COVID-19 By the Numbers: Part 1 – Fear

As we are all experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, we are bombarded with numbers. Working with data, i.e., numbers, is a way of life for Melissa and me. Because of that, I’ve been frustrated from day 1 that, while we are being given some numbers, we are not being given others. Further, some of the “numbers news” has done little more than fan the flames of panic. My email alone receives updates from the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post. Both send too many emails saying “1 more death” or “3 more deaths” or “Total cases in Florida now at ####” THAT IS NOT HELPFUL to hear 3 to 4 times a day. I finally wrote the publisher of the Herald about this point – not that I’ve seen anything change. The Wall Street Journal, which I read daily, is providing more data, with an update from Johns Hopkins University. The raw numbers are staggering. A sample of them will illustrate this: March 25 – 65,778 U.S. cases; March 29 – 139,675; March 30 – 161,807; March 31 – 186,265; April 13 – 577,842; April 15 – 636,350, more and more daily. These numbers are horrifying because of the quick spread of the disease. The number of COVID-19 attributable deaths are equally disturbing, with a growth from 942 on March 25 to 28, 326 on April 15; a week later as I’m writing this, the death total is 2,751. And, rightly, the media are reporting these numbers. But, these numbers are not an accurate reflection of the full picture. The number of cases goes up as people are tested, whether or not they were showing symptoms when tested. Similarly, the number of deaths is incomplete in that it does not record COVID-19 as the cause of death unless the person is tested (or, with some variations, the patient showed specific symptoms). So, even the death number is fluid in accuracy as early deaths may not have been counted and in many instances deaths from multiple causes are common. These numbers are important though, in part because they scare us. That is what they are intended to do.


Fear is a motivator. Fear changes behavior and as the COVID-19 monster rages, fear is necessary to encourage/require things like social distancing. For that matter, fear is good. But, panic is not. Unfortunately, too many people are being fed only the numbers to create panic, not the numbers to put things in perspective. The running banner on television news with these numbers is not healthy. To get beyond fear one must get beyond those numbers!

Interpreting statistical data is not for the faint hearted.  I should know; I have both taken and taught courses in statistics. I use statistics on a regular basis at work. (SPSS, anyone?)  For the most part, the average person cannot begin to understand statistics.  For many people, understanding mathematics is a challenge and, based on my experience and education, one has to be pretty adept at mathematics in order to have the proper foundation required to comprehend statistics.  I was once criticized by one of my (many) inept bosses, who asked me not to present any statistical data in my reports regarding patient satisfaction at the hospital where we both worked.  How, I wondered, could I present survey results in any other form?  The scientists who are busy compiling fancy charts containing their research findings about COVID-19 are faced with a dilemma much like the one I faced many years ago, however, instead of having to “dumb down” their statistical modeling and predictions for one inept boss, they have to reduce their findings to a lower level than they have ever had to do.  In some ways, it just isn’t possible to “dumb down” things enough to appeal to the average, or below average, members of the general public.  Therefore, the data are summarized, a report is generated, the media grab it and write a catchy headline, then off we go, into uncharted territory.  (All the proof you need to be convinced that the average person lacks the mental acuity to interpret statistical data is to read David’s brief summary of COVID-19 death rates contained in this post.)  Next, one must know what to do with all of the statistical data with which we are being bombarded.  And, although I agree with David that fear is a motivator of behavioral change, there are many scientific studies that reveal instilling too much fear does not motivate behavioral change; instead, it “paralyzes” people into thinking there is nothing they can do about the scary situation. 

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