How Deadly Is The Wuhan Flu?

Written by Rob Morse on April 3, 2020

Which cities in the US have the most coronavirus? The New York Times collected the reported deaths from the virus so far this year. I emphasize the word “reported”. Early in the year, the Wuhan flu might not have been recognized as the cause of death. Later, testing services were hard to get as the number of suspected patients rose rapidly. For political reasons, some hospitals might have classified all viral respiratory infections as the Coronavirus. What the numbers from the NY Times didn’t tell us was the fraction of us who died from the virus. I estimated that for you.

Some of the first victims of the Wuhan flu were people who were already seriously sick. They died with the virus, but the virus was simply the final cause that pushed them over the edge. For perspective, the flu kills some elderly people every year. In contrast, we also saw some people die who had no previously recognized illness. That made us think the Wuhan flu could be particularly dangerous.

That is why it is important to look at both the number of people who’ve had the Wuhan flu, and the number who died from it. I wondered if the virus was really as dangerous as the news reports described. About 1.3 million of us had the Wuhan flu, and about 22 thousand of us died with it. It implies that the flu was lethal about 1.7 percent of the time if you caught it. That sounds serious, but..

That infection rate is misleading because of the people who had the Wuhan flu but were never tested and therefore never recorded. We counted the patients who became seriously ill enough to require medical attention and were tested.  We don’t know how many people felt bad for an evening, were healthy the next day, and never bothered to see a doctor. We need to dig a little deeper to understand what is happening with this disease.

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I looked at the areas that reported ten or more fatalities from the Wuhan flu this year and collected their populations. Of course we expect more people in our larger cities to catch this flu, but how many more is important. When we do that, we see that we have a very small chance of dying from this disease so far. Up until the first of April, the average cumulative death rate from the Wuhan flu is 34 deaths per million population, or 0.0034%. That rate is quite low. The ordinary flu is expected to kill 36 people per million over three months of the nine month flu season. That means the regular flu is about as dangerous as what we’ve seen from the Wuhan flu so far. So far, this disease is dangerous, but not frighteningly so. I thought that was the case, but now I have the numbers to show it.

I keep saying “so far” because we’re still learning about this disease. This virus isn’t in every population yet. We also don’t know how many people had the Wuhan flu and shrugged it off. Until we know, we’re staying home and washing our hands to limit the rate at which the virus spreads.

That does two things. First, these precautions slightly reduces the total number of us who will catch the Wuhan virus over time. That is good, but the second effect is to slow down the spread of the disease and significantly reduce the number of us who have it at any one time. That helps our doctors keep up with the disease and treat those who are seriously ill. That saves lives.

The situation with this disease is changing quickly. Last week we didn’t have a simple and quick test to determine if you’ve had this flu and are now immune to it. Those tests came out this week. I suspect we’ll have a vaccine in a few months.

In the meantime, wash your hands.

Sources- Illness and deaths as collected by the New York Times and shared vie github.com “https://github.com/nytimes/covid-19-data/blob/master/us-counties.csv
5-digit location code from the Federal Information Processing Standard, State and County designation.
Populations for each location taken from the 2019 estimates by the US Census Bureau.

