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COVID-19: A Data-Driven Analysis

COVID-19: A Data-Driven Analysis

Should you wear a mask in public? This seemingly simple question immediately generates emotional, political, and social anxiety.

It is just one of many provocative questions COVID-19 is forcing upon us. They should be simple, data-driven policy issues but many are not.

Today’s letter is in a different format from the usual Thoughts from the Frontline. As long-time readers know, I am in frequent (and lately almost daily) contact with Dr. Mike Roizen, emeritus head of wellness at the famous Cleveland Clinic, member of the Cleveland Clinic’s leadership team, and author of many books which, thanks to Oprah (he was her doc), have together sold 28 million hard copies. Today we write a joint letter to you. It may be controversial, but that comes with the territory.

Mike and I became online friends over 15 years ago and then he became my doctor and a good friend. He keeps me healthy and I feed his economic information addiction. A perfectly reasonable symbiotic relationship. We have been sharing information on the coronavirus crisis, on which he is an advisor to several state governments.

So today, we’re going to look at some actual data, both medical and economic. Spoiler alert: The unintended consequences of our response may be more threatening than the actual virus, unless we begin changing some things soon.

Double Effect

We’ll start by looking at both direct effects of the coronavirus, and its secondary effects.

The direct effects come from both the virus itself and—critically important—from people avoiding healthcare because they fear exposure to the virus at a healthcare facility. Studies are beginning to show the latter group may be larger than the former.

Then there are secondary health effects related to our response to the virus. These secondary effects are largely due to the economic consequences. We are seeing both “deaths of despair” and health consequences due to changes in the healthcare system, such as closure of some rural hospitals and the rise of telemedicine. The effects are visible, but the absolute data isn’t.

Another thing we don’t fully understand is regional variation. The virus obviously strikes some areas harder than others.

For example, total COVID-19 deaths as of May 28 in Texas, Florida, and California combined were 7,877. Those states have 27% of the US population but so far less than 8% of the COVID-19 deaths. The hospitals of those regions were not taxed, and many ICU beds were empty as elective surgeries were cancelled. Healthcare facilities generally had adequate protective equipment.

Contrast that with New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey where deaths as a percent of population were much higher. Medical facilities were stretched to their limits and had to reuse protective equipment. New York City had 24,000 “excess deaths” from March 11 to May 2, of which only 14,000 were confirmed COVID-19 cases.

New York City, with 2.5% of the US population, had 29.2% of the country’s excess deaths. If you exclude New Jersey and New York state, US excess deaths were only about 10% more than normal—compared with 5% for Germany, 25% for France, and 40% for Italy. There is a lot of speculation about why, but no definitive data.

And it is not simply population density. Hong Kong is far more dense and has a fraction of the deaths as New York. We don’t know why regional and state statistics vary so widely. Again, lots of speculation.

Think COVID-19 is just another flu? The CDC data say otherwise. Excess deaths are a very real thing. (H/T Rob Arnott)

Data: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The good news? If you are not in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, and are under 50 and healthy, your odds of dying from COVID-19 are low, in the range of a car accident. But that doesn’t mean you can ignore the risk, because you are around people who don’t have your luck. Any of us could be asymptomatic carriers. Plus, we are seeing longer-term side effects from the virus. Even if you survive, you don’t want to risk getting it (see below).

A second thing we do not understand about this virus is whether it generates enough of an immune response to prevent reinfection and how long that immune protection lasts. For that reason, even sophisticated antibody testing will not be very beneficial until we know more.

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This also means vaccine development will require larger and longer tests that show decreased infections in the randomized group that receives an active vaccine as compared to the placebo group. That will take longer. Ugh. We all want faster but… we have to be safe and sure.

For the record, we are both firm believers that, with 100+ “shots on goal” happening from various groups around the globe, we will have a vaccine. It is too soon to know how many of these efforts will succeed but we think at least one will.

Moving on to what we do understand…

We are learning some of the factors influencing death from SARS-CoV-2: More than 70% of Ohio deaths have been residents in long-term care facilities. It is not uncommon if you are in an LTC facility to have one or more comorbidities and/or a compromised immune system. Because of residents’ close proximity, these places are like petri dishes for the virus. And not just here: over half of Sweden’s deaths have been in care facilities.  

