I’m a behavioral scientist at heart. I look at the numbers and the data and think about how people respond. Right now, I don’t think a lot of people are responding very well.

In the past few days, I’ve seen Facebook posts talking about how overblown and hyped up the coronavirus pandemic is.

Statements included:

  • “In 53+ years of being on this planet, I’ve never seen such crap driven by the media.. get a damn grip people.. you’re more likely to be killed by Hillary Clinton than you are to catch & die from this new flu bug.”
  •  “No cough, no low grade fever. The Coronavirus hasn’t got me. No one I know has the virus. No one I know knows anyone who has the virus. No one in my community has tested positive. The only people in my state who have tested positive where on a cruise ship that went to Egypt. They’re self quarantined. I have an ample supply of TP. BUT…..we’re all gonna die. Nope this isn’t over blown at all. I’m goin out to celebrate (with other people! Gasp) St Patrick’s Day today….cheers!” 

At first, I didn’t want to comment – I’m not a confrontational person. These are smart people who are reacting emotionally to the issue. Also, I know that “facts” usually don’t change people’s minds, and that motivated reasoning and confirmation bias will likely take over so why bother with a response, particularly, when I would probably get some hate coming back to me about it?

But the more I thought about it, the more it pained me. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this.  These people are in denial and potentially putting more of us in danger. I felt like I needed to say something – even if it didn’t change their opinion, maybe it would impact somebody else who was reading through the post. Maybe my voice would be the one that tilted the social norm on this from denial to reality.  My conscience was eating away at me…

Behavioral science teaches us that “how we respond matters.”

So when one of the posters stated that the numbers don’t add up…well, here is my response to them. 

“Yes, some idiot things are going on out there, but the math is what you should actually be scared of. Based on the best estimates as of today, the Coronavirus is more contagious than the standard flu – almost double the rate of the flu (contagion is measured in RO “R Nought,” which is 2.3 coronavirus vs 1.3 flu). It is also asymptomatic; people can carry the virus and spread it without having any symptoms of the disease. That means that the number of people infected with the virus, right now, is likely to be severely underreported.

Looking at the fatality rates for COVID-19 (which is a respiratory disease), it is also significantly higher than for the seasonal flu. These numbers are continually changing. However, the best estimates at this time are that COVID is between 1.0% and 2.3%, seasonal flu (i.e., influenza) is about 0.1%. That means, at minimum current estimates, this is 10x the fatality rate of seasonal flu – and much, much higher for folks over 60 years old. Those numbers will probably go down as medical experts are better able to treat the disease as more information comes out – however, they will not go down to the rates that the seasonal flu has.

And that leads to the next issue, hospitalization rates. Hospitalization rates for COVID-19 are about 10X higher than they are for the seasonal flu. The seasonal flu, which you point out, kills a lot of people every year, already strains our hospital system. Let’s take Iowa for instance, best I can find out there are about 7,000 hospital beds in Iowa. Many of those are not ICU or even general medicine beds, but instead prenatal, birthing, cancer, cardiac, etc… But let’s say that more than half could be converted to help in this situation, that is 3,500 beds. Iowa has approximately 3 million people. If half of the population gets infected, that would be 1.5 million. If just 5% of people getting infected need hospitalization, you are talking 75,000 admissions. That is more than 10X the number of total hospital beds that Iowa has. which means that it would overrun the system – not only impacting those with COVID-19, but everybody else in the hospital – not enough respirators, staff, or beds.

Now my math may be off, and timing of all of this would have an impact, but the fear that the medical community and scientists who study this is that. That is why you are seeing graphs that highlight the impact of slowing the spread of this. But who knows, we may get lucky. The numbers could be overstated at this point (lots of people have not been tested and may have the disease but show no symptoms, so they don’t count in the figures).

While people have overblown this (i.e., toilet paper runs), the fact is that if we don’t control it now with social distancing, washing our hands, ect.. it is going to get much, much worse. Sorry for the long ramble, rant, but I think the math is what is actually scaring me more than anything in this – and I think it’s important to know.” 

Now I’m not sure if that will make any difference at all. It is too long.  It talks through facts and numbers – that I state are changing or could be wrong. I know that confirmation bias and motivated reasoning will have many people dismissing this out of hand or pointing to perceived flaws in my math or reasoning.  I know that it’s overall reach will be minimal. But it might impact a person or two. Maybe, just maybe, it will get someone to think a bit harder about this.

And if we all did this, if we all reached out to those in our sphere that are in denial with thoughtful non-confrontational responses, we actually may have an impact. 

How we respond, matters.