The Other McCain

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Worse Before It Gets Better: Statistical Risk and the Wuhan Coronavirus

Posted on | March 31, 2020 | 1 Comment


For three consecutive days, Italy has reported declining numbers of new coronavirus cases, so that Monday’s number (4,050 new cases) was the lowest they have reported since March 17. At the same time, however, Italy reported 812 deaths from the virus Monday. This was the 10th consecutive day with more than 600 coronavirus deaths and Italy’s cumulative death toll is now 11,591. This is happening in a nation of about 60 million people; U.S. population is 327 million; an Italian-scale coronavirus outbreak in the United State would mean more than 60,000 deaths. So far, only 3,175 Americans have died of the virus. The U.S. death toll is certainly going to continue increasing, but it’s got a long way to go before it could reach anything like the impact in Italy.

What is not getting enough attention in the media is how uneven the impact of the Wuhan virus outbreak is spread in the United States. For example, 42% of deaths from the disease (1,342 out of 3,175) are in New York state, and the vast majority of those are concentrated in New York City and its suburbs. Of the 66,497 cases reported in New York state as of Monday afternoon, the city has 37,453 (56%) and four suburban counties — Westchester (9,326), Suffolk (5,791), Nassau (7,344), Rockland (2,511) — comprise another 38% of statewide cases, so the city and its suburbs account for 94% of all cases in New York State.

More than a third (62,425, or 38%) of all coronavirus cases in the United States are in the New York metropolitan region, without even including the cases in the New Jersey or Connecticut suburbs.

This disparity of impact can be demonstrated by other statistics. Consider the state-by-state coronavirus death tolls. As of this morning, seven states had reported at least 100 deaths from the virus:

New York …………………. 1,342
Washington State ……….. 210
New Jersey ……………….. 198
Louisiana ………………….. 185
Michigan …………………… 184
Georgia …………………….. 102

That is 2,221 deaths, 70% of all U.S. coronavirus deaths. These states have a combined population of 60.6 million, which is less than one-fifth (18.8%) of the total U.S. population of 327.2 million. So 80% of Americans live in states that have suffered less than 20% of COVID-19 deaths, and this explains a lot about political responses to the disease. For example, if you live in Michigan (6,498 cases, 184 deaths in a population of about 10 million), your risk from coronavirus is about six times greater than if you live in Texas (3,184 cases, 47 deaths in a population of about 29.5 million). Yet not everyone in Michigan is equally exposed to the COVID-18 risk, which is highly concentrated near Detroit. Nearly half of the state’s cases are in Detroit (1,801) and surrounding Wayne County (1,394). Add in the suburbs of Oakland County (1,365) and Macomb County (728), and there are 5,288 coronavirus cases in the metro Detroit region, accounting for 81% of Michigan’s total.

If you’re not in one of the “red zones” of this pandemic, the alarmist rhetoric in the media probably strikes you as an irrational panic. The American who lives in eastern Kentucky, northern Texas or upstate New York is not seeing overcrowded local hospitals or reading obituaries of local residents killed by the Wuhan virus. As a matter of statistical probability, your personal risk from the virus is low, and yet every time you turn on TV news, it’s another CORONAVIRUS CRISIS UPDATE, with politicians and medical experts warning that we are approaching a catastrophe, requiring immediate and drastic action.

Part of this disparity, of course, is that the national news media are headquartered in New York, where the coronavirus outbreak is worst. Yet the uneven impact of the disease produces disparities everywhere. Consider the case of Maryland, with a population of about 6.1 million, which currently reports 1,660 cases, or about 27 cases per 100,000 residents. This is far below the level in Michigan (about 65 cases per 100,000 residents), and not even a tenth of New York’s rate (342 cases per 100,000 residents), yet Gov. Larry Hogan issued a statewide lockdown order Monday. Why this drastic action?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said on Monday that he is taking the coronavirus response seriously as cases in the Washington, D.C. metro area rapidly increase.
“Over the past week, cases have more than quadrupled in the Washington metro area [Washington, D.C. Maryland, and Virginia],” he noted, comparing the trajectory of cases to New York City a few weeks ago.
New York City has now become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, with city hospitals overrun with patients. Citing 66 cases at a Carroll County nursing home, Hogan said that it is a serious issue as cases have doubled in the past two days in the area.

This hits close to home, as my podcasting partner John Hoge lives in Carroll County, which had very few cases of coronavirus before this sudden outbreak at a nursing home there. While we don’t know exactly how this nursing home became infected, the proximity to Baltimore (about 30 miles) and D.C. (about 40 miles) is suggestive of the source.

Look at the county-by-count case numbers in Maryland, and you see that two D.C. suburban counties (Montgomery and Prince George’s) and Baltimore (city and county) have a combined 1,143 cases, which is 69% of the statewide total. In rural Maryland — the Eastern Shore, and from Frederick County westward — there are very few cases. Yet resident of the rural counties are not exempt from the statewide shutdown, and this once again highlights the disparate impact of the pandemic. As much as we might complain about this, the upside is that locking down the “red zones” means that the low-risk areas are more likely to remain low-risk. The upward spikes in coronvirus cases in urban America will continue, while rural America will largely be spared the worst of the pandemic.



One Response to “Worse Before It Gets Better: Statistical Risk and the Wuhan Coronavirus”

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