Just How Deadly Is COVID-19?

According to Chinese authorities, here are the number of COVID-19 cases in the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak started:

If these numbers are to be believed, the number of new cases is starting to level out and looks unlikely to ever pass 55,000. That’s about 0.5 percent of Wuhan’s population of 11 million.

Now, as near as I can tell, the virus spreads far more widely in urban areas than in rural areas. If COVID-19 were to spread in American cities the same way it did in Wuhan, that would suggest maybe 1.5 million infections and 70,000 deaths, mostly concentrated among those over 60. But that’s almost certainly way too high. Wuhan is something of a worst-case scenario, after all: it was the first place hit; nobody knew what to do at first; and it quickly grew beyond the ability of the Chinese medical system to handle. Even in China, nearly all the victims have been in Wuhan, and it seems unlikely that any other city will ever reach the infection rate they’ve suffered.

Given all this, it seems very unlikely that American infections will ever surpass 1 million or that deaths will surpass 40,000—at most. This compares to the estimated 34,000 deaths from flu last year and 61,000 the year before. In other words, every time you go out shopping you’re already taking a bigger risk of dying from the flu than you’ll ever have from COVID-19.

So here’s my question: I understand that no professional would ever whomp up a prediction like this and make it public. It’s the flimsiest kind of horseback guess and shouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone. What’s more, COVID-19 is still new: we don’t have good data about the infection rate and it’s not clear how reliable the Chinese data is. Still, surely epidemiologists have estimates that they’ve passed around privately. Are they anywhere near mine? Like, even within an order of magnitude? I realize that keeping people scared is a good way of ensuring behavior that will keep infections down, but is that the only reason? Or are professionals genuinely more scared than I am?

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And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

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