The first reports of a surge in coronavirus cases began in early June. Many people braced for a corresponding surge in deaths… and it didn’t seem to happen. This has given some a wholly inappropriate sense of security, and that view may be fatal.
At issue was a math trick. The average time from contracting the virus to fatality – even with a fully functioning health system – is 28 days. This was true at the beginning of the covid-19 crisis and remains true today. Originally, because of the lack of availability of tests, most victims were not tested when they first showed symptoms unless they were in a particularly susceptible age group, with some not even being tested until after they’d passed away. This resulted in the average time of testing being around 20 days in, with death occurring about a week after being informed of carrying the disease.
Today, because people are regularly tested shortly after symptoms manifest – about five to six days into the incubation period – there is far more time for physicians to respond with treatment and attempt to stay the worst of the virus. This has resulted in the overall death rate among those who develop severe symptoms dropping by about 1/5. There are still many deaths and even more hospitalizations, but they no longer happen a week after determining someone has the virus.
The surge was first seen around June 10th. Starting on July 7 – about a month after testing – we’ve been averaging nearly 1000 deaths per day according to the Worldometers web site. This follows roughly a month (since June 12) where we had not breached 900 deaths in any day. Death remains a dependable lagging indicator.
This is the surge in death numbers which was predicted. It’s going to get worse, because the jump in positive tests has continued to grow. All of this is independent of the large bump in fatalities which will occur if bottlenecks appear in local health care systems – if at any point we run low on ICU equipment, available medical personnel, or hospital availability.
There have been suggestions that the disease is petering out, that it is simply becoming weaker, because of the illusion generated by the two different test-to-hospitalization rates. Those suggestions are not true; in an odd turn of events, people should be grateful that it is not true, because that would indicate a mutating virus, and mutations would likely delay any upcoming vaccines.
What we should truly learn from the surge in cases is that basic safety requirements are more important now than ever before, because the coronavirus has effectively spread across the country into nearly every community. It is no longer localized to the largest of cities and rare smaller locations.
There is one more important thing to learn. That is the value of individual action. Official policy from the CDC and the WHO is typically a lagging indicator as well, but we don’t need to rely upon them for viral research information, which is regularly made available at dozens of reputable sites.
People don’t go to a local government agency in charge of road maintenance to check to see if it’s safe to cross the street. They use their knowledge and experience to look both ways and assess danger. The same holds against the virus. Research demonstrated that masks were helpful long before the official guidelines suggested – then insisted – that people wear face coverings. The same holds true now, for aerosolization.
We have known for months that the primary means of transmission is through breathing infected particles, and that masks can decrease the spread of those particles. We have known for at least two months that the smallest of infected particles can ride air currents and remain aloft instead of falling to the ground. This has become the new battleground… and we have protection against it. We merely need to adopt those protections before being instructed to do so by slowly lumbering (and sometimes politically directed) governmental organizations.
Because the droplets on exhaled carbon dioxide can linger in the air for hours, and it takes about 20-30 minutes for the average person with a healthy immune system breathing infected air to absorb enough viral load to develop the disease, and masks decrease the transmission rate by about half, we get a quick chart:
Infected person, safe person, no masks: about 20-30 minutes. One person wearing a mask, about 40-60 minutes. Both people masked, about 80-120 minutes. That’s the time duration a healthy person can linger in an area that is fairly suffused with airborne particles. Those numbers plummet when direct droplet transmission is taken into effect, which is where the “six feet” rule comes into play, and as the six foot rule is based on normal conversation, any place where people may be yelling or even speaking loudly and trying to project… like in a church, or a school, or a rally or protest… safe distancing should be considerably greater than six feet, typically eight to ten feet.
We have the information. We can reduce our exposure by limiting our time in stores to just after they open and only if the store isn’t already full (thus minimizing the possibility that the place has already been blanketed with aerosolized particles from a prior patron). We can try to maintain greater than six foot distancing from people. We can take actions outside, where the open air contains wind currents too strong for the particles to congregate. When people are forced to remain inside – like, say, store workers or teachers – we can ensure all doors and windows are open to provide strong air flow and break up aerosolization. We can encourage those who will be around groups – again, such as teachers – to be given N95 masks which will reduce their exposure rate to 5% instead of 50%, and allow them to get through a day with a minimal viral load.
We can do this on a personal basis, and we can press our local community leaders to do the same. We don’t have to wait for the lagging indicator of government. To do so will only result in more dead Americans.