Just how bad is COVID-19 in Ector County, Texas, right now?

Short version:
As many people have died of it between July 1 and today as die all year from influenza/pneumonia in the seasonal flu’s worst years

Please stay in, wash your hands often, and wear a mask when out
.


Long version:
As of today, there were 27 deaths in Ector County from COVID-19.

Ector County COVID Data Dashboard, July 17, 2020

Twenty-seven deaths doesn’t seem like a whole lot for a county of more than 160K, but we also don’t have a great standard of comparison for what “a little” or “a lot” is

To try to get an idea, traffic fatalities are usually something the news covers as significant. People die in wrecks in West Texas at rates about 5x higher than the state as a whole, probably due to the distances involved, the oil field, and being on Interstate 20 where a bunch of mixed traffic goes.

ECTOR COUNTY TRAFFIC FATALITIES
2015: 54
2016: 34
2017: 48
2018: 54
2019: 53

Source: Texas Department of Transportation

Probably there are fewer than normal in 2020 due the bust and COVID-19 restrictions changing people’s behavior to keep them around the house more. We’ll find out eventually how much traffic deaths are tied directly to the economy.

It makes us sad to see someone cut down unnecessarily, but it’s priced into life and the economy, and we move on. Fifty people a year, more or less, will die for the economy to be able to go on and people to have freedom of movement.

From that frame, 27 deaths a little more than halfway through the year doesn’t seem so bad. Why in the world are we shutting everything down for a bad case of the flu that a lot of us probably already got and didn’t realize it? You want us to give up driving next?

The CDC actually allows us to get an idea what people die of in Ector County, including influenza/pneumonia using their Wonder.CDC.GOV tool.

Now, 2018 was actually a really bad flu season, but the world didn’t end when we had 20 people die. A natural question might be, “Why are we making people go through all of this economic suffering when just seven more people have died of COVID-19 than died in 2018 from flu/pneumonia?”

The first answer is that, if that framing were true, we actually ought to be treating the regular flu more seriously: staying home when we’re sick, wearing masks, taking extra precautions on top of washing our hands. It’s one of the leading killers almost every year, more than homicide.

But the real answer is that as of July 1, there were only eight deaths total from COVID-19.

So in 16 days since, there have been 19 deaths, more than usually die of the flu all year. Worse, it’s still accelerating: there were 13 deaths in the previous 7 days.

But assuming that rate just plateaued because everyone kept doing exactly what they are now, we still have something that kills 1-2 people per day. If that keeps up, that would be the most deadly single cause of death in the county by a wide margin, stretched out over a whole year.

All diseases of the heart had 324 deaths in 2015, or a rate of about 203 deaths per 100,000 people, and the deadliest thing to kill people going back to 2014. You have to die of something, and the heart will do it eventually.

As of July 17, the US has a COVID-19 death rate of 42.9/100K, well below heart trouble.

If Ector County hit that, we’d be looking at something like 65-70 people dead from COVID-19 total for the year, a bit more than Alzheimer disease in 2018

Yet that’s not how it works. Texas is at 13.5/100K right now while New York State is 167.2/100K. Even this understates just how bad things got for NYC and the state when for a period, more people were dying of COVID-19 than typically die of everything combined before they got it under control with stricter guidelines.

I would love for someone to double-check the CDC website and see that I’m wrong and the situation isn’t so bad. And I’d love for the county to release some aggregate data about what preliminary causes of death look for the year in case Ector County actually already have a hidden wave of coronavirus and pneumonia deaths.

But again: in two and a half weeks, the county has experienced the equivalent of all deaths from a really bad flu year. And there is no indication that things are getting better or will be able to go back to normal for months yet.

BOOK REVIEW: Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider re-examines 20th Century’s biggest tragedy

It’s become a standard bit of 20th Century trivia that as terrible as the First World War was, the 1918 Flu Pandemic coinciding with the armistice killed more than the conflict itself.

Now, an especially pedantic person might want to argue that WWI really was the beginning of the ‘Second Thirty Years War‘; they might treat as bookends both world wars—roping together all battlefield deaths, all civilian bombings, every atrocity and genocide, every preventable famine and epidemic. And put together as a single historical event, they would claim, all the misery springing from human malice between 1914 to 1945 led to up to 100 million untimely deaths in those three decades.

But, as British science journalist Laura Spinney relates in her latest book Pale Rider, the pandemic known in its time as the Spanish Flu (but definitely not originating in Spain) may have killed in three years about the same amount as we murdered each other during those 30, infecting one out of every three people on the earth while killing one-in-20 of the global population.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider re-examines 20th Century’s biggest tragedy”

BOOK REVIEW: Sasha Abramsky’s ‘Jumping At Shadows’ is important but covers little new ground

Reggie Watts’ 2012 TED Talk had many unique observations, but one has always stuck with me as particularly insightful.

“As we face fear in these times—and fear is all around us—we also have anti-fear. The background radiation is simply too static to be able to be seen under the normal spectral analysis.”

That line of satirical pseudo-babble was part of an improvised comedy/musical performance but has achieved a surprising resonance in years since, and it’s as concise a summary of journalist Sasha Abramsky’s latest book Jumping At Shadows as the one it gives itself. Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: Sasha Abramsky’s ‘Jumping At Shadows’ is important but covers little new ground”