April 8, 2020

Pretty Good Odds

By Stephen Tuttle | March 7, 2020

We are quick to assume the worst and equally quick to panic.

The latest example is the novel coronavirus now circling the globe. It requires caution and some preparedness – but not the frenzied response we're now seeing. Ably abetted by attention-seeking politicians and overly dramatic headlines, we've decided the end times are nigh. The stock market, now driven more by crises and fear than anything resembling value, was especially panicky. It wasn't the first time.

There are currently about 90,000 worldwide cases of this bug with about 3,000 deaths. It has spread to 64 countries and every continent but Antarctica. At least 92 Americans have been sickened; nine have died. All of these numbers will have increased, perhaps exponentially, by the time you read this.  

Still, President Trump is right that the risk is very low. Even if the numbers of U.S. cases balloon into the thousands, the risk will remain low. This isn't the Spanish flu that had a fatality rate of more than 33%, killing 50 million people, including 675,000 Americans in 1918-1919. 

Even if you are unfortunate enough to be one of the few that contracts the illness, the survival rate is about 98%. We don't have an effective anti-viral medication, but we do have all manner of other treatments should hospitalization be required.  

But Trump was wildly wrong calling it a hoax, his go-to comeback to most everything, nor was it helpful when he claimed we'd come up with a vaccine “very quickly.” He should have listened to the experts telling him a vaccine, under ideal circumstances, takes 12-18 months before it's ready to be used on the public. Sometimes science comes in real handy in these situations. 

Some of the criticism now being leveled at Trump can be justified. His repeated attempts to strip away funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) communicable diseases efforts have not been helpful. His elimination of a communicable disease czar position left us less prepared for an outbreak.

But the real culprit here is China, which waited nearly a month before taking any action other than punishing those sounding the alarm. By the time they got around to taking action – they now have 65 million people quarantined at home – the virus was already on the loose.  

Despite the minuscule numbers, Americans were quick to respond to the dire headlines. Stores quickly ran out of hand sanitizers and folks stripped the shelves of masks that apparently have little preventative benefit. The overreaction has been impressive. 

We've done this before.

In 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus that started in China, caused grave concern. There were eight cases in the U.S. Then there was the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012 that started in Saudi Arabia and infected all of two people here. It still pops up occasionally. 

The Ebola outbreak of 2013 caused some worldwide panic and it was nasty business, infecting more than 28,000 people, mostly in West Africa, and killing more than 11,300. Here? We had 11 cases and two deaths.  

There was the swine flu epidemic of 2009-2010. Nearly 61 million people worldwide were infected, including 575,000 Americans, and 12,500 people around the world died. But we have more deaths here every year from garden variety seasonal flu.  

In each of those examples there was a certain amount of American hysteria despite the very remote possibility of any but a few of us being infected. Politicians are particularly good at fomenting this nonsense by hurling accusations of incompetence at anyone in positions of authority not in their political party.  

Republicans now crying about Democrats politicizing the current outbreak should go back and take a look at what they said about Barack Obama during the Ebola outbreak. When coronavirus spreads in the U.S. (as it inevitably will) the criticism and complaining about the criticism will just get worse. It's an election year so somebody has to be blamed for everything.  

It's clear we could have had stronger infrastructure in place at the CDC. That's on President Trump and his ill-advised personnel decisions. It’s not clear if we should have/could have done more as the outbreak started; it was already spreading before we knew it existed. Better testing, quicker results and immediate quarantine or isolation, usually at home, is how we'll stop it. There are more than 327 million people in the U.S. and about 100 infected people. Our odds of avoiding it are pretty good.

Still, the hand sanitizer was a wise purchase; it might help protect you from our annual, real pandemic – the seasonal flu. The U.S. has had 30 million cases this season with 18,000 deaths and the global death toll could exceed 600,000. 

Could be we're concerned about the wrong virus.


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