Ohio and a few other states track where the hospital patients came from, which many states (like New York) do not. Ohio data is thus more reliable in terms of determining which portions of the population are at risk. The data below (through Thursday) shows deaths by age, then separately those of all ages who died in LTC facilities and prisons.

(Notes: Estimates of proportion of 70–79 & 80+ deaths “in” and “not in” LTC facilities based on extrapolation of data from 4/29 to 5/06, and actual deaths in LTCFs. (There may be small statistical variances. We don’t know the ages of the people who died in prisons, but presume they are largely under age 70.)

We assume the higher mortality rate for 60–69 is because they have not yet gone to LTCFs and that the seemingly lower rate of older groups is because their age cohorts are disproportionally found in the LTCF death data. Mortality risk does indeed increase with age.

So outside of those in confined spaces, the risk of dying from COVID-19 for the rest of the Ohio population was approximately 51 deaths per million people. But like the seasonal flu, SARS-CoV-2 deaths are much higher in those over age 70, especially with uncontrolled high blood pressure or severe obesity, even if not in a long-term care facility.

Clearly, the older you are the more at risk you are. While we all technically knew that, the data here is from a large database and is pretty incontrovertible. In the future, we all know we must do better at LTC facilities. We also know that is easier said than done.

We also know how “you can protect you” if you are at risk, and what you need do to protect others:

How You Can Protect You:

  • Physical distancing as much as reasonably possible and isolation for high-risk populations
  • Washing your hands especially before touching face and eating
  • Heat or re-heat food to 140 for 15 min.
  • PPE: hats, N95 masks, and even gloves for high-risk populations

How You Can Protect Others:

  • Physical distancing: 6+ feet
  • Cloth or N95 masks, plus special gear for certain occupations
  • Seek testing and quarantine yourself with symptoms like cough, fever, diarrhea, etc.

With over 100,000 deaths and rising, we need to do much better planning for a recurrence that is likely in the fall/winter or, if we avoid that, for the next new virus. This is especially so for hospital and ICU facilities, and understanding that the risk is mainly in the elderly, those with immune dysfunction, and those in LTCFs.

We can’t stress this enough: If you are in a high-risk population (age, high blood pressure, obesity, compromised immune system, etc.) you need to take precautions not only to protect yourself from getting sick—if you work or live around those at risk, you need to take precautions to protect them, too.

Secondary Consequences

The economic consequences are really secondary effects of the lockdown. You know them: 40 million unemployed, an enormous GDP drop, a huge government reaction, with the Fed doing everything it can, and Congress adding trillions in deficit spending.

The secondary medical effects are due to the response to economic effects and to fear: We do not have solid enough data on the deaths of despair to see if they outweigh COVID-19 deaths. But anecdotally, we are seeing an increase in suicides, opioid use, an increase in alcohol-related deaths (alcohol tax revenue has increased over 25% in places, and cigarette tax revenue up over 10%). Methamphetamine use has jumped as well.  

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In addition, many cancer patients are avoiding diagnostic testing and even chemotherapy visits. Dr. Scott Atlas, a physician and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and his team have combed through public health records and actuarial tables to put a number on the devastating non-economic consequences of the virus lockdowns. They believe “they will be far beyond what the virus itself has caused.” Their report makes sober reading:

“Lives also are lost due to delayed or foregone health care imposed by the shutdown and the fear it creates among patients. …Emergency stroke evaluations are down 40 percent. Of the 650,000 cancer patients receiving chemotherapy in the United States, an estimated half are missing their treatments. Of the 150,000 new cancer cases typically discovered each month in the US, most—as elsewhere in the world—are not being diagnosed, and two-thirds to three-fourths of routine cancer screenings are not happening because of shutdown policies and fear among the population. Nearly 85 percent fewer living-donor transplants are occurring now, compared to the same period last year. In addition, more than half of childhood vaccinations are not being performed, setting up the potential of a massive future health disaster.”

This is echoed graphically in a Washington Post article.

