emergency is to take the Coronavirus seriously and follow the CDC recommendations, which do not, by the way, include hoarding toilet paper.