COVID-19 strategy: Time for facts, not assumptions

I've sat and fumed silently in the face of incompetence long enough.  This rant is long overdue.

Among software engineers, we have a saying: "Garbage in, garbage out."  If the data you put into a system for analysis is garbage (erroneous), your results will be equally worthless.

I've heard it estimated that there could be as many as 100 million asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 in the U.S. alone "for all we know."  Now, 17,300 deaths out of 475,000 is one thing; 17,300 deaths out of 100,000,000 is a different thing altogether (less lethal than the common flu).

As Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria wrote April 9:

Stanford's John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist who specializes in analyzing data, and one of the most cited scientists in the field, believes we have massively overestimated the fatality of covid-19.  "When you have a model involving exponential growth, if you make a small mistake in the base numbers, you end up with a final number that could be off 10-fold, 30-fold, even 50-fold," he told me.

We need the CDC to step up and do its job.  Thus far, it hasn't.  The numbers its people given us have been worthless, and yet our politicians are taking arbitrary action based on data that we know is worthless and flawed.

What we need is 10,000 units of two different tests — the antibody test and the active COVID-19 test.

We don't need 50 million or even 10 million.  Just ten thousand.  That's all.  That should be doable.  It's a relatively low volume.

Select a representative sample of 10,000 from one of the "hot zones."  I don't care if it's three city blocks in the heart of Brooklyn or three square miles in Seattle.

We need a definitive number to tell us the percentage of that 10,000 population that has acquired antibodies, indicating that they had COVID-19, even if they were asymptomatic, or currently have it (asymptomatic or not).

First, administer the COVID-19 test.  If you test positive, you're pulled out of the pool.  If you test negative, then administer the antibody test.

Add those who have died of COVID-19 within the geographic boundaries of this arbitrary 10,000 population center — but only those within those geographic boundaries.

If it makes you feel better, do the test twice on two different population centers and compare results to confirm similar percentages.

This will tell us, truthfully, how dangerous this thing is.  So far — four months into this — we still have no clue, because the CDC can't honestly tell us.

Seventeen thousand three hundred deaths in the USA out of 475,000 cases (3.6 percent) seems bad, but it tells us absolutely nothing.  Why?  Because that 475,000 is not an accurate number — and we know it's not, because we've tested only those who were symptomatic.

To apply Joannidis's point, cited by Zakaria, the real death rate could be not 3.6 percent, but 0.36 or 0.12 or 0.072.

When the CDC tells us the real death rate — the death toll out of the total number of confirmed exposures — then it's given us meaningful information.

Until we have meaningful data, we have nothing.  We don't know if this thing is as deadly as the media are hyping it to be or if it's relatively tame.

So we need the CDC to do its job, and the first part of that job, before anything else happens, is to gather factual information so a plan can be put together — a plan based on facts, not fears.  We need this because for the past several months, we've operated with no real plan other than to assume the worst.  But assumptions are for amateurs.  Facts are what matter.

If the CDC can't muster this, I would think a single state could manage on its own.  We're only talking 10,000 of each test kit.  Fewer of both, really.  And the state that gets off the groupthink and actually does it would be the hero.

Attention, governors: Stop following the crowd and think.  Show the entire nation why your state is better, smarter, and more efficient.

If we find out later, after this is all over (and rest assured: eventually, actual numbers will come out), that we have destroyed the U.S. economy over something that was less lethal than ordinary flu (average about 35,000 deaths per year) — or even something that's only as lethal as especially bad flu (61,000 in 2017–2018 flu season), heads will roll.  Every politician, every doctor, and every member of the press who enabled this debacle based on misinformation and sheer laziness in failing to obtain real numbers will be subject to public humiliation.

Mr. President, don't you want to be able to tell your constituents you put forth the effort and resources to base your decisions on fact?  You can be publicly ridiculed when this is over, or you can be the hero.

Jerry Hunter, a veteran software engineer, is founder and CEO of US Fleet Tracking, at-large member of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, owner and CEO of Sundance Airport, founder and CEO of Sundance Flight Academy, and a contributing writer for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

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