If you’re young and healthy or have young children who may not be affected, why should you care about Covid-19? Why is everyone freaking out? Why should you make your screaming toddler scrub his little hands or tell your teenager he can’t go to that concert?
After all, you’ve probably heard that you’re more likely to get the flu right now than Covid-19 and you never get the flu, so you’re in the clear, right? You should be able to go about your business, right? Or, if we are all going to get it, why not get it over with? Why disrupt life, and close schools and businesses for an illness that’s mild in most people?
These are reasonable questions. After all, to date, the data do not indicate that this is the “big one” that will result in apocalyptic chaos and widespread societal collapse. However, there are a few reasons why you should take a second look at the Covid-19 pandemic.
We Know Very Little Right Now
We are a long way off from fully understanding this outbreak’s severity, and underestimating any pandemic is unwise. We lack critical data about the number of asymptomatic and mild cases, the role of children in the outbreak, and the way the disease will play out within the American society and health system.
Without information on asymptomatic and mild cases, it’s difficult to know Covid-19’s actual fatality rate. Also, the United States has far more overweight and obese individuals than any country previously affected. Will they be at higher risk of severe disease?
How infectious are individuals during the early, mild phase of illness (recent data from Germany suggests they’re very, very infectious)? If children are infected but do not become sick, are they still capable of spreading the virus? How infectious are they?
New research indicates Covid-19 can remain in the air for three hours. What is the role of aerosol spread? How many undetected cases are there? Suffice it to say, we need more data before we can properly assess Covid-19’s severity and predict how the outbreak will evolve here.
We Don’t Know How Fast This Will Spread
We should stop saying, “The overall risk of Covid-19 is low, Americans are at higher risk of the flu than Covid-19” or providing the number of people who died of influenza last year. An official or clinician making that statement understands its nuance.
Today, given what we know about Covid-19’s spread in the United States, a person is probably more likely to catch influenza than Covid-19. But our knowledge is imperfect, hindered by slow testing. Yes, influenza kills 40,000-60,000 Americans each year and there have been fewer than 50 Covid-19 fatalities in the United States, but conservative estimates of Covid-19’s fatality rate peg it around 10 times higher than influenza’s, and this outbreak may be with us for months.
A casual news consumer may hear those comments about the flu and think, “Covid-19 is no big deal, it’s not as bad as the flu, which I haven’t had in years.” It’s too soon to draw that kind of conclusion (and, unfortunately, it’s not supported by the data we have). The jury is still out and you need to stay tuned.
The Risks Are Higher for Vulnerable People
Even though we don’t have all the data, it is clear that risk of illness and death isn’t evenly distributed. The young tend not become severely ill. The fatality rate rises sharply with each decade of life after age 50. There are even anecdotal reports from Milan of a worrisome number of severe patients in their 40s.
Yes, you and your healthy children may be fine, but your parents, grandparents, neighbors, and immunocompromised friends may not fare so well. Yes, the vulnerable can limit their exposure to large crowds, but this is insufficient. They will still need routine medical care and basic necessities. Stopping or slowing widespread viral transmission is the best way to protect this population and give them the best chance at survival if they become ill.
Early in an outbreak, public health workers try to find every person exposed to an infected individual and prevent those people from getting others sick. We have likely left the phase where that alone can work.
Now an outbreak is stopped when either a critical mass of people get infected or the public stops mingling and giving the virus a chance to spread (or there is a vaccine, which is probably a year off, at best). Those under age 30 may play a significant role in how this outbreak unfolds. If those individuals can avoid infection, even though it may be mild for them, they can slow or halt the disease spread. We have a duty to help protect our fellow citizens, and it is in our best interest to do so.
Overwhelmed Health Systems Are Bad for Everyone
If the duty to protect our fellow man isn’t compelling enough, consider this: Overwhelmed health systems are problematic and potentially dangerous for everyone. Some percentage of Covid-19 cases will be severe enough to require hospitalization and even treatment in an ICU with a ventilator.
Hospitals have a limited number of ventilators and, during flu season, they’re often all in use. Add a sudden surge of Covid-19 cases and suddenly clinicians must make difficult decisions about who gets crucial care.
Car accidents and strokes don’t stop for pandemics. Furthermore, a surge of cases can deplete supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), which can put already taxed health-care workers at risk. Even if they are young and their infection is mild, they cannot resume work until they’re no longer infectious.
That’s unless our health system is completely overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients and we simply must have mildly ill health-care workers continue treating patients. Either way, when your appendix or gallbladder needs to come out, finding the staff to support you becomes challenging.
Finally, shortages of protective supplies won’t just affect hospital care, but outpatient OB/GYN services, ophthalmology, and even dental services. These risks can be reduced if we slow an outbreak and give our health system enough time to care for the sick.
Then, if you need a medical procedure to relieve pain or fix an urgent problem, you will be more likely to get it. And when someone becomes severely ill, we will be better equipped to offer them the best care possible. Preventing our health systems from getting overwhelmed is in everyone’s best interest.
Slowing an outbreak can happen when we work to not give the virus another person to infect. There are many unknowns in this outbreak, but we do know that basic hygiene measures, limiting our exposure to others, and exercising common sense can slow transmission and buy us time to answer key questions.
This isn’t time for panic or excess worry, but calm awareness and preparedness. Stay tuned and, if necessary, be willing to make some changes to help slow the outbreak.