The cost of herd immunity: some hypothetical numbers

So I put some numbers together.

Here’s my reasoning. Based on the results of Indiana’s antibody study, the IFR (infection fatality rate) for COVID-19 in Indiana is .6%. That means, for every 1000 people who get COVID-19, 6 of them will die. A whole bunch of them will be fine, even asymptomatic, but 6 will die.

Statistics can be really cold and informal and not very good at storytelling. That doesn’t seem like a lot. At first. Here’s the story on what that rate actually means.

It means that, if herd immunity is achieved naturally–so, by people getting sick the old fashioned way, through direct contact exposure–more Americans could die of COVID-19 than they did of heart disease and cancer COMBINED in 2018.

For us here in Delaware County, we would stand to lose between 411 and 479 of our own. If you live in Muncie, that’s like if all of your Facebook friends died.

“But 95% of COVID-19 fatalities are in people over 50, blah blah blah, it only kills people with pre-existing conditions.” Okay. Achieving herd immunity naturally would mean that more Americans under 50 could die of COVID-19 than Americans of all ages died of the flu/pneumonia in 2018.

More Americans under 50 would die of COVID-19 than Americans of all ages died of overdoses involving opioids. I use that as a reference because many people in my life know the pain of losing someone to an overdose. Imagine that, with people in our age groups, and also over a million of our parents and grandparents dying of it too.

And if you’re thinking “oh, well, I don’t know anyone who has pre-existing conditions, everyone I know is strong enough to survive it”, let me remind you that obesity, smoking, pregnancy, type 2 diabetes are officially known as risk factors. Moderate-to-severe asthma, type 1 diabetes, high blood pressure, liver disease, and overweight are suspected risk factors. So, yeah, this stuff could kill one of your same-age friends, or maybe you.

Y’all think it’s bad now?

Based on these numbers, only about 14% of Americans total and 15% of us here in Delaware County have been infected with COVID-19. Even in South Dakota, where cases are through the roof, only about 21% so far have been infected, if we’re estimating based on fatalities. We are nowhere near herd immunity and, without the vaccines coming, we would stand to lose a lot of people. More people than most of us are used to losing at a time.

(None of this takes into account that an estimated third of infected people still have symptoms 2-3 weeks after testing positive. You’re not infectious anymore, get back to work. Oh, you still can’t breathe? You’re still having chronic headaches? Tough! Get to work! Let’s prevent that from happening to you.)

I’m posting this to remind everyone of three things:

  1. If you think we’re “overreacting” because we’re being asked to wear masks and limit social contact, we’re not. We’re all in this together. We have, in all honesty, totally under-reacted to this crisis as a country, and that’s why 25% of COVID-19 fatalities are American. These aren’t just numbers or faceless elderly and disabled people. These are your parents, grandparents, work colleagues, friends, YOU.
  2. There are vaccines coming soon. Hurray! Unless you’re a front-line healthcare worker, a patient at a long-term care facility, or unethically rich, you probably won’t get one very soon. You’ll still need to do stuff like wear your mask and limit social contact if you want to continue preventing spread. (Which you totally should!)
  3. Vaccination is going to be really important. All this stuff about “we have a flu vaccine and people still die of the flu!” well, only about half of Americans get flu vaccines each year. We’re gonna have to take it more seriously than that.

I myself am sad to report that someone who helped turn my life around has recently passed from COVID-19. Unless we all take this more seriously–better late than never–it will be next to impossible for you to not know someone who dies of this stuff. Hopefully these numbers can put things into perspective.

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