New data coming from random testing in New York and California brings with it the promise that the worst case scenarios for the toll that Covid-19 may have on Americans have been wildly overestimated. While not cause for an immediate re-opening of regular life, the data suggests that the disease caused by the coronavirus is survivable for the overwhelming majority of individuals.
If this data proves out, it’s possible that the cause for the dramatic shutdown in American life that has already erased all of the job growth of the past decade, is as low as 0.5% of total cases or less, compared to the 3.4% mortality rate estimated by the WHO in March and far below the more than 5% of confirmed cases in the United States who have died of complications attributed to the virus.
In New York, more than 21 percent of individuals tested for coronavirus antibodies were shown to have them, indicating that the hard-hit state may have a true number of coronavirus cases numbering close to two million in the city alone, and 2.6 million statewide, per the New York Times. Testing was performed 3,000 individuals statewide, with 14 percent showing antibodies statewide.
“What does it mean? I don’t know,” Gov. Cuomo said. “These are people who were out and about shopping. They were not people who were in their homes, they were not people who were isolated, they were not people who were quarantined.”
Testing in California performed by researchers associated with Stanford University and the University of Southern California showed an even lower potential mortality rate, as low as 0.12-0.2% – which are more akin to the mortality rate tied to the seasonable flu (0.1%). Researchers estimated the number of individuals who have had Covid-19 in that community are 28 to 55 times the number of confirmed cases recorded there.
“We haven’t known the true extent of COVID-19 infections in our community because we have only tested people with symptoms, and the availability of tests has been limited,” said lead investigator Neeraj Sood, a USC professor of public policy at USC Price School for Public Policy and senior fellow at USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics. “The estimates also suggest that we might have to recalibrate disease prediction models and rethink public health strategies.”
Applying the California data to the current known number of cases in the United States – 876,581 per Worldometers.info as of Thursday afternoon – means the true number of individuals exposed to Covid-19 could range between 24.5 and 48.1 million already.
It should be noted, obviously, that these findings are preliminary, and subject to plenty of criticism by some in the media who fear they could be used to undermine social distancing guidelines before being proven out. That said, these findings and rapidly increasing testing capacity could lead to a drastic shift in the policy related to the coronavirus and how we are reacting to it. Increasing levels of community exposure and far lower mortality are reasons for confidence that a return to “opening” may be more realistic than many have projected in the short term, even for larger-scale events.