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Studies: Coronavirus Less Deadly, More Common Than Experts Believed

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Back in March an interesting data point arrived which intersected sports and the coronavirus: 10 NBA players out of 120 tested were positive for the coronavirus. That was a whopping 8.3% coronavirus positivity rate at a time when almost no one in the country had tested positive for the coronavirus. Among those players testing positive, all of whom would recover with minimal health issues, was NBA superstar Kevin Durant, a member of the Brooklyn Nets, who had absolutely no symptoms of the disease.

The NBA’s testing of eight different teams was the result of an extraordinary moment — Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert testing positive for the coronavirus and leading to a shut down of the NBA season. Indeed, Gobert’s positive test shut down sports across the country, helping to lead to a national quarantine which has sent the vast majority of the American population to their homes for the past 45 days or so.

Most of the media attention on these NBA test results back in March — to the extent there was any at all — focused on the usual social media outrage: how dare privileged NBA players have access to coronavirus tests when they were so difficult to obtain for others?! But I wondered & wrote something much more interesting back on March 20th: were the NBA player rates of infection extreme outliers or did their extraordinarily high rate of positivity tell us something else entirely? That the virus was far more common and far less deadly then we were then led to believe.

At the time the 120 NBA players were the closest thing to a randomized test sample that existed in the country and that’s why back on March 20th I wrote this as a result of the intriguing NBA data: “We need randomized tests being conducted on a cross-section of the American population to determine how prevalent this virus is between both those with symptoms and those without symptoms. Because only then will be have an accurate sense for how deadly this virus truly is.”

Well, a month later, at long last, we finally have randomized antibody testing data rolling in from across the country. And all of the results look strikingly similar to the results we saw from the NBA player testing: every single test is telling us that this virus is far more common and far less deadly than initially believed.

I’m going to link each of these studies in the order in which they were made public so you can go read about them yourself.

First came the Stanford study of Santa Clara county, which found the infection rate was 50-85x known cases in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here is my discussion of that study:

Then came a USC and LA County joint study which found that the incidence of the coronavirus was 28-55x the current cases number.

Following that: a study from Boston showing 32% of study participants in the Chelsea neighborhood of the city had coronavirus antibodies. (An additional study of the Boston homeless population, which is threaded beneath this tweet, found 36% of that population had the coronavirus as well, with all but one of the homeless people asymptomatic.)

New York City and state tested its population for antibodies and found shockingly high rates of positivity there as well, including 21.2% of New York City residents with antibodies and 16.7% antibody rates on Long Island. These studies would mean the rate of infection was at least ten times the reported rate of infection in the city.

Finally, the University of Miami did an antibody study in South Florida and found the rate of infection at 16x known cases, driving down the death rate massively in South Florida as well.

So in the past week we’ve seen studies in New York, Boston, LA, the San Francisco Bay area and Miami which have all told us the same thing — this virus is far more common and far less deadly than the experts originally told us was the case. (I’m not saying that every data point in these studies is perfect, but it seems highly unlikely that all five of these studies from five different cities from five different parts of the country would all arrive at the same result by chance.)

The data tells us this virus is far more common and far less deadly than we were initially told was the case by the experts.

And it also tells us something else too: that the NBA players, and their 8.3% infection rate, weren’t actually outliers, they were important clues that our understanding of this virus was fundamentally flawed.

(It now seems clear that the rate of death upon infection from the coronavirus, regardless of age, is much more common to the yearly flu — which averages a death rate of .1 than it is to the 1918 flu, which averaged 2.6% death rates).

Okay, many of you are thinking, how should we use this data?

Well, now that we know the rates of infection are far more common and far less deadly than we were initially told, the next question we need to ask is this, who’s actually dying from the coronavirus?

And we have data on this too.

It’s mostly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

Italy, which has one of the worst outbreaks in the world, released data on who was dying from the coronavirus in their country.

