Commentary / World

America is being way too calm about COVID-19

by Cathy O'Neil

Bloomberg

The accelerating resurgence of COVID-19 in the United States is filling me with dread. But what’s even scarier is the propensity of Americans to ignore or downplay a malaise that is generating tens of thousands of entirely preventable deaths.

It makes total sense that the rest of the world wants to keep Americans out these days. Thanks at least in part to mostly young people socializing in bars and nightclubs, the country has been setting records for daily case counts, now nearing 3 million. In states that reopened early — Arizona, Florida, Texas — new COVID-19 cases have been increasing faster every day, suggesting that the disease is spreading exponentially.

The horrible data suggest that we have learned nothing from the tragic experience of the past several months, that things are spinning out of control and that wishing for the best is folly. When I, as a data scientist, see numbers like this — and recognize that even they are vastly understating the reality — I automatically extrapolate to the worst case scenario, in which millions of people die. I start to actually smell death.

Apparently, though, other humans are capable of avoiding such dreadful feelings. Somehow, they manage to look at the data differently, or to not look at the facts at all.

Some people, for example, put a positive spin on the death rates, which haven’t increased in tandem with the cases. They say that we’re recording more cases because testing has improved, that we’re treating patients better, that the afflicted are younger and hence more likely to survive.

I’m not seeing it. Yes, testing has roughly tripled in Arizona, but so has the percentage of people testing positive (from about 7.5 percent to about 25 percent). This suggests that more of the people coming in to get tested have a major reason to think they’re sick, and that the tests are missing even more of the people with mild or no symptoms. In short, positive rates tripling means testing should have increased by 9-fold at least. The numbers in Florida (positive rate 19 percent, up from 4 percent) and Texas (positive rate 14 percent, up from 6 percent) suggest the situation in those states is similar.

As testing capacity fails to meet demand and the process gets increasingly arduous, more and more people will stay home rather than wait in line for hours to confirm what they already know. We’re losing data coverage by the day, along with our grasp on reality.

True, treatments are better, but I haven’t heard any medical professional say that they can turn a fatal case around. They mainly help get non-terminal patients out of the hospital sooner. Medications such as Remdesivir don’t actually claim to have improved mortality rates.

The story with the death statistics is a time lag: The young people who are getting sick first tend to survive, and older people can take a while to die. This obvious fact is making my dread worse, not better. As society gets increasingly crowded with sick people, they’ll be more likely to infect the elderly and people with underling conditions. It’s just a matter of time before the disease again seeps into nursing homes, rehabs and prisons.

At the far end of optimism comes outright denial. Some people claim that contract tracers automatically count all contacts as positive cases (not true), or use methodological issues as an excuse to assume overcounting. This is disingenuous skepticism of statistics, intentionally courting confusion to avoid bad news, to foment fear and passivity rather than action.

None of this bodes well for the human species. If we can ignore and obfuscate a threat that is staring us right in the face, how will we navigate more distant dangers such as climate change or water supply? Sure, a rosy outlook can be psychologically helpful at times, but this is one of those moments where we have to be realistic about bad news, rather than throw up our hands and pretend it’s not happening.

Cathy O’Neil is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a mathematician who has worked as a professor, hedge-fund analyst and data scientist. She founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company, and is the author of “Weapons of Math Destruction.”

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