Containment measures may create an offsetting factor for COVID-19 mortality

Something occurred to me as I saw a sign in our elevator telling us to refrain from leaning on the sides, and to wash our hands upon entering the house:

The excess mortality from the current COVID-19 epidemic may be offset to a smaller or larger extent by the mitigating effect “social distancing” behavior will have on seasonal flu.

Keep in mind that every winter, according to CDC data, complications from seasonal flu account for as many as 61,000 excess deaths (winter of 2018-9) in the USA. Many of the people dying are the same as are most at risk from COVID-2019: the elderly, the immunocompromised, people with chronic illnesses. A very nontrivial percentage of these deaths are preventable not just through vaccination, but also through sensible social distancing and hygiene measures. The latter applies even more outside the USA, for example in much of Europe or in the Middle East where the concept of “personal space” is nearly foreign.

Yes, you say, but few people die directly from seasonal flus, and most deaths are actually from opportunistic superinfections (usually pneumonia). True, but: (1) the end result for patients is, sadly, the same; (2) more and more bacterial pneumonia is caused by multiply antibiotic-resistant strains against which the usual pharmaceutical arsenal is increasingly powerless. (I’ve lost a couple too many colleagues and friends to resistant infections that would have responded quickly to antibiotics 30 years ago.); (3) many of these people would never have gotten the same pneumonia if their immune systems weren’t already dealing with the flu.

A friend who is a geriatric nurse told me that many of the social distancing and hygiene measures now recommended for COVID-2019 are just more stringent reiterations of what she’s been telling people to do for years.

Even if they were to make only a 10-20% dent in excess mortality from seasonal flu epidemics, that would be a reduction of 6,000-12,000 in the USA alone that would offset the increased excess mortality from this novel respiratory infection. It may sound like a meager silver lining on a dark and uncertain cloud, but it is definitely some positive food for thought.

Meanwhile, stay well, stay safe, and let us hope we will all weather this storm as well as can be. It is good to remember the whole quote from FDR’s inaugural address:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

UPDATE: Some “anecdata”: Friends who live in the North of Japan counts a number of local healthcare professionals among their friends. Normally, a hefty percentage of case load at the local hospital consists of elderly with complications from flu or viral pneumonia. Reportedly, things are much slower in that regard since COVID-19 got people minding their social distance again…

One thought on “Containment measures may create an offsetting factor for COVID-19 mortality

  1. I’ve been operating on the assumption that we’re going to learn that social distance is just appropriate behavior in the winter. Think of the potential for saved lives – the flu vaccine is never all that effective, such that our learning to take care not only on our own behalf but in behalf of those at highest risk may be an even better weapon.

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