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NOTEBOOK – ONE GOOD READ: A logical explanation for why cases rose through the end of June while deaths did not


Like many, I’ve been watching the cases of COVID-19 rise nationally, and wondering if and when deaths would start to spike. This piece from the Atlantic takes a look at the reasons we haven’t yet seen the massive spikes, but also warns that we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security because the severity of the current moment was obscured for several weeks by the “downward drift of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths resulting from the spring outbreak in northeastern states.” 

It also argues that a spike in deaths is coming and could be quite severe. At its core, people don’t die right away from the virus, often with three- to-four week lag times between contracting the virus and death. And early data shows that hospitalizations, which typically lag positive tests, could soon match the national peak set in the spring. Here’s a small excerpt that dives deeper into the issue: 

“But there’s another reason for some of the confusion about the severity of the outbreak right now. And that’s the perceived speed at which the outbreak initially landed on American shores and started killing people. The lack of testing let the virus run free in February and much of March. As my colleague Robinson Meyer and I put it at the time, ‘Without testing, there was only one way to know the severity of the outbreak: counting the dead.’ And that is how we figured out how bad the outbreak was. Thousands began dying in the greater New York City area and a few other cities around the country in early April. The seven-day average for new cases peaked on April 10, followed by the peak of the seven-day average for daily deaths just 11 days later.

“Everything seemed to happen at once: lots of cases, lots of hospitalizations, lots of deaths. But some of this is also the compression of memory. Most of us remember the deaths in March beginning as quickly as the cases, especially given the testing debacle. That’s not exactly what happened, however. The nation did, in fact, see cases rise weeks before the death toll shot up. There was a time in March when we had detected more than 100 cases for each death we recorded. This is a crucial metric because it gets at the perceived gap between cases and deaths. And it tells us that we did see a lag between rising cases and deaths back in the spring.”

The article certainly doesn’t provide a lot of hope, and it’s possible the death rates could follow a lower trajectory than some of the worst-hit early states. But the article goes on to warn that left unmitigated, death tolls could be enormous. I don’t share this to fear-monger, just to provide some context around data I know was causing me to stumble, so we can all best understand the situation we are currently navigating.

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