Simple arithmetic seems to be lost on the politicians, and that error is perpetuating a needless and counterproductive policy destroying our country. Politicians like Mitt Romney don’t seem to understand that the fact that there are so many infections actually makes the fatality rate of the virus remarkably low – a fact that should guide our policies going forward.
The politicians keep referring to widespread outbreaks in prisons, meatpacking plants, and other semi- or fully confined areas with predominantly young populations. Then they refer to a relatively small number of fatalities anecdotally, as if this is the bubonic plague or Ebola. In fact, those case studies demonstrate just how low the fatality rate is for younger people.
During Wednesday’s coronavirus hearing held remotely by the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Mitt Romney began his line of questioning asserting that the president believes that without “the actions he had taken to close down the economy, we'd have had 2 million dead.” Romney was trying to insinuate that the death rate is really as high as “the experts” claimed and that following the “expert” advice saved us from it, even though the lockdowns occurred after the transmission peak. He then wrongly stated that deaths outside the New York area are going up, even though nearly all the deaths are in nursing homes and many of them are earlier deaths only being reported now.
Next, Romney posed the following question to Stanford professor John Ioannidis about what he saw as a conflict in data. On the one hand, Romney suggested, we see all the serology tests and the prison data from southern states showing pretty convincingly that many more people have had the virus, many are asymptomatic, and therefore the death rate for most people is very low. “On the other hand,” asserted Romney, “I look at the data that comes from the meatpacking facilities – the number of people who died … likewise grocery store stocking clerks, I mean a normal flu, you don’t have dozens of people die that are stocking clerks, you don’t have dozens of people die that work in meatpacking processes – what accounts for that phenomenon?”
First, notice the asymmetry behind his “conflicting” data. On the one hand, the data showing this is widespread, largely asymptomatic, and very low-risk beyond defined vulnerable populations is as solid as can be. We have dozens of serology tests from numerous states and countries, all converging on almost the exact same fatality rate. We also have entire prisons that are now being tested, and we see in many places that the majority contracted the virus, yet a majority were asymptomatic and very few died. That is solid, hard data from completely confined and defined populations.
What he said about meatpacking plants and grocery stores, on the other hand, is all anecdotal and based on media reports. Yes, the disease has spread far and wide among those who work indoors with a lot of people (although not as much as in confined populations in prison). And therefore, we are seeing the exact same conclusion of the low fatality rate: few deaths out of many cases. And like always, the few deaths are coming from those very high-risk groups that Romney himself identified. So where is the conflict?
Let’s unpack this.
Roughly 45 meat-processing workers have reportedly died from COVID-19. There are a total of 500,000 workers in the meat and poultry industry – approximately 144,000 in meatpacking plants and 119,000 in meat processing. Even if you limit our denominator just to meatpackers, it is roughly the same as the 146,000 population of federal prisons. 44 individuals have died in federal prisons; thus the fatality rate among meat-processing workers is almost the same as in federal prisons, which Romney already conceded is very low.Likewise, approximately 218 people have died in state prisons, which house about 1.2 million people nationwide.
In fact, they all share the same story. Over 10,000 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in the meatpacking industry. Right off the bat, that is a 0.45% fatality rate. But as Romney conceded, we know most people are asymptomatic and only a fraction, usually those with symptoms, were tested first, so it’s likely that a much higher number of workers have actually had the virus.
Let’s take the Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, for example. 412 out of 2,367 tested positive. That is about a 17.4% infection rate. All of them were asymptomatic, and there have been zero deaths among those workers so far.
On May 5, the Des Moines Register reported that in Iowa, four meatpacking plants tested every worker and the infection rate was 58%, 39%, 26%, and 17% respectively. I don’t see reports of any fatalities in those four plants at this point. In Indiana, 890 people, 40%, of a Tyson plant, tested positive, and nobody has died so far.
This is the exact same story as in the southern prisons. The only difference is that because they are completely confined, the number in a given prison who wind up contracting it is usually over 50%. I think a 25% infection rate for meatpacking workers across the board makes sense because that is close to the infection rate we are seeing on ships and among staff in prisons. They all work or live in close quarters but are not fully confined like prisoners are.
If we take a baseline of 25% of meatpacking workers contracting the virus, the same pattern we see in prisons, that would mean there is a 0.125% infection fatality rate, pretty close to the number commonly used for the flu.
This harmonizes very closely with the data of one death out of 1,102 cases on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, also a younger population.
An entire prison in Tennessee was tested, and out of 1,300 cases, there was one death, but he was 67 – much older than the general prison population.
Out of 30,000 detainees in ICE facilities, it wasn’t until yesterday that there was even one fatality. According to ICE, it is still to be determined if he died of COVID-19, but again, he had hypertension and diabetes so severe that several surgeries left him without a right foot. As of now, 60% of those tested so far have been found to be positive.
What about grocery workers? While the numbers might have gone up, as of April 29, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union reported 72 deaths among its 1.3 million workers in grocery, retail, pharmacy, and meatpacking industries. There is no precise data isolating the number of grocery workers, but the New York Times estimated a few days ago from the union that it was 32. In total, there are roughly 2.5 million workers in grocery stores and supermarkets, but I have to assume these were just the deaths among the union workers. These people aren’t quite as confined as meatpacking workers (and meatpackers are included in the 1.3 million), but even if we assume a 10% infection rate, that would be a 0.05% fatality rate, although it would likely be somewhat higher, because some of the union workers are in Canada.
And remember, this virus has been spreading in these places for months. So many more could already have the antibodies but test negative at present. Moreover, a comprehensive new study of the Diamond Princess cruise ship now shows that the asymptomatic rate was really 74 percent (previously thought to be one-third). It’s therefore possible the denominator could be even higher.
Perhaps if Romney and his colleagues would step outside the media’s panic porn bubble for a moment, they would recognize that reams of hard data are remarkably consistent in the risk stratification of this virus. It’s very serious for a lot of people and warranted beefed-up medical resources, sheltering of the vulnerable, and avoiding real large gatherings. But beyond that, the lockdowns were a colossal mistake.
Closing question for Senator Romney: Did you join me, Senator Cotton, and Senator Hawley in mid-January calling for a shutoff of travel from China – when mitigation would actually have worked? Nope. In fact, Romney criticized even Trump’s late-hour shutoff from Europe in mid-March after we witnessed the disaster in Italy. So, which one is it, Romney? Our data meter is confused. On the one hand, you seem really concerned about the virus – only when it comes to imposing worthless lockdowns after the horse left the barn. On the other hand, you opposed any effort to keep as many carriers as possible out of our country in the first place.