Recently, an article from a US right-wing rag called The College Fix has been making the rounds. In it, an epidemiologist (I haven’t verified his credentials but they do sound good) named Knut Wittkowski, a former department head at Rockefeller University in New York, makes some claims that are questionable at best.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for healthy debate and questioning assumed beliefs. We ARE going to have to have a discussion about when to start lifting restrictions and weighing the risks of continued isolation with economic and social disaster. On April 10 here in Saskatchewan, growth in total cases has dropped to 3% (and active cases will decline significantly if this continues). Right now we are buying time for hospitals to get the equipment, resources, and setup they need to allow us to lift at least some restrictions. But the College Fix article and the interview of Knut Wittkowski on which the article is based is not that discussion. It’s not balanced, reasoned, and at times defies logic.
I don’t want to link to the article or interview because garbage should be removed, not shared so they can rake in advertising dollars. But I will quote directly from it and have saved an archive PDF of the interview since these sorts of things seem to disappear or change to suit the day. I like to think that Wittkowski, who I will just call by his first name (Knut) really does believe that what he’s proposing is right. There is part of me that wonders though, if, given the alignment with Trump rhetoric and just how shallow the argument is, he isn’t aiming for a cushy appointment with the white house. Nonetheless, some selected talking points I wish to evaluate are below.
Why Flatten The Curve?
“Well, what people are trying to do is flatten the curve. I don’t really know why. But, what happens is if you flatten the curve, you also prolong, to widen it, and it takes more time. And I don’t see a good reason for a respiratory disease to stay in the population longer than necessary.”
OK. The guy’s an epidemiologist and he doesn’t know why? Even if he is ardently against flattening the curve, for whatever reason, he can’t “see a good reason” to slow the spread and reduce the overburdening on health care resources, he doesn’t deserve an interview.
For those of us that aren’t claiming to be epidemiologists, here’s a good simulation of how social distancing works and an article on why it’s needed. In essence, yes, the idea is to spread the disease infection time out to ensure that we don’t exceed our capability to treat not only coronavirus patients but also the rest of the diseases, illnesses, injuries, and transplants that go on daily. If all the ventilators are in use, you can’t have surgery to remove an early stage tumour.
Those familiar with our hospitals know that there were beds in the hallways BEFORE Covid-19 hit. We are trying to save as many lives as possible and avoid being in a place where these decisions need to get made about who gets saved and who dies.
Once we have sufficient health care capacity, yes, the approach of allowing more spread makes sense. The virus isn’t going to disappear and short of a vaccine which may be a year or more away, most of us will catch it.
At that point, we will need to pivot to protecting the at risk exclusively so that enough people have the virus that the spread grinds to a halt and it is safe for them to be in society again. These are future states, not present ones, at least not in Saskatchewan or the US. Just letting the disease run rampant should not have been the only action or more accurately inaction that our governments took.
Hide The Elderly Somewhere
“With all respiratory diseases, the only thing that stops the disease is herd immunity. About 80% of the people need to have had contact with the virus, and the majority of them won’t even have recognized that they were infected, or they had very, very mild symptoms, especially if they are children. So, it’s very important to keep the schools open and kids mingling to spread the virus to get herd immunity as fast as possible, and then the elderly people, who should be separated, and the nursing homes should be closed during that time, can come back and meet their children and grandchildren after about 4 weeks when the virus has been exterminated.”
Very, very mild symptoms. Does this sound like anyone you know (rhymes with dump) that’s always trying to minimize (or maximize) things? Some – we don’t know how many, but it may be as many as 10x the number of known cases- have no symptoms at all or mild symptoms. Maybe even “very, very” mild symptoms. It’s not that what he’s saying is wrong, it’s that he’s choosing words to paint a specific type of picture in your mind that this is some trivial little thing.
If we’re going to balance minimizing, it’s worth reading some first hand reports of people that have had coronavirus. Moving on to the next sentence, his argument is to close the nursing homes but life goes on as normal, let the kids get and spread it. Where do the elderly go? Not to family, then, obviously. One presumes some facility where all the old people are rounded up and live together for a while. What do they call those places? It’s a nursing home. But not a nursing home. That’s dangerous!
I’m not meaning to diminish the risk to the elderly in nursing homes. If I had a relative in one, I’d take them out. Even Knut implies that nursing homes are not a safe place to be right now. But many elderly still need care, and all still need food, supplies, etc. Where is this magical place we whisk them all away to that has no chance of infection from the workers that are caring for them? What does this system look like and how is it different than nursing homes now?