As you can see from the data I linked above, 97% of the deaths in Italy were in those sixty or older.

The state of Massachusetts recently released the data on who was dying in their state too and the results showed us that the average age of death was 81 years old and 97.5% of those dying had underlying health conditions.

New York city death data looks similar.

Presently 10,746 people have died in New York City of the coronavirus. Of that number only 66, 66!, didn’t have pre-existing health conditions. That means 99.4% of New York City deaths had underlying health conditions. What are underlying health conditions according to the city? (“Underlying illnesses include Diabetes, Lung Disease, Cancer, Immunodeficiency, Heart Disease, Hypertension, Asthma, Kidney Disease, GI/Liver Disease, and Obesity.” So cancer is considered an underlying illness for the coronavirus. That’s interesting when it comes to considering whether the coronavirus death rate might even be exaggerated as well, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

In the meantime, how about the ages of the deceased?

Just four people in New York City have died of the coronavirus if they are 17 or under. That’s such a tiny percentage: .00037% to be exact, that it’s likely those four people, if they were autopsied, may well have had something else wrong with their health to cause their death. But regardless, young people dying of the coronavirus, despite how these stories may spread virally on social media, are outliers. (Based on the data people 17 and under are FAR more likely to do of the flu every year than they are the coronavirus.)

It doesn’t stop there either.

Do you know how many people under the age of 44 have died of the coronavirus in New York City? 378 people. That’s .35% of the total deaths in the city.

So 99.65% of the people dying of the coronavirus in New York City, the hardest hit place in the entire United States, are 45 years old or older. (Remember, this doesn’t even include all the people of these ages who get the coronavirus and are either asymptomatic or never have any health issues that require hospitalization at all. This means 99.65% of those people 44 years and younger who actually get the coronavirus — which the above data from these five cities tell us is a tiny percentage of the overall people who get this virus — are perfectly fine.)

Unfortunately New York City’s age ranges are broad once you get above 44 years old, but the Italy and Massachusetts data suggest the majority of the 2107 people aged 45-64 who are dying from the coronavirus in New York City are much closer to 64 than they are 45.

Looking at the Italy, Massachusetts and the New York City death data this raises an interesting question, why are we requiring anyone under the age of 44 to quarantine? There is almost a 0% chance that anyone of this age, even if they get the virus, will die from it.

Up to this point American policy has been predicated on quarantining everyone. But historically most quarantines, which date back to plague outbreaks from the Middle Ages, weren’t intended for the healthy, they were intended for the sick. What’s more the 1918 flu, which is often cited as a cautionary tale in this country, was predicated on an outbreak that impacted a much broader age range of the population than the coronavirus does. That is, the policies that made sense with the flu in 1918 don’t necessarily make sense with the coronavirus in 2020. These are different outbreaks.

The coronavirus death data clearly reflects that the vast, vast majority of people presently quarantining in this country are in no danger at all of dying of the coronavirus, even if they become infected with the disease.

What’s more it’s important to remember that initially the expressed goal for the quarantine was to flatten the curve. Remember all those discussions about the importance of flattening the curve to protect against overloading our hospitals? Well, we accomplished that. In fact, we accomplished that to such a degree that hospitals are in danger of collapsing not because they are overloaded with patients, but because there are so few patients many doctors and nurses across the country are being furloughed. We did such an incredible job flattening the curve and not overloading hospitals, that we are in greater danger of bankrupting them.

Back in the flatten the curve days the primary argument for the national shutdown was that we didn’t have enough ventilators and hospital beds and many people would die as a result if we overloaded the hospitals with patients. (New York City experts projected the city would need over 140k hospital beds, it turns out the city’s need peaked at 19k, a tiny fraction of the worst case scenarios. And New York City’s hospitals were far more overloaded than any other part of the country). Now that we aren’t in danger of overloading hospitals the argument has shifted from we have to avoid overloading hospitals to we can’t end the quarantine without a vaccine because if we do then infections will spike again resulting in a new need for national quarantine.