By mid-May, almost 94 million adults had delayed medical care because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Census Bureau reported in its Household Pulse Survey. Some 66 million of those needed but didn’t get medical care unrelated to the virus.

The Post’s data shows hospital traffic has collapsed:

Source: Washington Post

As have revenues:

Source: Washington Post

One result of this financial stress: 1.4 million healthcare jobs disappeared in April, according to the latest monthly government jobs report. Those included nearly 135,000 jobs lost at hospitals, more than 243,000 at physician offices and more than 503,000 at dental offices.

The Cleveland Clinic received $199 million from the federal government for its shutdown of normal care, but still lost $230 million in April—it would have been $429 million without that aid—and lost another $120 million in the first half of May. Still, even with government help, revenues in just a short period for all hospitals are down more than $1 trillion on an annualized basis. That has to come from somewhere, either cuts or increased costs or…?

The good news is that elective surgery at the Cleveland Clinic is back to 85+% of its pre-shutdown level. Note: “Elective” surgery is still necessary. It generally includes surgeries that are not needed immediately, but otherwise very important, like knee or hip replacements, or cataract removal.

Decreased access to medical care could occur as workers lose employer-sponsored health coverage due to layoffs (nearly 27 million according to one study) and by rural hospitals going out of business. On the positive side, telemedicine has been pulled forward, and will increase access for many. At the Cleveland Clinic, telemedicine visits went from 3,000 in February to over 200,000 in April—while much is being done to encourage that to continue, more patients are also choosing personal visits now.

Finally, some unexpected but possibly good news.

Contrary to common belief, the sun’s UV rays do not necessarily kill bacteria and viruses. UVA and UVB—what the sun provides—are very weak killers of bacteria and viruses. UVC, also provided by the sun but filtered out almost totally by the ozone layer, is what kills viruses and bacteria.

UVC at certain wavelengths is dangerous to humans but is sometimes used in sanitizing equipment like New York City subway cars (at night in the MTA barns). However, certain types of UVC light will kill bad invaders without damage to people.

Work on devices to do this was already underway before COVID-19. Could such lights make all of us safer? I (Mike) am asking a company that makes them to study whether dining and medical exam rooms could be made safer with these lights. Not to mention public sports venues. Both of these would be enormous game-changers and could happen pre-vaccine.

Even if We Get a Vaccine…

The most discouraging statistic for preventing the virus from killing Americans came from a new AP-NORC poll that found only about half of Americans say they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if one is developed. That’s surprisingly low considering the global effort going into a vaccine. African Americans and Hispanics are even less willing, even though the virus is proving more dangerous to those groups. Clearly people will need convincing to roll up their sleeves.  

The virus should be convincing enough. Yes, while most people who get COVID-19 have mild cases and recover, doctors are discovering the coronavirus attacks in far sneakier ways than pneumonia—from blood clots to heart and kidney damage to a life-threatening inflammatory reaction in children. Whatever the final statistics show, health specialists agree the new coronavirus appears deadlier than the typical flu. Yet the survey suggests a vaccine would be no more popular than the yearly flu shot.

The pandemic is also causing global issues. The director of the World Food Program says the number of people facing hunger has doubled to 265 million because of COVID-19. But not all is dire overseas. In spite of our frustration with China, they managed to test 10 million people in one week in Wuhan this last week—1.4 million a day.

So, to go back to our opening question, we conclude there is a mask paradox:

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Wearing a mask in confined spaces in public venues and enclosed spaces, while not perfect, will help protect you and those around you. But it will also help in other ways.

We have to get the economy moving again, which means people have to participate by leaving home to visit stores, restaurants, etc. They have to feel safe doing so. Wearing a mask, while admittedly annoying and uncomfortable, gives others confidence, especially older people. And typically, they have more disposable income, and we all need them to be confident and participate in the economy.

Said another way: Seeing crowds of unmasked people is frightening to a large part of the population. It encourages them to stay home and cut spending. This further delays economic recovery. We will get back to normal much faster if we all cooperate and help the vulnerable people return to society without undue fear.

Finally, remember: Your immune system is a highly organized and responsive unit. It is designed to protect you. So help it: Get your flu shot as soon as it is offered this year. No matter how great the Cleveland Clinic is as a health mecca, not to mention the other great healthcare facilities nationwide, they do not have enough capacity to handle a major flu epidemic and a recurrent COVID-19 outbreak at the same time.

