So Many Numbers: How do they add up?
By Julie Freestone and Rudi Raab
Weeks and weeks ago, when Julie was walking with her son Michael, she expressed alarm at the number of deaths from COVID-19 reported the day before in New York City. Michael was withholding judgment at that point about the severity of the pandemic and pointed out, rather impatiently, that her number was wrong and that it was dangerous to spread misinformation.
That point taken, Julie came home and checked. He was right. She had said it was 425 and the actual number was slightly less. It turned out not to matter because about a week later, the daily number had doubled.
A word about numbers and us
Just a word or two about numbers before we launch into today’s blog (which somehow got longer than intended….so many numbers): Many years ago, Julie worked as a budget analyst for the New York State Department of Labor, Employment Division. One of her tasks was to put together a line item budget to account for where millions of dollars had been spent. After many tries and failing to get the numbers to add up to the correct total, she sought out her predecessor. He confessed he’d had the same issue for several years and decided not to worry about the missing million or so.
Rudi has never been a fan of numbers. When he needs to calculate something, he often uses his fingers and counts in German. He insisted that he couldn’t take the police promotional exam because he couldn’t do the math. Julie offered to practice math problems with him and he said he couldn’t learn. He did take the exam twice. He passed it barely once and failed the second time. He declared an end to the torture, said he didn’t want to be a sergeant anyway and never took it again. They shortly after eliminated the math portion of the test, deciding it wasn’t relevant.
The Virus Tracker
So it came as a surprise to discover two things about Rudi and numbers during the shelter-in-place. Every day since the beginning (not of time, just since the beginning of the lockdown), Rudi has clipped out of our local newspaper a full-page corona tracker that shows the progression of the pandemic in the state, country and world. He saves them all. Why does he do it?
At the beginning, he heard the Orange One say,”We have it under control.” Then he heard him say that when it gets warmer, the virus will vanish. When that did not happen, Rudi heard DJT proclaim that by Easter, the churches would be filled. Then he heard him suggest that bleach taken internally could kill the virus. Calls to poison control centers spiked. Rudi reads the daily statistics about new infections and new deaths carefully and studies the projections of the University of Washington. He believes that only with these scientifically derived numbers can we project what the future will bring. Instead of relying on a person who has a history of being fast and loose with the truth, Rudi relies on science to derive hope for the future.
Tracking our website activity
The other numbers-related behavior actually preceded the current situation but has intensified recently. Ever since we published our book Stumbling Stone in 2015, Rudi has been an avid fan of checking our website to see how many visitors we’re getting. We were able to see which posts were most popular, how long people stayed on a particular post and where they were coming from. He’s been checking those numbers since we’ve been blogging about the pandemic, and especially since we started posting the blogs on our own website.
Getting your brain around the numbers
To help us get our brain around the magnitude of fatalities, some have turned to a technique called social math used by public health communicators working to raise awareness about the toll tobacco takes. They described the annual number of deaths from tobacco-related diseases as equal to two jumbo jets crashing every day with no survivors.
Now the media is saying “the U.S. death toll from the corona virus that causes COVID-19 has surpassed the number of lives lost in the Vietnam War as more than 1 million Americans are confirmed to have had the deadly illness. Data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University show the U.S. has had 60,316 fatalities from the virus, more than the 58,220 Americans who died in the Vietnam War that lasted about 20 years. The data show 1.02 million cases in the U.S. Worldwide, the death toll reached 190,000 by the end of April. And Dr. Wendel Brunner, retired Public Health Director for Contra Costa County offers this one: the COVID deaths in America are the equivalent of two 9-11’s every three days. Or a 9-11 every week day, Monday through Friday, crashing against the Towers, week in and week out, with no end in sight. He has made some projections of his own that he finds quite discouraging.
Cases and deaths
Anyway, back to the avalanche of numbers. First, there were daily recitations of the number of virus-related deaths in China, then Italy and elsewhere. In the beginning, the numbers were focused on new cases, hospital admissions and staggering numbers of deaths.
When Rudi read to Julie in the morning while she was doing yoga, in the beginning, he would announce the number of new cases. Each day she would protest (quite loudly eventually) that the number was ridiculous, meaningless and misleading because there weren’t enough tests available and many more people who probably had the disease weren’t being counted. Hospital admissions were a better measure of fluctuations. And deaths.
Unemployment and jobs
Along with the data about patients, there came statistics about unemployment and those numbers were also mind-blowing. The Washington Post on April 2 that in more than 6.6 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits the week before— a record. “The past two weeks have erased nearly all the jobs created in the past five years,” said the Post. One in five American workers are said to be unemployed.
The New York Times on May 7 was reporting that unemployment claims surpassed 33 million since March. “Economists expect the monthly jobs report…to put the April unemployment rate at 15 percent or higher — a Depression-era level,” said the Times.
But even a figure of that magnitude will almost certainly understate the calamity. Officials in some states say more than a quarter of their work force is unemployed. And experts say it is impossible to calculate how many jobs might come back as states lift shelter-in-place rules.
But wait, there’s more
We could go on. There are dire estimates of the number of businesses that will close and never reopen. And the devastation for whole industries like the airlines, travel-related companies and hospitality organizations like hotels. There’s the stock market, which resembles a roller coaster these days and is eroding people’s savings. There is the catastrophic impact of the loss of sales tax, tourism and other revenue for cities around the country.
There are various options for how to cope with this data. Certainly wallowing in it and becoming mesmerized as Rudi has with some of it is one possibility. That might lead to nightmares and lack of sleep or, at least in his case, a sense of control. We could certainly ignore the information and binge watch TV shows that we have missed. We could put our faith in people like California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has a specific set of data he says will be used to decide whether and when the pandemic is over and it’s safe to resume normal life. Whatever that is. And we could hope that if we continue to watch the numbers, they’ll improve. What do you think?
Rudi Raab was born eight days after World War II ended in Europe. Julie Freestone was born on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the day in 1938 that the Nazis burned Jewish businesses and began rounding up Jews. What do these dates and numbers have to do with COVID-19? Nothing.