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The COVID Death Toll and Our Information Gap
Two other numbers are key to telling our story.
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
Sometime in the next few weeks the US will pass the grim milestone of one million COVID deaths. You can expect that a great deal will be made in the press of the number, as it should be. The toll is astonishing—well more than all the dead in all of our wars save the Civil War combined, about as many as we lose to cancer or heart disease in 18 months.
But there are two numbers about which I think you will not hear nearly enough as we mark this milestone. The numbers are 2.2 million and 234,000.
Two million two hundred thousand represents the best estimate of the additional deaths we would have suffered by now absent the amazing scientific achievement of the vaccines. Yes, you read that correctly: the death rate from the pandemic would likely be more than triple what it has been without the vaccines. To put it another way, without these breakthroughs, more people would have died of COVID in the last two and a quarter years than have died during that time from cancer and heart disease, our two leading causes of death, combined.
Or you can look at things historically. About 675,000 Americans died from the 1918 (actually 1918-20) flu. But ours was a much smaller country then. The 1918 toll would be equivalent to about 2.2 million people from our current population. That is to say that, with the vaccines, this pandemic has been proportionately far less deadly than that one, but without them, it would in fact have been much more so.
The number two hundred thirty four thousand is the latest estimate of how many people, among our million dead, could have averted their deaths by choosing to take a vaccine that was available to them free of charge. Of the roughly 310 million people in our nation who are over the age of five, there are more than 50 million who have chosen not to be vaccinated once the shots became available to them. While that’s a relatively small percentage, those choices have resulted in almost one quarter of all our COVID deaths, and more than a third of those since the vaccines first became available.
Why so much talk of numbers amid so much human suffering? Shouldn’t the press just memorialize our losses and then return to the rest of the news, much of it quite significant? I think not.
We talk a lot about a trust gap in journalism, and there is surely something to that. But we are also suffering from the more basic, if admittedly somewhat related problem of an information gap. Or, to put it more plainly, pervasive ignorance about important facts.
Our politics, for instance, is being shaped by a systemic failure to communicate about the job creation that is occurring alongside inflation, of which there is much greater awareness.
How we are failing
In the realm of public health, as we approach this somber milestone, I hope we won’t make the same mistake. If our readers fundamentally misunderstand the world around them— if they think that joblessness is high when it is low, or that the vaccines have made little difference when they have saved millions and could have saved hundreds of thousands more— then the press that is supposed to be informing them is failing in its role.
Choosing not to get vaccinated seems to me somewhat analogous to choosing not to wear seat belts in a car. (Actually, it’s worse, because choosing not to get vaccinated can harm others as well as oneself.) In one recent year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that about 2500 people died from choosing not to wear seat belts, accounting for about one in nine auto accident deaths. The absolute death toll from choosing not to get vaccinated is about 50 times higher.
Do you think we’ve been doing a good job of informing the American people about that? I don’t. If seat belt abstention caused 50 times as many deaths as it does, do you think people would lean harder against making such a choice? I do. As we remember and mourn our one million COVID dead, I hope journalists can also find some time and space for the crucial context of the numbers 2.2 million and 234,000. Such journalism, I still believe, can make a critical difference.
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