In Knut’s world of no restrictions, Covid-19 is spreading like wildfire outside the community, increasing the chance of infection to the isolated elderly from the people caring for them. I’m sure we could find a way to stock up a place and then also ask support workers to be quarantined with the elderly at their work for a month, so it’s not impossible, but it’s again minimizing the risk.
The Pandemic Is Over. Long Live The Pandemic
Later, the interviewer asks a telling question.
Interviewer: “You were speaking to my producer the other day on the phone, and you said, ‘The pandemic is over.’ What do you mean by that?”
Knut: “There are no more new cases in China and in South Korea. The number of new cases in Europe is already beginning to decline. The virus came later to the US, so here we see a bit of an incline, maybe, and leveling off within the next couple of days. And if we see that the cases are not increasing dramatically, that means that the number of new infections has already declined substantially and peaked about a week ago.”
Keep in mind that this interview is dated April 1 & 2. On those dates respectively, China had 35 and 31 new cases respectively, according to Worldometers. But certainly less than weeks ago to the point that it’s much closer to zero than 1000. As I’m writing this on April 10, new cases in the US are in the 25000-35000 cases per day range and appear to have peaked or plateaued these past few days.
What Knut doesn’t say is that most states have also severely limited social gatherings and are in various states of lockdown. Where would those numbers be if everyone was out infecting each other still? Obviously not flat but that is his argument. This table shows that most states declared a state of emergency about two weeks before April 1 (mid March) and some have gone further in issuing stay-at-home orders near the end of March. Both of those actions would help in flattening the curve and have nothing to do with the pandemic being over or near over.
Oh, and by the way, South Korea had 101 and 89 cases respectively on April 1 & 2. And slightly off topic, but South Korea reported today that around 100 Covid-19 patients thought to have recovered appear to have had the virus reactivate. But sure, it’s over, although he is about to say “it would have been over” except for government meddling.
What Knut’s Really About
“Well, I’m not paid by the government, so I’m entitled to actually do science. If the government, if there had been no intervention, the epidemic would have been over, like every other respiratory disease epidemic. […] I think people in the United States and maybe other countries as well are more docile than they should be. People should talk with their politicians, question them, ask them to explain, because if people don’t stand up to their rights, their rights will be forgotten.”
We get to the crux of his position here. You can’t trust government. But trust me. I’m just going to shoot from the hip and make wild statements with no basis in fact because… I get my money from elsewhere. I’m entitled to actually do science but I’m not going to use it in any of my statements here which, again, are not going to be scientific commentary, but policy commentary despite not being in politics. This is, after all, an interview all about policy and flattening the curve vs. just letting a bunch of people die unnecessarily.
People may be docile, and perhaps nowhere moreso than here in Canada, but going along with a good plan is different than throwing reason to the wolves in the name of resistance. Question, sure. Question everything. Even interviews with epidemiologists and blog posts criticizing them. Don’t give people a pass because they conform to your anti-government or anti-whatever bias.
More Trouble With Numbers
Asked how many would die in his estimation (editorial comments in square brackets):
“Okay. We have, right now, let’s take realistic numbers in the United States: we have about 25,000 cases every day, that is probably the upper limit—make it 30,000—who knows?”
So far, the peak has been about 35,000 new cases in the US in a single day. With countermeasures in place, that probably (hopefully) is going to remain the peak for the US. Not being critical here, estimation is hard, but now that we have progressed, facts are easy.
“But let’s talk about 25,000. 2% of them will actually have symptoms—that is 500 cases a day. Maybe a third or a fifth—let’s say half of them—will need to be hospitalized. That’s 250 patients a day. If they have been hospitalized for about 10 days, that means that we will have—our hospital system will have to deal with 2,500 patients every day for a certain period of time—that could be 3 or 4 weeks, and then the number will dramatically decrease again and the whole epidemic will be over.”
“2% of all symptomatic cases will die. That is 2% of the [25,000] a day. So that is 500 people a day, and that will happen over 4 weeks. So, that could be as high as 10,000 people.”
So far in the US, WITH social distancing and lockdowns in various states, there have been 18,000 deaths. By April 2, there had been 6,000 deaths. So 8 days after his maximum prediction, and again, WITH countermeasures in place, he is wrong by a huge degree. This is the guy you want to trust with informing policy to roll the dice and let the virus run through most of society unchecked??
Even from one sentence to the next, his definitions change. First 2% of the new cases will “actually have symptoms” then later that same 2% die. And then there’s a whole string of math based on this out-of-nowhere 2% number. If they are a known case, they probably have symptoms severe enough to get a test in the US where tests are still hard to come by or are celebrities.
CDC guidelines prioritize testing of symptomatic cases. I don’t have a number for how many of the known cases in the US are symptomatic and I’m not in the habit of making up numbers but I’m pretty confident that the number is much closer to 90% or even 100% than 2%.
