Why you can’t compare COVID-19 fatalities with other causes of death

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Comparing the number of COVID-19 fatalities with other leading causes of death is fallacious for many reasons, experts say.

In attempting to downplay the severity of the coronavirus or advocate for advanced stages of the reopening process, commenters on social media — and even some elected officials — have compared the risks of becoming infected with or dying from COVID-19 to those that come with riding in a car.

But those comparisons fall short for several reasons — including one big one: Unlike automobile accidents, COVID-19 is contagious and can spread exponentially from one person to many others.

Pia MacDonald, an epidemiologist with RTI International, told CBS 17 News that from her point of view, people skeptical of the disease’s severity are frequently experiencing fatigue due to several factors — of the pandemic itself, of social distancing and of the mixed messages that have been sent by various leaders.

And because the disease is so new, researchers have significantly less knowledge about its long-term effects than they do about other infectious diseases like the seasonal flu.

“I always come back to the same thing — this is a brand new-to-humans disease,” she said. “We only have experience with this disease since this year. That means there’s a lot still about this disease that we don’t know.”

It’s true that an average of 1,366 people died in car accidents in North Carolina in each year from 2013-18, according to the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 19,671 people died of cancer in the state in 2018, and another 1,494 died by suicide that year.

But the contagious nature of COVID-19, coupled with its short history, means it’s unfair to compare those numbers to the 1,726 deaths reported by the state Department of Health and Human Services during the past four months. The state’s first COVID-19 death was reported March 25.

Skeptics have pointed to the 3.2 percent death rate from the flu in 2017-18. As of Friday, 1.6 percent of the state’s known cases of COVID-19 have died — a number that has been falling since early May.

But experts have said focusing on that number misses the point that COVID-19 is difficult to contain without a vaccine. Dr. Mark McClellan, the former FDA director and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, has said COVID-19 is “way, way worse” and “not at all an even comparison.”

And in discussing the falling death rate, MacDonald said it’s “very important not to put all of our weight on that one piece of indicator.”

She says not knowing the long-term impact, the inherent challenge of developing an effective vaccine for a disease that spread from animals to humans and the changing nature of the virus itself mean it should be taken seriously.

“For people who are the naysayers, there’s really just all these unknowns that we can not lose sight of,” she said.

More headlines from CBS17.com:

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