The numbers tell a grim truth

A sign reminds people to wear masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at Tulane University in...
A sign reminds people to wear masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at Tulane University in Louisiana. PHOTO: REUTERS
Lynley Hood compares like with like and gets a 
reminder Covid-19 is nothing like the flu.

I returned from eight days in Louisiana on March 12, enriched with memories of music and food, of plantations, bayous and paddle steamers, and of all the festive and friendly folk who made my trip so memorable.

Back in Dunedin, the mood was far from festive. New Zealand had five confirmed cases of Covid-19. The World Health Organisation had declared a global pandemic the previous day.

From a safe distance, family, friends and neighbours greeted me with one voice: “Welcome home,” they said. “We hope you’re going to self-isolate for 14 days.” So I did.

I was already self-isolating when the requirement for overseas arrivals to do so became official. I was still self-isolating when the lockdown enabled my holiday at home to continue uninterrupted.

Then as now, I check the Covid-19 developments in New Zealand each day, and am reassured. Nobody knows how long this pandemic will last, but I’m confident the task of coping with whatever happens is in the best possible hands.

Then I check the Covid-19 developments in Louisiana, and I worry. I worry about Nathan, who gave me his catfish recipe, and about Cynthia, who solved my booking glitch by giving me the glorious Napoleon Suite at Bienville House. I worry about Ashleigh, who introduced me to the realities of slavery at Whitney Plantation, and about Dave and his jazz band at Cafe Beignet. Are they OK?

As a scientist by training and temperament, I ignore the toxic lies of attention-seeking charlatans, and assume that all my intelligent, well-educated, normally rational acquaintances are doing the same. When I discover this isn’t always the case, I have to act.

I know that comparing the Covid-19 death toll in New Zealand with the Covid-19 death toll in Louisiana would be pointless. There are far too many variables to consider. But I can compare like with like. So that’s what I do.

To test the claim that Covid-19 is "just like the flu", I compare the New Zealand death toll from Covid-19 in 2020 with the New Zealand death toll from influenza and pneumonia in years past. Then I do the same for Louisiana.

For accurate data on influenza and pneumonia deaths, I go to the official mortality statistics for New Zealand and Louisiana. This annual information isn’t published until all the death certificates, coroners’ reports and relevant hospital records have been carefully evaluated, and the primary and underlying causes of every death that year have been conclusively determined — which can take a while.

That’s why, for both New Zealand and Louisiana, the most recent annual mortality statistics available online are for the years 2014 to 2017.

I discover that the total populations of New Zealand and Louisiana were similar during those years (NZ 4.61million, Louisiana 4.66million), as were the average number of deaths per year from influenza and pneumonia ( NZ 764, Louisiana 778).

But Covid-19 has been with us for only seven months. At the time of writing — September 30 — the official death toll from Covid-19 in New Zealand stands at 25, and the official death toll from Covid-19 in Louisiana stands at 5308.

When I compare the Louisiana data for Covid-19 (more than 5000 deaths in seven months) with the Louisiana data for influenza and pneumonia (between 700 and 800 deaths per year), I know beyond any shadow of doubt that Covid-19 is nothing like the flu.

Lynley Hood is a Dunedin writer.

 

Comments

A disappointing piece from a usually-thoughtful writer. First, applying her Louisiana-logic to NZ produces exactly the opposite conclusion, illustrating the difficulty of trying to generalise from the specific. Second, far from comparing 'like with like', this actually compares apples with oranges — there is a vaccine available for the flu, but not for covid. A valid comparison would require the use of data from a place with no flu vaccine.

Covid may well be different to the flu, but this kind of simple-minded analysis sheds no light on the matter.

On the contrary, I believe Hood's article is excellent. It is makes appropriate comparisons on an, albeit simplistic, scientific basis. To claim otherwise suggests Coker doesn't have a grasp of the concept. She outlines her methodology (and it is sound), It analyses for each country like with like, influenza with influenza and Covid19 with Covid19 and then compares the result. The fact that one illnesses has a vaccine and the other doesn't is irrelevant; the comparison is valid.

Your insulting description of a leading, published author aside, the conclusion remains: Covid 19 is nothing like the flu.

I have concerns about any claims of being a scientist by training and temperament. Flu season in the US, which runs from October through May, claims tens of thousands of lives every year. Because the flu is not a reportable disease in most states, the US Centers for Disease Control does not have an exact count of the number of people sickened each year. Instead, it develops estimates based on rates of laboratory-confirmed, flu-associated hospitalizations. Consequently, you have no way to compare Covid fatalities with influenza fatalities. You need to compare weekly counts of Covid-19 deaths to weekly counts of seasonal influenza deaths to get an accurate comparison because Covid-19 fatalities are being counted and reported directly instead of estimated. Testing capacity is limited for Covid-19 and there are false-negative results. The fact that flu deaths are not reportable to public health authorities while Covid-19 deaths are, makes potential under-reporting a huge problem. Anybody with scientific training and temperament knows that drawing comparisons between two diseases, despite mortality statistics being collected by different methods, will produce highly inaccurate results.

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