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Minnesotans are in a battle with Covid-19, but state government and local media should stop scaremongering

Yesterday, I wrote that “Covid-19 is like a laser guided missile designed to kill the elderly, especially those in care homes.” This is based on something I wrote back in August which looked at who was hit hardest by Covid-19. Back then, looking at Minnesota Department of Health data, I found that, broadly speaking:

…care home residents, 20-49 year olds and African Americans are more likely that you would expect based on their population shares to contract Covid-19. But, for both groups, the chances of this resulting in an acute infection are lower than you would expect. Its is care home residents, people aged 70 and over, Native Americans and, to a lesser extent, Asians who are at a higher risk of an infection becoming acute and resulting in hospitalization, ICU care, or death.

The purpose of this was to help people deal with statements from the media and, sadly, the state government, which are little more than panic porn or fear mongering, as in this example:

This is not to downplay these tragic deaths in any way, but the plain fact is that such instances are statistical outliers. They are no less horrible for the victims and their loved ones, to be sure, but it is simple scaremongering for the state government and media to give them such prominence in the narrative.

What do the numbers say?

The Department of Health’s most recent Weekly Covid-19 Report contains data to November 11th. As summarized in Table 1 and Figure 1, these numbers show that if you are aged between 20-24 and are diagnosed with Covid-19, you have a 1.5% chance of being hospitalized, a 0.2% chance of needing intensive care (ICU) treatment, and a 0.004% chance of dying with Covid-19.

Table 1: Chances of a Covid-19 diagnosis leading to hospitalization, ICU care, or death by age group

Source: Department of Health 

Figure 1: Chances of a Covid-19 diagnosis leading to hospitalization, ICU care, or death by age group

Source: Department of Health 

And that is if you are diagnosed. Many people who are infected with Covid-19 aren’t. As I wrote in August:

new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests 10 times more Minnesotans might have been infected with Covid-19 than we know of (back in late April the Star Tribune reported that state officials believed that there are were many as 100 unconfirmed infections for every one lab-confirmed case in Minnesota).

This is because many – indeed, most – people who are infected with Covid-19 never know about it unless they are told. They are asymptomatic. If the CDC’s numbers are correct, then all of the numbers in Table 1 drop by a factor of 10, as shown in Table 2.

Figure 2: Chances of a Covid-19 diagnosis leading to hospitalization, ICU care, or death by age group accounting for CDC estimate of undetected cases

Source: Department of Health 

Putting it all together

When the media reports tragic deaths like that last week, it is almost never given this sort of context. None of this is to say that our state does not face a very serious problem with Covid-19: our care homes remain disaster areas, as I wrote yesterday, and ICU occupancy continues to rise. But that just supports the argument that state government and local media should not be trying to scare us unduly.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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