Bottom Line

We have to open up the country, from both a medical and economic perspective. Continuing lockdowns may cause more deaths for other reasons. The economic pain is real and obvious.

But we have to open up smartly. We have to realize who is at risk and take care of them responsibly. We need to be more aware of our neighbors and their needs, doing what we can to help. We have to create a sense of security for everyone, even if that means minor personal annoyances that we might think unjustified.

Without everyone participating, the economy and public health are at risk. We had serious problems with healthcare access before this virus. It is going to get worse if we don’t work together.

Things will get better. There will be a vaccine. But we have to buy the time to get to that point and that means we all need to do our part.

Feel free to send questions for Dr. Mike to: You can respond to John either here or on the website.

You believing we can handle this analyst,

John Mauldin Thoughts from the Frontline
John Mauldin

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fred sauer
June 9, 2020, 2:35 p.m.

You missed some important data: How 2 great world leaders managed to have their countries, USA and Russia, ahead of continental Europe by a factor of 6 to 10. We are true leaders! Now arm in arm with our close partner. We don’t need science or data, we just need tweets.
June 9, 2020, 1:01 p.m.

Thank you! This was excellent in every way.
June 8, 2020, 1:53 p.m.

Thank you John for the forum you provide! I think Dr David Katz and Sweden have it right. Most of all though, as we approach our annual celebration of “unalienable rights that among these are life, libery and the pursuit of happiness”, we each should be free to make our own decisions, healthcare and otherwise.  I may choose to wear a mask for the comfort of others AND I should be free to elect not to…....and to hug and shake hands with those who wish to share that.  A culture of considering every other human being as a potential contaminent cannot be a healthy thing for us, or for our economy.  Risk is present every day and as John Kennedy once observed, we are all mortal.
June 7, 2020, 5:05 p.m.

You stated toward the beginning that LTC facilities are petrie dishes for the virus because of the close proximity of residents and staff.

These institutions are well known for little mini epidemics, especially of C-Diff.  The staff are inadequately trained and monitored.  They frequently do not wash hands between clients and sometimes do not wear gloves.  They were not equipped with PPE at the beginning of all this and that must be forgiven, failure to wash hands cannot.

In 2007 I spent 8 months, 8 hrs per day, staying with my dad in a rehab/LTC center. It was the best available. Night shifts were notorious as a collection point for people who did not give a damn.  This is where I witnessed the problem with cleanliness.  As a result, C-Diff spread through the Home twice during that time.  There were boxes of gloves outside every room but the aides often did not use them.  So when this virus appeared, it would have immediately been spread by staff, not just because folks sit in the dining rooms together.

I contrast this to my own sojourn in rehab in Taiwan, which has nationalized health care. The most important difference is that there patients are required to have their own private personal care attendant.  This was traditionally a family member and often still is, but you can also hire someone.  Each patient is tended by someone who does not work with other patients.  You see the benefit, and the cost was offloaded to the private sector- families and patients who paid.  Obviously, the US is a different culture without the Chinese emphasis on filial loyalty, but one can still learn from the contrast. If I had to suffer a bad accident I’m glad to have done my rehab there.  I received excellent, high-quality care.  Yes, X-ray and MRI machines are older.  So what?

Most of us are aware of how underfunded LTC centers are, but we don’t want to talk about how much of this is the direct result of Medicare and Medicaid policies.  These are political problems.  For the past 20 years those 2 programs have steadily reduced funding, often via the process of demanding patients (customers!) accept the minimum bids for both services and equipment.  I do not know the percentages but well over 50% of the local companies that used to serve the needs for durable medical equipment and repair went out of business.  Now people cannot even get their oxygen delivered on time at home.

The people who do the personal care work in LTC centers are are often paid minimum wage.  You cannot keep good people for that.

I’ll stop there. My main point is that “close proximity” is an explanation that mostly obscures the problem. The virus was expidited by inadequate cleanliness and lack of PPE- masks.
June 7, 2020, 4:44 p.m.

