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  • Joy Stevens ND

COVID-19 - Putting the Numbers into Perspective

On April 7th, NYC announced its highest daily death toll to date - 731. (1)

After hearing the city was planning to temporarily bury the deceased in city parks should the morgues reach capacity, I wanted to put this in perspective. (2)

On average, there is a death in NYC every 9.1 minutes from all causes. (3) There are 525,600 minutes in a year so that's 57,758 deaths per year or 158 deaths per day. 731 deaths is 4.6 times the normal daily number of deaths. Unfortunately, this number may be understated due to the way at-home deaths are counted. (4) Ultimately, that doesn't matter once we're able to look at the total death numbers. Anything over average is likely due to COVID-19. But what happens when the average is exceeded by double, or triple, or even quadruple?

All businesses, including hospitals and morgues, run on a "just in time" delivery of services model. The bean counters know how many patients/corpses to expect on average and allocate beds/equipment/staffing/etc. to accommodate these numbers. They don't leave much room for emergencies. (Think about the last earthquake or tornado and how victims ended up spread out among many hospitals.) Now throw in a novel virus we know is highly virulent, we know will cause a significant number of people to get sick, and we know is deadly, but we don't know much else because we have zero historical data on this virus. From that we have to predict what may happen. Good luck, right?

Yes, it is destroying both the economy and lives, but where do we draw the line between protecting people's lives from a rapidly spreading novel pandemic and protecting people's livelihoods? How do we make those decisions without data? What would you do if you were the decision maker and the buck stopped with you? Where would you draw the line?

Looking at the numbers as I did above helped to put this in perspective for me. I'm glad I'm not the decision maker and I am not going to armchair quarterback this one. I have to trust those in charge are making the best decisions they can with the data they have available. If our politics wasn't so wonky right now (shame on ALL sides), I might be even more trusting.

Digging a bit deeper into the numbers, there are 8,550,405 people in NYC. If 731 died on one day, that's a death rate of 0.0085% of the population per day. (Yes, I know that ignores the fact that some patients may have come from outside NYC proper and that the population data is several years old, but it is what I could easily find.) Translating that number to Billings, which has a population of 109,550 (5), that would be a death rate of 9 per day from COVID-19. Looking at the death notices in the Billings Gazette on random dates, it appears about 5 people from Billings pass away each day. So if what is happening in NYC would be happening here, the death rate would be almost triple. Let that sink in.

Yes, I am thankful I live in an area that has not been impacted to the extent NYC has been impacted. That is the case for most of us. Is that because of social distancing? Is it because of the stay at home order? Is it something else? It is difficult to prove a negative therefore it is unlikely we will ever know.


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