date county state fips cases  population deaths fat/mill
4/1/2020 Dougherty Georgia 13095 490               87,956.00 29 330
4/1/2020 St. John the Baptist Louisiana 22095 118               42,837.00 13 303
4/1/2020 Orleans Louisiana 22071 2270            390,144.00 115 295
4/1/2020 Jefferson Louisiana 22051 1433            432,493.00 64 148
4/1/2020 Rockland New York 36087 3321            325,789.00 29 89
4/1/2020 Essex New Jersey 34013 2262            798,975.00 69 86
4/1/2020 Wayne Michigan 26163 4470         1,749,343.00 146 83
4/1/2020 Bergen New Jersey 34003 3494            932,202.00 75 80
4/1/2020 Oakland Michigan 26125 1910         1,257,584.00 99 79
4/1/2020 King Washington 53033 2498         2,252,782.00 166 74
4/1/2020 New York City New York 47440      19,453,561.00 1374 71
4/1/2020 Orange New York 36071 1756            384,940.00 25 65
4/1/2020 Macomb Michigan 26099 1088            873,972.00 51 58
4/1/2020 Nassau New York 36059 9555         1,356,924.00 76 56
4/1/2020 Union New Jersey 34039 1661            556,341.00 29 52
4/1/2020 Morris New Jersey 34027 942            491,845.00 25 51
4/1/2020 Snohomish Washington 53061 1304            822,083.00 39 47
4/1/2020 Suffolk New York 36103 7605         1,476,601.00 69 47
4/1/2020 Somerset New Jersey 34035 472            328,934.00 15 46
4/1/2020 Mahoning Ohio 39099 177            228,683.00 10 44
4/1/2020 Hudson New Jersey 34017 1910            672,391.00 29 43
4/1/2020 Fairfield Connecticut 9001 1986            943,332.00 38 40
4/1/2020 Weld Colorado 8123 293            324,492.00 13 40
4/1/2020 Monmouth New Jersey 34025 1301            618,795.00 24 39
4/1/2020 Ocean New Jersey 34029 1209            607,186.00 23 38
4/1/2020 Hampden Massachusetts 25013 475            466,372.00 17 36
4/1/2020 Middlesex New Jersey 34023 1493            825,062.00 27 33
4/1/2020 Passaic New Jersey 34031 1494            501,826.00 15 30
4/1/2020 Westchester New York 36119 10683            967,506.00 25 26
4/1/2020 East Baton Rouge Louisiana 22033 244            440,059.00 10 23
4/1/2020 Marion Indiana 18097 1117            964,582.00 21 22
4/1/2020 Essex Massachusetts 25009 885            789,034.00 17 22
4/1/2020 Norfolk Massachusetts 25021 829            706,775.00 15 21
4/1/2020 Cobb Georgia 13067 304            760,141.00 15 20
4/1/2020 El Paso Colorado 8041 314            720,403.00 14 19
4/1/2020 Fulton Georgia 13121 638         1,063,937.00 20 19
4/1/2020 Cook Illinois 17031 5152         5,150,233.00 95 18
4/1/2020 Suffolk Massachusetts 25025 1624            803,907.00 14 17
4/1/2020 Santa Clara California 6085 956         1,927,852.00 33 17
4/1/2020 Milwaukee Wisconsin 55079 780            945,726.00 16 17
4/1/2020 District of Columbia District of Columbia 11001 586            705,749.00 11 16
4/1/2020 Palm Beach Florida 12099 616         1,496,770.00 22 15
4/1/2020 New Haven Connecticut 9009 611            854,757.00 12 14
4/1/2020 Erie New York 36029 553            918,702.00 12 13
4/1/2020 San Mateo California 6081 388            766,573.00 10 13
4/1/2020 Middlesex Massachusetts 25017 1582         1,611,699.00 21 13
4/1/2020 DuPage Illinois 17043 392            922,921.00 12 13
4/1/2020 Lee Florida 12071 235            770,577.00 10 13
4/1/2020 Oklahoma Oklahoma 40109 192            797,434.00 10 13
4/1/2020 Clark Nevada 32003 961         2,266,715.00 28 12
4/1/2020 Pima Arizona 4019 217         1,047,279.00 10 10
4/1/2020 Philadelphia Pennsylvania 42101 1478         1,584,064.00 14 9
4/1/2020 Broward Florida 12011 1348         1,952,778.00 13 7
4/1/2020 Los Angeles California 6037 3518      10,039,107.00 65 6
4/1/2020 Riverside California 6065 371         2,470,546.00 13 5
4/1/2020 Dallas Texas 48113 631         2,635,516.00 13 5
4/1/2020 San Diego California 6073 849         3,338,330.00 15 4
4/1/2020 Miami-Dade Florida 12086 2415         2,716,940.00 11 4
4/1/2020 Unknown Puerto Rico 286         2,933,404.00 11 4
4/1/2020 Orange California 6059 606         3,175,692.00 10 3

 

 

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