One of the public health communication problems surrounding COVID-19 has been the use of the word ‘mild’ to describe infections. This appears to have been interpreted as, at least by those who aren’t health professionals, a few days of fever and the ‘ughs’, followed by recovery. But when you look at the data for those who have tested positive for COVID-19, it’s clear this is a very serious infection:
When you look at these numbers while simultaneously seeing how some people are reacting, it seems to me that lots of people don’t realize how bad the median (or near median) outcome is.
Now, I realize a lot of people are going to say that the denominator is too small. People aren’t getting tested when they have symptoms due to the lack of tests–though it’s worth noting that a fair number of people who are symptomatically COVID-19 turn out to have something else (e.g., influenza, mono, other viral or bacterial pneumonia). Also, there are probably some asymptomatic or very mildly symptomatic people who have been exposed, and will never be counted*.
At the same time, we need to realize that the hospital admission rates also are deflated: a lot of people who would wind up in the hospital, at least for a short stay, are being told to wait it out at home, until it gets bad. Things are not normal for the numerator either.
What scares me about COVID-19 isn’t the prospect of death–and I realize that I might be willfully oblivious and also that I’m lucky to not be in a high risk group–but hospitalization. I really don’t want to be in the hospital, or worse, the ICU (are there any healthy people who do?). It’s why I’m a bit of a nut about washing your damn hands, and why I get a flu shot every year. I don’t want to get pneumonia or need breathing assistance (again, who does?).
We need to start describing the outcomes more rigorously, so people take this more seriously.
*Which, in the absence of an antibody-based test, makes controlling COVID-19 harder.