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EDITORIAL: Unlock demographically, not geographically

EDITORIAL: Unlock demographically, not geographically

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GOV. Ralph Northam’s Phase I relaxation of his two-month coronavirus lockdown on Friday comes with sensible guidelines on maintaining physical distancing, routine cleaning and disinfecting of workplaces, and screening employees for symptoms of illness that should become a regular part of doing business in Virginia from now on. Coronavirus is not the only infectious disease out there, after all.

Taking these extra hygienic steps will not only benefit a company’s workers, it will also reassure their customers that all reasonable precautions are being taken to ensure their safety.

The slowly phased re-opening of Virginia’s economy is based on the number of active coronavirus cases being reported in the commonwealth’s cities and counties. Most of Virginia, including the Fredericksburg region, is cautiously proceeding to Phase One, but Northern Virginia, Richmond and Accomack County will remain on lockdown, with only “essential” businesses allowed to operate, for the near future.

But making quarantine decisions based on geographical hotspots is missing the point, says Shane Chalke, a former editor and referee at the North American Actuarial Journal. Using publicly available data released by the Virginia Department of Health, Chalke calculated that active coronavirus cases in the commonwealth peaked statewide nearly three weeks after the April 10 national peak. COVID-19 cases in New York, the state hardest hit by the pandemic, are down 66 percent from their peak contagion period.

Nobody knew anything about the novel coronavirus before it stole into the U.S. from China earlier this year. But actuaries now have enough data to predict the risks of dying from COVID-19. And those risks are clearly not evenly distributed among the population.

But the usual suspects—sex, race, and socioeconomic level—are not the key factors here, Chalke told The Free Lance–Star. “The key metric is age. And age 70 is the real deciding line” between those who survive the virus and those who don’t.

Since the “number of active cases is declining slowly, and we are on the backside of the curve,” the best way to maintain that decline, he maintains, is to “unlock demographically, not geographically.”

“Each year, 3 million Americans die from all causes,” Chalke explained. “In general, the average middle-age American has a half percent chance of dying next year, and COVID adds a tiny additional risk to that.” But the probability of dying for an American up to age 59 who contracts the virus is still “very, very low” (one in 1,111), based on figures from New York, which has the most coronavirus data so far.

However, “for people of retirement age over 60, the mortality rate is very high,” Chalk said. His calculation of cases indicates one out of 40 in that group who catch it will die.

“These are two distinct populations,” he pointed out. “Senior citizens and the concentric ring of people who take care of them should stay sheltered in place. But younger people can get back to economic health without a significant increase in danger.”

The other takeaway is that the latest data, based on at least four randomized antibody studies, is that 15 times more Americans have already been exposed to coronavirus than health officials originally estimated, since asymptomatic and mild cases are not reported. And since the contagion is far more widespread than the reported number of cases, “the mortality rate is far lower” than anticipated, Chalke said.

Although COVID-19 is far more deadly than the seasonal flu for senior citizens, it’s not much worse than the flu for younger people.

By using geography rather than demographics to combat the pandemic, Northam is taking a generalized approach when he should be laser focused on protecting people over 60 and those with compromised immune systems.

The state will be sending $650 million in federal financial aid to local governments under the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. Local government officials should take the actuarial data into account and direct the bulk of this federal aid where it’s clearly needed most.

According to the VDH, that would be nursing homes and long-term care facilities, which have a high percentage of elderly residents and the most coronavirus outbreaks and deaths—by far—than any other health, correctional or educational facilities in the commonwealth.

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