Are you itching for those social and economic restrictions that were placed on all of us to control the spread of the COVID-1 Wuhan Virus to be relieved so we can get back to normal? Welcome to the club! Just don’t expect politicians to end them soon enough. After all, their “sky is falling” prediction that more than 2 million of us would die contrasted with the reality of less than 70,000 deaths has left them looking like Chicken Littles. But you and I know they won’t admit they were wrong and end all the restrictions at once. No! That would seem too much like common sense.
The CDC’s Weekly Morbidity and Mortality reports are giving us a clear picture of who the virus is attacking and the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Tracker is showing us where. Virtually all of the people hospitalized, admitted to an ICU or who died had one or more underlying conditions (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, chronic lower lung disease and kidney disease) combined with age. Rates of infections and deaths have been rare among the young. The numbers do not become significant until around age 40 but by age 65 they are rising sharply. Why the difference?
The most obvious answer is found in the sheer number of patients who have been weakened by those long-term, underlying conditions. The great tragedy of the situation is that in virtually every case the condition was self-induced by the individual’s unhealthy lifestyle choices. That’s right, they brought it on themselves by gradually and continually degrading their health instead of sustaining it.
We Americans love our sweetened, carbohydrate-rich foods made with refined grains and sweetened with sugar. We love sitting on the couches instead of being physically active. We love smoking or vaping tobacco or marijuana. We would rather drink a sugary soda than water. Those consumptions make us fat, diabetic and hypertensive. Our coronary arteries get clogged, we develop emphysema, we discover we have cancer and we might even have to go on kidney dialysis while waiting for an organ transplant.
Our medical care system shares in the blame because they’ve conditioned us to run to the doctor seeking pills or procedures to relieve our suffering and then we confuse relief of suffering with being cured. They’re catering to our wishes instead of teaching us how to fix what ails us. On top of that, we’ve seen so many people suffering from those self-induced conditions for so long that we’ve come to think suffering is an inevitable part of growing older. We have no one to blame it on but ourselves but it is oh, so easy to blame it on a virus from China!
How many of us are at-risk? More than 30 million age 18 or older are diabetic. Almost 140 million are obese and 30 million of them are considered severely obese. More than 100 million have high blood pressure and more than 120 million have some form of cardiovascular disease. Another 30 million have chronic kidney disease and around 13 million have chronic lower lung disease.
Yes, those numbers add-up to about 60 million more people than our population but that’s because these maladies tend to occur in clusters so individuals are counted in multiple groups. Overall, somewhere between one-third and one-half the population are at significant risk. Given that level of risk you would expect the Wuhan Virus infection rates to be far more widespread than we are experiencing, but they aren’t.
The Wuhan Virus was communicated into the US by airline passengers arriving on each coast from Asia and Europe so you would expect major outbreaks on both coasts, but America’s “hot spot” is the New York City to Boston corridor. Why? Higher population densities. It’s a simple fact that when you have more people packed into the same space the chances for a disease to be transmitted multiply.
Here’s the evidence. On Wednesday the highest infection and death rates were in New York City where the population density of almost 28,000 people per square mile had produced 530.7 infections and 40.8 deaths. In Boston (Suffolk County) where 7,000 people share each square mile they had 105 infections and 4.2 deaths. Having four times the population density in NYC increase the infection rate five-fold and the death rate by 9.7 times. A more granular examination of things like the relative ages of patients may reveal more data but the basic picture is clear: more people in the same area multiplies the potential for transmission leading to illness and death.
Logically you would expect similar outbreaks in cities like Seattle or Los Angeles where thousands of airline passengers arrived each day from Asia, but the lower numbers correlate with the lesser population densities in those places. In Seattle where 977 people call each square mile home they have tallied just 2.6 cases and 0.2 deaths. In Los Angeles County where 2,113 people share each square mile the numbers were 4.7 infections and 0.2 deaths.
The Wuhan Virus confronts us with the harsh reality that it is running wild in places where it has found populations in which there is diminished ability to resist the infection. Yes, the death toll is horrifying but it is the natural result of the virus in those conditions. There is very little we can do to change the present risk so we need to accept that terrible reality and react thoughtfully instead of panicking.
What can we do? We can make things like frequent hand washing part of our new normal to reduce the chances of transmitting a virus to someone who is at-risk. At the same time those who are at-risk need to take personal responsibility for protecting themselves by reducing their exposure to possible infections.
Most important of all, we need to each be making healthful lifestyle choices so we can reduce or even reverse our present risks or avoiding suffering those underlying conditions that will diminish our health in the future. That way we can reduce the numbers caused by whatever virus is next to arrive on our shores.
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