Many politicians — and media voices active on social media — have adopted this viewpoint, effectively arguing that residents should be locked inside their homes for months into the future until a vaccine arrives to save us.

But vaccines aren’t likely to exist for a year or more.

Keeping people on lockdown for this long isn’t feasible, particularly not when 26 million people have lost their jobs in the past five weeks, creating untold amounts of economic hardships and deleterious health impacts as well across the country.

So is there a better, more tactical response to the coronavirus than a nationwide lockdown?

I think the data tells us the answer is yes.

But before I explain why, let me make something clear: up to this point pretty much everything I’ve shared with you is factual data: the NBA player test results, antibody and coronavirus outbreak studies from LA, the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, New York and Miami, the death rates from Italy, Massachusetts and New York City, the rationale for our initial lockdown and the results of that lockdown.

All of these are factual data points.

What I’m about to share with you is an idea growing from that data — an attempted argument of what our response to the coronavirus should look like going forward based on the existing data across the country.

The data tells us that a nationwide lockdown of all people makes no sense, we should end it.

Indeed, instead of waiting for a vaccine we should be exploring the idea of herd immunity. The concept of herd immunity is pretty straightforward, a virus ceases to be a major threat to the population when enough people have been exposed to it to render it much less contagious to the general population. That is, instead of waiting for a vaccine, we can end an outbreak ourselves if enough people get the virus. (This is a policy that Sweden has embraced in their country.)

We now have enough reliable data in this country, and around the world, to know who the virus spares and who it strikes down.

Young people, defined as those under the age of 45 according to the New York City data, have a nearly 0% chance of dying from the coronavirus even if they become infected. According to the data from Italy, those under the age of sixty represent just 3% of all mortality in that country.

Well, fortunately for us young people represent the majority of the United States population.

Indeed, 71% of the population is 54 or under.

Just 16% of the United States population is 65 or older.

The data tells us that all people in this country aren’t susceptible to this virus at the same rates. Far from it. What we need to do is have the virus spread among groups of young people who have the least to fear from the coronavirus while we protect the virus from spreading among those that have the most to fear from the virus.

We need a targeted quarantine to protect the elderly and those in nursing homes — there have been 11,000 deaths in nursing homes — while young people in this country, those under 45 for sure and most of those under sixty who are healthy without underlying health conditions, go back to work.

The best thing young people can do isn’t to stay in their houses for the next several months, it’s to go back to work and allow the virus to circulate among them, thereby creating herd immunity for the country. The data reflects that a tiny percentage of those under 45 years old will require hospitalization, meaning if we limit infections mostly to the young in this country our hospitals are unlikely to bear significant strain.

While this herd immunity is being created among the young, young people need to social distance from the elderly and those with suppressed immune systems. Why is this important? Because we know a huge percentage of coronavirus cases are asymptomatic. Meaning just because you feel healthy doesn’t mean you aren’t able to get the elderly in your lives sick.

The benefit of herd immunity would also extend to the fall and winter, when it’s possible a new outbreak might emerge in cold weather. The more young people who are infected in the spring and summer, the less who will be infected in the fall and winter.

All young people don’t have to return to work and to normal life — if you want to stay inside your home no one is stopping you from doing so — but we need to end the nationwide policy of a lockdown in the vast majority of this country. Instead of a one-size fits all policy for all ages across the country, we need a smarter, targeted quarantine predicated on what the data is actually telling us about who is truly at risk.

Rather than stay inside and hope for a vaccine in a year or two years, young people in particular need to go back to work and to their otherwise normal lives. Young people can keep our economy functioning while also working to protect the elderly from the coronavirus.

The factual data from around the world and in our own country is now clear: the nationwide shutdown makes no sense any longer.

For most of us in this country, it’s time to go back to work.

Go check out my most recent book, “Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.”

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.