So, the coronavirus is here.
Technically, coronavirus has always been here — the term covers a broad variety of diseases. But you know the one I’m talking about: COVID-19, the strain which appeared just over two months ago and has already killed more than 3,000 people and spread across the globe.
Whether the arrival of the disease in Umatilla County has been something you’ve worried about or joked about, or some combination of the two, judging by the number of people who read or shared our breaking news story about it yesterday, it’s something people care about.
The big question is how big of a deal it really is, and it’s clear from the arguments raging on social media that people do not see eye to eye. Some are unconcerned about a disease they describe as “basically the flu” that “only old people die from” (sorry, seniors). Others are in full-on panic mode, stockpiling hand sanitizer and canceling plans.
Like almost everything in life, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. On one hand, the flu kills far more people every year than COVID-19 ever has, because many more people have had the flu. On the other hand, the flu kills about one tenth of one percent of the people it infects in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Estimates vary for the mortality rate of COVID-19 as the new disease gets going, putting it anywhere from 1% to 3%. Researchers for China’s center for disease control puts it at 2.3%.
That could be a high estimate, depending on the number of Chinese citizens who contracted a mild form of the disease but never reported it. Time will tell. But if it holds true, that puts COVID-19 at a slightly higher mortality rate than the Spanish influenza that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide in 1918. It’s the difference between one out of 1,000 patients dying of the flu versus 23 out of 1,000 patients dying of COVID-19.
When you start looking at how many thousands of people in Hermiston get the flu each year, you can see why health officials are concerned about trying to keep this new virus in check.
After we posted a story to our Facebook page on Monday, some people criticized us for “fear-mongering” by reporting it at all. But history pretty definitively shows us that making people aware of a disease, whether it’s HIV or skin cancer, is an essential part of reducing its toll.
In fact, the Spanish flu mentioned above is a great example. An in-depth account of the spread of that pandemic written in Smithsonian Magazine in 2017 describes how World War I censorship for morale purposes helped expand the flu’s spread.
In one example, the city of Philadelphia planned a major parade to boost patriotism and promote the sale of war bonds. The influenza had just arrived in the city, and doctors begged officials not to go through with the parade. Newspaper reporters in the city wrote up articles describing the dangers, but editors, abdicating their responsibility to inform the public, caved to pressure from government officials and did not run those stories.
Two days after the parade ended, the influenza epidemic exploded there, killing more than 12,000 people in the city over the next six weeks.
Journalists today don’t want to make the same mistakes as journalists of the past. Sure, sometimes the pendulum swings too far the other way, and some dangers receive an undue amount of coverage in proportion to the threat they represent. But other times, the worst case scenario does happen and when it does, it is helpful for people to be prepared.
Making people aware of a danger can also alter their behavior in a way that prevents the worst-case scenario from happening in the first place. In those cases, it’s easy to point out afterward that dire warnings did not come to pass, ignoring the fact that things may have turned out much differently if no one was prepared.
In this case, that preparation is beneficial to everyone no matter what the future of COVID-19 holds. Getting everyone in the habit of frequent hand-washing, sanitizing surfaces and touching their face less will slow the spread of all contagious illnesses.
If COVID-19 never spreads farther than a single case in Umatilla County, please use that hand sanitizer you bought anyway.