Friedman: Consider comparative risks to truly understand COVID-19

Months after COVID-19 hit America’s shores, lockdowns, closures and restrictions abound with no end in sight. Yet does the situation mandate such a severe response? I would argue that educating Hoosiers about the comparative risks of COVID-19 would make them more comfortable with returning to normal life.

Serious misperceptions about COVID-19 have undoubtedly helped drive the anxiety and even panic. In one recent national poll, respondents believed that people age 55 or older accounted for 58% of deaths while people 44 or younger made up 30% of deaths. The true figures were 92% and less than 3%, respectively.

Why such a gap between belief and reality? Some blame must go to the media and the charged political environment. These challenges aside, what can be done to reassure the overwhelming majority of Hoosiers that they are, in fact, safe from the virus? Using public education tactics that haven’t yet been used would be a major step forward.

One such strategy would be to compare the risk of death from COVID-19 with other, more familiar risks. This can easily be done in Indiana using public data from the Indiana State Department of Health, StatsIndiana, and the Insurance Information Institute.

It turns out that for people younger than 20 the likelihood of dying from COVID in Indiana is a 1.7-in-a-million chance, far lower than being killed in one’s lifetime by lightning or by a dog. The chance of drowning in a pool is 19 times greater for individuals ages 20-49 than dying from COVID. Persons 50-69 years old have a lower risk of dying from COVID than they do of dying by falling down steps or being killed in a motor vehicle accident.

The average Hoosier has a greater risk of being killed as a pedestrian than people age 70-79 have of dying from COVID. Even for individuals age 80 years or older, who are in by far the highest risk category, the odds of death from COVID are not as bad as they would first appear. This is because nearly half of all deaths in that age group occur in patients who live in long-term-care facilities, a subset that makes up a tiny fraction of the overall elderly population. Moreover, in these vulnerable individuals, the risk of dying over the next year from any cause is more than 10 times greater than the risk of dying from COVID.

The purpose of this exercise is not to be cavalier about the serious risk COVID-19 poses to select individuals. It is rather to identify the groups that are at highest risk to ensure they are protected as best as possible and to reassure the rest of Hoosiers that the risk of dying from the disease is lower than from causes to which we would never give a moment’s thought because they are an accepted part of everyday life.

A famous rabbi once wrote that “the whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is to not be afraid.” His message—that life is full of risk but that should not deter us from living our lives courageously—is especially important during the COVID-19 crisis. Particularly with the risk being so low for so many.•

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Friedman is an associate professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

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7 thoughts on “Friedman: Consider comparative risks to truly understand COVID-19

  1. The calculation that dying of COVID in Indiana is a 1.7 in a million chance is wrong, ludicrous and dangerous. As of this writing, there have been 3270 deaths from COVID in Indiana. The population of Indiana is approximately 6,730,000. If you applied the 1.7 in a million times the 6,730,000 population, the total number of deaths from COVID in Indiana would be 11. The 3270 death total is 297 times as frequent as the calculation in the article. If you decide to take out the approximately 40% of deaths that occur in nursing homes, that would still leave 1962 Hoosier deaths outside of nursing homes. The 1962 number is 178 times as great as 11.

    The inaccuracy of the original calculation calls your other comparisons into serious question.

    1. It turns out that for people younger than 20 the likelihood of dying from COVID in Indiana is a 1.7-in-a-million chance, far lower than being killed in one’s lifetime by lightning or by a dog.

      If one would read what he said they would have a much better understanding of the 1.7 in a million comment.

  2. That is a lame argument comparing “chances of dying”.Most deaths mentioned here can always be compared side by side of dying of.Most could be avoided or prevented with life style changes or being cautious,COVID 19 is no different.Be cautious,wear a mask,social distance!

  3. OK… Considering the questionable math, I am not sure this comment has much value, but how about giving me the numbers on the people hospitalized, and for how long. Or how about the numbers on the number of people that even six weeks after contracting the virus are still having problems.

  4. I too was mystified by the 1.7 in-a-million chance concept. That can’t be correct. Maybe more important, however, is that “likelihood of dying” is a metric that fosters the abdication of our community responsibility to each other. I may not die of COVID-19, but I certainly don’t want to contract it and spread it to others, who can go on to spread it to others, etc.
    Thomas M. Funk, OD

  5. There was an error– I too wondered about the 1.7 per million– as corrected that stat is for those under 20! I know this has all been a contentious issue but I think he is right in that the risk profiles among the age groups are radically different. I’m still keeping my mask on and insisting my students do the same, but his overall point is IMHO well founded.

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