OPINION by GORDON MULLIN
Yes, all COVID-19 deaths matter. As well, all deaths matter.
I was thinking about this recently and wondering about death. At 73, it’s often a topic my aging brain brings up. And how can one not in these times? The relentless counting of COVID deaths and new cases is in the Tribune daily. Every day. Discussions on mask protocols, social distancing, the hopes of a vaccine, ICU usage rates, restrictions, closures, openings and a plethora of related stories dominate every news source, every news cycle.
How many contracted the virus yesterday? Through what means? What are the age groupings? We are awash with stories and statistics and they have displaced much of normal considerations from our consciousness and conversations.
And I don’t mind saying, this never-ending assault on my consciousness has changed me. Frankly, I’m fixated. How many times last week did you have a conversation with a stranger in the market or even a friend that did not involve comments on the situation created by COVID? Me? None.
So, I wondered if I had lost all perspective? Can I set this aspect of my life in some other setting to give it clearer context? Is there something missing? Well, yes, I think there is.
There is one other notable number seemingly absent from our conversations and our news and that is the number of deaths in the city or county or state and nation from other causes.
Is it not reasonable to ask how many in our county died from causes other than COVID, say, cancer? Can I compare the two? Should I?
So I asked myself, given that we had our first county COVID case in mid-March and our first death in April, we’re up to 16 now, how many people died in the county during this period of causes other than COVID? What portion of our county wide population died from, as we call it, natural causes? As it turns out, quite a few.
Here’s some statistics for your consideration- all numbers from the SLO County Health Department. In 2019, we had 2,525 deaths. Not an unusual number. In fact in each of the three prior years we had more deaths. The most recent stats from the Health Department puts our total death count through June 2020 at 1,440. So, let’s call it an average of 240 deaths per month in SLO County so far this year.
Let’s start counting in April, when we discovered the first COVID death, a gentleman over 80 with contributing health problems. From then, assuming the death rate from other factors hasn’t changed substantially, there have been 720 deaths from April till June 30th and extrapolating till the end of July, 960 deaths in SLO county- April 1 till July 31. That makes COVID deaths 1.7% of the deaths in our county during that time period.
Now let’s compare. On average, there are 50 or so deaths from Influenza/Pneumonia per year or 1.9%. This year till June 2020- 2.7% Diabetes, in the mid 50’s to 60 deaths per year so around 2% so far in 2020. Suicide, also in the mid 50’s, so another 2%.
To me, one of the surprising numbers is accidents. Over the last 10 years we averaged 138 deaths per year making it roughly 5% of all deaths.
Note these are conservative numbers. The county statistics give only the top 10 causes of death with ‘other’ causes coming in about 25%. Remember, often folks die with multiple ailments. And suicide, which we know is currently rising among the young and the isolated, often is attributed to other categories like accidents, to protect families.
The rest of the top 10 deaths in SLO county numbers are caused by the normal suspects- heart disease, cancer, stroke and respiratory disease. Alzheimers, a fate both my parents died with, is around 5%.
I became interested in these other causes of deaths because I think that we do ourselves no favor by obsessing on the relatively small numbers of deaths from COVID when the odds are much higher, in the long run, that something else is going to put us in the grave.
Further, several of these more frequent causes of our demise, can and should be publicly discussed for they can be mitigated by different public policies and individual actions yet have been driven from the news cycles and our public and political consideration by our fixation on COVID.
For example, in many parts of America, flu and pneumonia, being similar to COVID in causing deaths in normal times, appears to be dropping off due to the precautions mandated by our current situation. Why did we not earlier institute similar precautions for these diseases? Diabetes is often exacerbated by overeating- i.e. obesity. Why take away our children’s educational opportunities to save their lives when we don’t force them to eat less?
I bring this all up not because I have answers to these questions. Far from it. But I personally am more comfortable knowing that the odds of my demise by COVID are small. The blaring news of COVID masks (pun intended) the larger situation leading many to believe that all efforts, including the enormous outpouring of funds from governments at all levels, will protect us from death.
Yes, I understand that not taking measures to contain COVID would, by definition, mean that more people would have gotten sick and some portion of those would have died- from COVID. True.
But what happened to the discussion around, say, the deaths caused by diabetes due to obesity? Why no discussion?
For me, these numbers from our county Department of Health, oddly, give me some degree of comfort. I am less overwhelmed by COVID news. I don’t have to assume the sky is falling because it’s not.
Finally, as a suggestion to our County’s Health Department. When you give us the number of our citizens who have died from COVID to date, this year, please also give us the total of folks who have died from other causes. Give us that context. Don’t just add to emotional turmoil. Give us a yardstick to measure the overall risk. That’s your job too. Isn’t it?
Again, for me, this view of our world makes more sense; gives me more comfort; eases my mind and soul.
I hope it does yours as well.