I’ve been reading your letters for more than a decade and find you to a stand-up guy who is straightforward and honest. I also know that you workout daily and over the last few years you have changed your diet in order to live a healthier lifestyle (which has a direct effect in helping build a healthy immune system). I believe your great Dr. Roizen was helpful in your making those changes.
It is also well known that many of the comorbidities such as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes are “lifestyle diseases”.
Poor diet and lack of exercise directly contribute to these comorbidities as well as a compromised immune system. Therefore, I believe it is sad and a quite disingenuous that the only thing that you can recommend to your readers when it comes to their immune system is to “Get your flu shot”
That’s the best thing that you and the Cleveland Clinic can recommend?
I thought your Dr. was better than that. I thought the Cleveland Clinic was better than that. I thought you were better than that. You owe your readers better than that!

Proper nutrition, vitamins and exercise are not worth mentioning?


Peter Zapf
June 6, 2020, 11:56 p.m.

The data tells me ther are past times of widespread health.
When we did (know?) the traditional/natural antiviral approaches.
Possibly by accident.
We should discuss this as a virus.
We should share and know the traditional/natural antiviral approaches.
The ones which explain (some) past times of widespread health.
AMA censured Royal Rife when he explained one.
That one has several names, called “sound healing” in some countries.
Explains the Ringing Rocks parks too.
Maybe Alexa, as part of Amazon’s health benefits.
Since Amazon is only missing one approach externally.
Vaccines benefit pharma.  Which is why we talk about vaccines.
Natural doesn’t represent itself well in a majority vote environment with regulatory capture and a profit motive. 
Does create a health benefits opportunity.
That would drain the healthcare jungle.
The Amazon drains the jungle, bringing it life.
This could get interesting.
And be quite disruptive.
The data driven analysis may need to look at additional data (beyond here, now and what pharma wants us to know).
Seems to me.

Michael Markovitch
June 6, 2020, 2:20 p.m.

People have made a big deal about 100,000 people dying from the ChiCom Flu.  But over 100,000 Americans die every month from cancer and heart disease alone.  Another 150,000 Americans die monthly from a number of other causes - strokes, diabetes, accidents, homicides, suicides, hospital-acquired infections, etc.  Yet we don’t place entire states on house arrest to stop the spread of these causes of death.

The way in which the statewide house arrests were imposed was politically-driven instead of health-driven.  All one had to do was lock things down for two weeks.  Then quarantine hot spots and a buffer zone.  Everyone else goes back to work, school, etc., with reasonable precautions.  Didn’t happen ANYWHERE.  Just a one-size-fits-all political power trip.  These “geniuses” 
totally forgot when people are under house arrest, tax revenues go way down.  Now these fools want Washington to bail them out.  No.  Not a penny.

Demonstrators are allowed to flout the mask and social distancing requirements with the blessing of district attorneys and county health directors, since they are exercising First Amendment rights. But worshipers are still prevented from exercising their First Amendment rights to gather to worship.  Tells me all the mask/social distancing requirements are utterly unwarranted.  Good luck getting any support the next time something like this happens.
June 6, 2020, 12:12 p.m.

I hope someone is looking at using ACE inhibitors and/or statins as possible off-label intervention for COVID-19 disease
June 6, 2020, 11:56 a.m.

Hi John,  I think it’s also important to talk about the things we all can do to make our bodies more resilient to catching the virus. There is a lot now being said about the importance of Vitamin-D levels.  I’m not sure if I’m allowed to post a link here, but if you google “vitamin d deficiency and COVID-19” you will see a lot of scientific articles. From webmd: “Several groups of researchers from different countries have found that the sickest patients often have the lowest levels of vitamin-D and that countries with higher death rates had larger numbers of people with vitamin D deficiency than countries with lower death rates. At least 8 clinical trials are now listed on to evaluate vitamin D’s role in preventing or easing COVID-19.”  This is excellent news because Vitamin-D is very cheap, easy to take, and safe to supplement!  Thanks, Grant
June 6, 2020, 11:05 a.m.

Consider looking into the beneficial effects of vitamin D on lung ailments; the dangerous side-effects of low D3 levels; and the relationship between skin color and D3 levels.

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