The number of Coronavirus cases in the United States surged past 100,000 on Friday afternoon. The US is now the world leader in acknowledged cases of the disease after having passed China and Italy earlier in the week. Globally, there are currently 606,000 confirmed cases.
Many have questioned whether the US has actually surpassed China, questioning official Chinese statistics that show the virus leveling off at about 80,000 cases in mid-February. The discussion of which country is worse off misses the point, however.
The buried lede is that the United States has added more than 100,000 cases in a single month since the CDC announced “community spread” of the disease in this country on February 26. There were 60 known cases then. As I write this, the current count is either 102,636 or 105,019 depending on which site you look at. (The official CDC count lags behind because it only reports between Monday and Friday and the numbers close out on the previous day.)
In reality, the spread of the infection is probably much worse than even the 105,000 estimate. Inan Dogan, research director of Insider Monkey, worked backward from the 205 deaths reported in the US on March 19. Assuming a 0.8 percent death rate and armed with the fact that a COVID-19 infection takes about 24 days to resolve, Dogan calculated that there must have been about 25,625 infected Americans on February 25 (205 divided by 0.8 percent). That implies a far greater spread than the 60 confirmed cases that the government acknowledged at the time.
Dogan’s mathematic model, which appeared on Yahoo News on March 20, estimates that the number of infected people doubles every three days. From the 25,000 infected on February 25, the contagion would have grown to 100,000 on February 28. He used his model to predict 800 US deaths 26 days later on March 26. Historical statistics show that the death toll was actually 1,295 on that day.
Under Dogan’s model, by March 14, the day after President Trump declared a national emergency, there were already 1.6 million infected Americans. The cat was already well out of the bag at that point.
The good news is that on March 14, many state and local governments began instituting defensive measures such as social distancing, closing schools, and stay-at-home orders. Dogan notes that these tactics have slowed the spread of the disease so that it is no longer doubling every three days.
The bad news is that the disease is running its course on the 1.6 million Americans who were already infected. Using the model, Dogan predicts that the US death toll will reach 12,800 within 24 days of March 14. That day would be April 7.
In three weeks, Dogan warns, we could be seeing 1,000 deaths per day unless we take “strict measures,” similar to the lockdowns that were able to slow the spread of Coronavirus in China and Italy.
“The attacks on 9/11 killed around 3,000 people. We will be reporting a 9/11 every three days,” Dogan says. “This is a mathematical certainty.”
Whether one wants to quibble with Dogan’s assumptions or not, it seems obvious that the number of American infections has been drastically undercounted. The shortage of test kits, which is still a problem, means that only likely Coronavirus cases have been tested. That also means that hundreds of thousands of people with mild symptoms have not been tested.
On my social media timelines, I’ve noticed an increasing number of people reporting fevers and coughs in recent days. Most of these people have not tested positive for COVID-19 because they have not been tested at all. Several have posted that they were advised to self-quarantine and not seek treatment unless they had trouble breathing.
The development of a new 5-minute test kit by Abbott may help to illuminate how far through American society COVID-19 has spread, but it is too late to stop the disease from running its course through those who have already been infected. With no approved treatments and shortages of ventilators, the waves of infections and deaths are far from cresting. We are in for several bad weeks.
In the meantime, if you don’t have symptoms, protect yourself by staying home when possible, maintaining your distance from others, and washing your hands frequently. There is now evidence that the virus can survive outside the body for considerable lengths of time. Just how long varies by the material, but you should clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces such as countertops and doorknobs. In my house, we have also instituted a quarantine area for incoming groceries and other items. If we need the item quickly, we disinfect and discard the outer packaging.
If you are experiencing Coronavirus symptoms, quarantine yourself and notify anyone you have come into contact with so that they can also isolate themselves. If you are experiencing breathing problems, get help immediately, but call ahead before visiting a doctor’s office or hospital. The CDC has a list of other recommendations for the sick that you can read here. Remember that your country is praying for you.
But for the country as a whole, things are going to get worse before they get better.