Fascinating stuff here from noted stats nerd David Higgins:
I should have made a chart of this days ago!
The numbers new cases admitted to hospital with COVID-19 in Ireland peaked over a week ago.
— David W. Higgins (@higginsdavidw) April 6, 2020
If you’re on twitter, and interested in the Coronavirus story (who isn’t, these days?) then you should be following Higgins. He consumes statistics like a Mayo fan consumes pointless hope every year, and reproduces them in easily accessible graphs.
It’s ironic timing though – the news last night that Boris Johnson has been taken into intensive care (which, according to most reports, has a 50/50 survival rate) probably made yesterday the most psychologically impactful day of the crisis yet. Until now, no major figure in the western world had seen their life hang in the balance, and that’s now changed. Decent people everywhere are praying for Boris, and we join them.
But back to the graph above. There are reasons for optimism, and reasons for scepticism. Optimism first; we need it.
One of the things about the complaints about testing that we’ve covered here is that to some extent, testing is irrelevant now.
If you have Covid 19, and you get sick, you’re not going to not go to a hospital simply because you don’t have a test result back telling you that you have the virus. We all know the symptoms. And besides, if you can’t breathe, you’re going to the hospital.
Also, we’re all supposed to be staying at home anyway, so we don’t need to know whether we have it, if we have mild, or no, symptoms. Testing for those people is little more than an exercise in satisfying curiosity and compiling statistics.
The real measure of the crisis, as Higgins points out, is hospitalisations. And those are trending down.
If the number of people being hospitalised is falling, that suggests that the number of overall new cases is falling, because the number of people being hospitalised as a percentage of the total number of cases should be relatively constant. So you can deduce from falling hospital admissions a fall in the overall number of new cases.
That’s the optimistic case, but even with the optimistic case, there’s little hope of a swift return to normal life, for a couple of reasons.
First, if cases are falling because of the restrictions on our movements, easing those restrictions makes no sense until the disease is totally gone, or else we’ll be back where we started in two weeks’ time.
Second, as Boris’s case demonstrates, just because somebody is not in hospital now doesn’t mean they won’t be in hospital a week from now. There seems to be a pattern in bad cases, exemplified by Johnson, where the disease seems to go away for a few days, and ease off, before roaring back with a vengeance. It was only four days ago that Johnson posted this video to his twitter account, saying that the only symptom he had left was a fever. Alas, he was wrong:
Another quick update from me on our campaign against #coronavirus.
— Boris Johnson #StayHomeSaveLives (@BorisJohnson) April 3, 2020
There’s every reason to suppose that the number of hospitalisations will rise in the next few weeks, even if nobody new got the virus from here on out.
So even in the optimistic scenario, we’re probably weeks, if not months, away from normality.
And what about the pessimistic scenario?
Well, in that scenario, we focus on the fact that the most we’ve managed to do so far is to contain Coronavirus, and then only by adopting the most extreme restrictions on civil liberties this country has had in place since independence. There’s no cure, only treatment.
And without a cure, or a vaccine, then any time we lift the restrictions, we risk a devastating second wave of the disease. In fact, this is what the UK’s reviled “herd immunity” strategy is all about. The truth is that the fewer of us who get Coronavirus, the more of us there are left to infect. It’s very possible that Governments may have to adopt a strategy of easing restrictions slightly for the unspoken purpose of allowing more people to get infected, slowly. The ultimate goal in that case would be to get to a point, over time, where 70% of us or so have had it, and are immune.
But that could take….. years.
Still, there is reason to celebrate. Fewer hospitalisations today means fewer deaths tomorrow, and right now, we need all the good news we can get.