The coronavirus pandemic is claiming lives daily. The number of confirmed infections worldwide passed one million today, with over 51,000 deaths.
Case counts in the United States are rising fast, with nearly a quarter of a million people infected and over 5,600 deaths. Nearly a thousand Americans are dying every day from COVID-19. This means that the pandemic is now causing more deaths in the U.S. per day than the opioid crisis did in 2017, its worst year. Over 47,000 people died of opioid-related overdoses that year, according to the CDC, or about 128 people a day.
The worst is still ahead of us. The White House coronavirus task force projects that between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans will die from COVID-19. Other estimates are lower. Researchers at the University of Washington estimate that over the next four months approximately 81,000 people will die from the virus. In other words, the pandemic will kill more Americans in 2020 than opioids did in any year.
If things get worse, because the virus turns more virulent, medical resources dwindle or the public health response weakens, then the estimated death toll may rise into the millions. Most of us couldn't do anything about the overdose crisis, because it was not an infectious disease epidemic. Practices like social distancing, scrupulous hygiene and self-isolating do not matter in a drug overdose crisis. But for a pandemic viral illness they are vital. The importance of distancing cannot be understated. As the University of Oxford Mathematical Institute explains, without distancing an infected person may pass the virus to three people in a week, which in six weeks leads to 1,093 new cases. However, if everyone reduces their contacts by a third, then each infected individual will only infect two others.
Hygiene is similarly important. Regular scrubbing of hands with soap and water, sneezing or coughing safely into an elbow, and strict avoidance of hand-to-face contact can help break the chains of transmission, reduce infection and prevent deaths. White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx told NBC News that keeping the number of deaths below 200,000 will require that “we do things almost perfectly.” Early evidence suggests that social distancing and other public health measures are already helping in the San Francisco Bay area and the Seattle-Puget Sound area. But continued vigilance is needed.
“Our model looks at the data to determine if social distancing measures are slowing the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Daniel Klein, computational research team leader at the Institute for Disease Modeling. “While the results indicate an improvement, the epidemic was still growing in King County as of March 18th. The main takeaway here is though we’ve made some great headway, our progress is precarious and insufficient.”
Opioid overdoses led to far too many deaths. The pandemic stands to kill far more and lead to vastly more illness. There is a lot we can each do to avoid becoming sick ourselves and protect our families, friends and communities.
Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of theEhlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.