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When serious hazards such as wildfires, storms, or disease outbreaks threaten our communities, it can be a life-and-death matter if public officials are misinformed or broadcast false information. In the midst of what is quite likely a nascent pandemic of the COVID-19 coronavirus, when we are still learning how the virus infects people, how it causes disease, and how easily it can spread, misinformation abounds. Unfortunately, some of that misinformation is coming from elected officials who should know better, some of whom hold positions of considerable power in Orange County.
One thing we know about COVID-19 is that it is more lethal than influenza (“the flu”). A study of 72,314 cases of COVID-19 from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, published on 2/24/20 in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded that the overall case-fatality rate among confirmed cases was 2.3%. Remarkably, no deaths were reported among any of the patients aged 9 or less. However, the disease was frighteningly lethal for the oldest cohorts (8% for ages 70-79 and almost 15% for people older than 79).
By comparison, the flu kills somewhere between 0.04% and 0.14% of the people it infects, according to the latest figures from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other words, based on these figures, COVID-19 is roughly twenty times more lethal than the flu.
Of course, all of these figures are estimates. We don’t really know exactly how many people have been infected with COVID-19, any more than we do for the flu. Even when someone is tested, the test may yield a false positive or false negative result. Different kinds of tests are employed – some look for presence of viral DNA while others detect antiviral antibodies produced by an infected person’s immune system. These different kinds of tests may yield different results and have different error rates. Furthermore, death rates would presumably be influenced by the quality (and price!) of available health care. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that COVID-19 is significantly more deadly than influenza.
At a recent symposium on the Annual Report of the Conditions of Children in Orange County at CSU-Fullerton, OC Supervisor Doug Chaffee, only a few days removed from a special Board of Supervisors meeting about COVID-19, decided to focus his opening remarks on the virus and what we should be doing to avoid infection. Astoundingly, he concluded by claiming, in a “good news” tone of voice, that COVID-19 is about as lethal as the flu.
The next day, I attended a CalOptima board meeting at which a special report on COVID-19 was presented by several health professionals. As an alternate to the board, Mr. Chaffee was not present at this meeting, but two of his fellow supervisors, Andrew Do and Michelle Steel, were on the dais. I decided I could not pass up this opportunity to call out Chaffee’s irresponsible remarks, and proceeded to convey my concern during the public comment period. Mr. Do attempted to defend his colleague by dismissing the evidence from China as anecdotal, and proceeded to misstate the death rate from the flu as 1 in 10,000. Unfortunately, his “rebuttal” only served to further illustrate my point that this is no time to be making ill- informed public pronouncements.
I’m tempted to give Chaffee the benefit of the doubt and assume his comment about relative lethality was an error of the moment, or the result of having misunderstood his information resources. Do, on the other hand, seemed motivated solely by a desire to dismiss my comments without actually trying to rebut them. Regardless of motivation or intent, the fact that two of our county supervisors are erroneously or deliberately downplaying a serious health threat is particularly troubling in light of the confusion, contradictions, and outright lies that have characterized the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19. I fear that ignorance and mendacity are more infectious than the virus, and may ultimately prove more lethal.
Thomas Fielder has resided in OC since 1980. He has a Master’s degree in biology and worked his entire career in biomedical research. He is now a homeless advocate with People’s Homeless Task Force Orange County.
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