Coronavirus Is NOT a Flu, Foo!
So, rerunning Knut’s numbers. Last 10 days, an average of 29,563 new cases per day. Knut says maybe 1/3 or 1/5 or maybe 1/2 need to be hospitalized and actually here we think the number is lower. But we’ll use Knut’s first guess of 1/3. Roughly 10,000 people per day. Assuming most hospital stays are 10 days (in Saskatchewan, we’re closer to a 12-day average), that’s 100,000 Covid patients added to the health care system. Not 2,500. Just a minor error.
My point isn’t to nitpick numbers. It’s that this guy is all over the place, has an obvious agenda, has already been proven to be inaccurate, doesn’t grasp why we should flatten the curve, and is speaking more from the world of myth and conspiracy than fact. He thinks this is the flu. Here’s one final bit from the interview to ponder.
Knut: “Social distancing definitely is good. It prevented the sky from falling down.”
Interviewer: “Are you being ironic?”
Knut: “Of course! I don’t know where these numbers [showing a reduction in potential deaths from social distancing] are coming from – they’re totally unrealistic. There are no indications that this flu is fundamentally different from every other flu.”
Quick interjection, an epidemiologist, scientist, or someone that cares about presenting fact would know that a coronavirus is not a flu the same way that a cold is not a flu. And if you’re thinking, “Oh, he just slipped up” he reinforces the “it’s a flu” myth 2 more times by the end of the quote. Scientists are not cavalier in their language and don’t throw words around like they don’t have meaning. He goes on to compare COVID-19 to a ‘regular’ flu and double down comparing to “other” flus.
The Virus That Hates Camping
Interviewer: “So, now we’re spending more time indoors. We’ve been told to go indoors. Isn’t that – doesn’t that help keep the virus going?”
Knut: “It keeps the virus healthy, yeah.”
Um, what?? The virus is just as happy living in your body alone on a deserted island as it is frolicking in your lungs near the TV. One might presume that he is saying that close contact from being indoors helps the virus spread, except that he has spent all the rest of this time saying that social distancing is for the chicken littles worried about the sky falling.
Interviewer: “So we should be told to go outdoors?”
Knut: “Yeah. Going outdoors is what stops every respiratory disease.”
And I will leave you to ponder that. One final note, though. The underlying assumption is that if you have COVID-19, you are immune from getting it again. That has not been proven. If immunity does occur, it’s also unknown how long that immunity would last. There are recent developments of cases in China and South Korea, thought recovered, either reactivating or catching the virus again.
Flu Part Two
Finally, to the point of “it’s like the flu.” All of us have some immunity to one type of flu variant or another. It’s a known quantity that our immune systems have dealt with in some variant or another. And there are immunizations every year for the flu variant that experts expect to hit hardest. As Knut has shown, they’re not always right. But when it comes to COVID-19, there is no immunity, and there (was) no previous variant that any of us had been exposed to.
What there is is an exponential spread through the population. Today’s 104,938 deaths are next week’s 200,000 deaths. If you are in contact, you’re likely to carry it whether you get sick or not. Flu deaths are not growing exponentially. 10,000 deaths today doesn’t become 20,000 in a week or so.
Finally, the season flu has a total mortality rate (young and old) in the US of around 0.1%. 1 person dies in every 1000. Actually shockingly high! 8 in 1000 symptomatic cases for 65+, 0.05 in 1000 (or 57 in 1 million) for under 18s.
People seem to get stuck because we don’t have a good handle on how many cases are asymptomatic. There are a lot of reasons that this is important to know. But for now, it is valid enough to use the symptomatic (known) cases causing death at least for estimating outcomes based on the number of known cases. Certainly asymptomatic cases are hard to measure regardless of the virus. So don’t get hung up that the actual rate may be lower than what is reported. It will. Of course. But that’s irrelevant right now to the people that know they have it in estimating their chances.
Even among known cases, Covid-19 mortality rates are all over the map. We are told that respiratory issues, smoking, vaping, diabetes, obesity and of course age are all factors that dramatically increase your risk of death regardless of age group. We also aren’t counting preventable deaths caused by overburden from COVID-19 as part of this mortality rate. Regardless, it seems that most think it’s at least 1% overall.
So if you’re comparing this to a flu, please reconsider. Reconsider what a moderate to bad case is like compared to a moderate to bad flu. Consider the exponential growth in cases. Consider that the world hasn’t shut down for a flu like this in over 100 years. Read some of the reports from young, otherwise healthy people that survived but suffered. Because you’re not guaranteed a pass if you’re young. You just have a much better CHANCE of surviving than your grandparents.