It’s been hard to find any good news lately. If you’re determined to console yourself about how this COVID-19 pandemic is going to turn out, you basically have to leave all reputable sources behind and go digging through conspiracy-laden posts on Facebook, where the “it’s just the flu” crowd has still yet to discover that Italy is a real place. Back in the real world, predictions range from the dire – hospital beds running out in New York City by the end of the week – to the downright apocalyptic.
But have we gone so far from one end of the panic spectrum to the other that even reputable medical officials and epidemiologists have begun to overstate the situation?
Perhaps, says Nobel laureate and Stanford biophysicist Michael Levitt, who has been studying COVID-19 case statistics since January. Levitt was one of the first prominent experts to correctly calculate when China would be able to put the worst of their domestic outbreak behind them, and his prediction was far more optimistic than most. Turns out, though, he was right on the money. And now he’s advising that the United States will recover from this pandemic much more quickly than many believe.
“What we need is to control the panic,” he told the Los Angeles Times on Monday. “We’re going to be fine.”
Levitt isn’t putting his head in the sand, and he isn’t necessarily suggesting that our response to the coronavirus has been an overreaction. He is, however, saying that some of the more grim outlooks – those that predict we’ll be dealing with this pandemic 18 months from now, for instance, are not supported by the evidence.
After correctly forecasting how many people would contract the illness and die in China, Levitt turned his analysis to 78 other countries, where he already sees “signs of recovery” that may not be immediately obvious to observers in the media. Instead of looking at cumulative cases – a number that keeps climbing – he’s looking only at the number of new COVID-19 cases that show up each day. Using that number and tracking the percentage growth from day to day, he believes he sees reason to hope for the best.
“Numbers are still noisy,” he acknowledged, “but there are clear signs of slowed growth.”
Levitt said that social-distancing measures such as bans on large gatherings are an essential part of slowing down the spread of the virus in the U.S. and around the world. He said that while “this is not the time to go out drinking with your buddies,” it was also important not to go overboard.
“He fears the public health measures that have shut down large swaths of the economy could cause their own health catastrophe, as lost jobs lead to poverty and hopelessness. Time and again, researchers have seen that suicide rates go up when the economy spirals down,” reports the L.A. Times.
Levitt said that based on studies of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, a person exposed to the coronavirus may be at a doubled risk of dying over the next two months. But while that sounds rather alarming, he noted that most people’s risk of dying over any given two months is extremely small in the first place. Double that risk, and you’re still talking about a very small number.
“The real situation is not as nearly as terrible as they make it out to be,” he said.
Let’s hope he’s right.