Stop misinterpreting the data

Is the death rate of covid 3.5% or 0.04%? If you said the latter, you’re misinterpreting the data. I’ll explain why.

Those that say the death rate is 3.5% are using the CDC’s data as of July 26th at 12:32 pm which says in the US there are 145,942 deaths out of 4,163,892 cases. Those that say the death rate is 0.04%, generally those that refuse to wear a mask or social distance, are taking that same death figure and comparing it to the entire population of the US which is 328 million. The reason the latter calculation is wrong is very simple: behavior.

Had our behavior not materially changed, looking at deaths to population would be a fine measure, but because so many of us are wearing masks, working from home, hand washing excessively, social distancing, and generally self isolating, we have significantly reduced our chances of contracting Covid. Looking at deaths to population would only be valid if the entire population were acting without taking any of the above precautions, like it was in 2019. The problem though is the population of 2020 isn’t the population of 2019. There is a stark difference between those behaving as if Covid isn’t a risk and those that are taking the necessary precautions, so these two different groups of people have very different chances of dying of Covid. The population is therefore not an appropriate base on which to measure deaths.

This is the same reason why comparing Covid death rates to flu deaths rates, or car accident death rates, or any other type of death rate is a mistake. Large portions of the population have not drastically changed their behaviors to avoid these other types of death.

Claiming the death rate is 0.04% is like telling someone that their risk of dying of a shark attack is 1 in 264 million (that’s the real figure in the US). However if someone swims at New Smyrna Beach in Florida every day, which according to the International Shark Attack File has the most shark attacks in the world, that person’s chances of being killed by a shark increase materially. Behavior of the person matters.

If we were to act exactly as we did prior to the prevalence and understanding of Covid, it would allow the disease to rip through the population and at that point you could validly examine deaths to population. Until that’s allowed to happen, and hopefully it isn’t, stop misinterpreting the data.

Sammy Abdullah is a Managing Partner at Blossom Street Ventures in Dallas.


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