Jack DeVine (copy)

Jack DeVine

Author’s confession: this may be the toughest column I’ve ever written. I generally have a strongly held opinion or two on every topic I address, and I don’t mind stating them. But on this one, the picture keeps changing – and the future keeps looking bleaker – with every passing day. I’m worried. We’re all worried.

Just two weeks ago (could it be that recent?) my column on this page was titled “Untangling Covid-19." It’s still way too tangled.

My closing advice in that column was “Don’t panic!” Well, so much for that idea. Since then we’ve closed schools, canceled church services, rolled up the sidewalks. The economy is in freefall. Supermarket shelves are emptying fast. A good night’s sleep? Not recently.

Panic? Prudence? Stark reality? A blend of all three? Regardless, the public mood has clearly shifted. We’ve gone from “stay cool, this will blow over” to “run for your lives!” Some experts predict that over 50% of Americans will be infected and a million or more may die. Others think we can turn the tide. And no one knows for sure.

I’m no expert, but it strikes me that buried in doom and gloom there’s still room for a sliver of justifiable confidence. Consider: We’ve been there before.

As always, history is our teacher. For centuries, infectious diseases have been coming at mankind with increasing ferocity–the microbes regularly re-engineer themselves and hit us again, and each time we re-tool and beat them back.

Their impact was once far greater. In the mid 1300s, the black plague wiped out half the population of Europe; the 1918 Spanish influenza took 675,000 American lives. More recent episodes – ebola, zika, SARS, MERS as examples – were all potentially more virulent but took far fewer lives. The reason? Medical science gets better and better.

Contracting the virus is not a death sentence

Since its sudden emergence in China, COVID-19 has been thought to be 10 to 20 times deadlier than the seasonal flu that already kills tens of thousands of Americans each year. But that mortality estimate is premature and very likely overstated.

The novel coronavirus was not identified until it began taking lives, and early testing was used primarily to examine severe cases; even now – and particularly in the U.S. – slow rollout of testing kits has impeded widespread identification of COVID-19 cases. We’ve learned that many confirmed cases are mild, and no doubt a great many more are never detected.

It therefore stands to reason that the actual mortality rate – the percentage of infected people who die from the disease – is significantly lower than the advertised 1-2%.

Overall chances of recovery from a COVID-19 infection is probably better than 99%, and much higher than that for those under 70 years of age and in good health – better odds than many serious maladies.

The disease is already declining in some places 

Doomsday projections assume that COVID-19 will simply keep infecting until there is no one left to infect. But cases seem to have already peaked in both China and South Korea. Both countries took aggressive measures to contain and/or to slow its spread.

The coronavirus death toll in China is over 3,200 but they are now seeing very few new cases. South Korea’s response to the disease is particularly instructive: a rigorous regimen of testing and containment has limited COVID-19 fatalities to 81 – in a country of 51 million.

A word or caution here: while cases in China and South Korea are on the decline, they are surging wildly across Europe with no sign of letup. But credible evidence that the disease can peak and then diminish, with far less carnage than expected, is cause for confidence.

Americans are now finally serious about prevention

Overnight, social distancing and fanatical hygiene have become part of our culture. These will go a long way to reduce viral infections of all kinds, including COVID-19 and even the boring old flu.

Make no mistake: we are dealing with a very serious, very contagious disease, a world-threatening pandemic. It won’t go away quietly or quickly. And a derailed world economy may turn out to be more harmful to society than the disease that pushed it off the tracks.

But however disruptive, the actions now underway are warranted. We must buy in wholeheartedly. Someday we may be lucky enough to find that some of these actions have been overkill–but for now, first things first.

And in the meantime, let me try again, two weeks later: keep calm – and don’t panic!