The Universal Notebook: What do COVID-19 numbers mean?

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A couple of weeks ago when I read that a 20-year-old had died of COVID-19, I emailed the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to ask whether this person had underlying complications.

I was essentially told it was none of my business. 

“Patient privacy laws prevent release of the kind of information you seek,” the CDC replied.

I didn’t ask who the person was, where they lived, or what they did, just whether there were complicating health issues involved. Maybe it is none of my business, but, swamped as we are by COVID-19 numbers and data, I’m not sure any of us know what they really mean.

CDC statistics lack human context. We tend to think they constitute the facts, but our lives are more than collections of numbers. When the CDC reported recently, for instance, that of 318 new cases of COVID-19, 71 percent were people under 40, that sounded bad.

But was it? Did those young people just test positive? Were they asymptomatic? Did they have minor flu-like symptoms? Were they hospitalized? Intubated? Are otherwise healthy young people dying of COVID-19? I’m guessing not.

As I write this, about 800 Mainers have died of COVID-19, but not one of them was under 20. Only three people in their 20s had died, one in their 30s, 14 in their 40s, 37 in their 50s, 77 in their 60s, 211 in their 70s, and 454 people 80 or older.

No one under 20 has died in Maine despite nearly 11,900 cases in that age group. The three people in their 20s who died were among nearly 12,000 who were infected. Compare that to those 80-plus, where 454 deaths occurred among just 2,800 cases.

So that’s why I asked whether the 20-year-old who died had underlying conditions. COVID-19 deaths are extremely rare among young people. Without knowing how sick young people are getting it is impossible to make an informed decision about public safety precautions.

So far, Maine has had one so-called “breakthrough death,” a person who died despite being vaccinated. Gratefully the family came forward to explain that the deceased was 88 years old and in extremely poor health before contracting the disease. We need to know that if we are going to convince enough people to get vaccinated.

I have friends who believe that, while the coronavirus pandemic is real and serious, public health officials and the media have made the matter worse by inducing unreasonable fear in the general population. They argue that the data suggests, and has all along, that we should have been isolating and protecting the sick and the elderly while letting the young and the healthy get on with their lives.

That seems to be the sentiment behind the push to open schools even as case numbers among young people climb.

I began taking COVID-19 more seriously last year when my daughters told me that I – a man in his 70s who spent six months in the hospital in 2019 – was the person they and their children were trying to protect by wearing face masks, social distancing, and avoiding large gatherings. A year later, I’m vaccinated, but my grandchildren are not.

The Pfizer vaccine has just been approved for those 12 and over, but none of my grandchildren are old enough to receive it. We have a wedding coming up in July and I’m having trouble assessing the risk, not to me but to my grandkids. It would really help if the CDC told us more about the Mainers under 20 who caught COVID-19.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.