Can you even remember not knowing the word “covid”? We’ve spent most of 2020 locked down, wearing masks, avoiding travel, skipping the gym, refusing social contact, learning and working from home (if you still have your job), deferring doctor’s appointments and health care, and cooking at home all the time. We’ve lost loved ones, some of whom have died alone due to strict covid lockdown rules. We’ve lost connection with our communities.
So why is this virus still here, and apparently, flourishing? Didn’t all this effort matter?
I recently asked a colleague to assist me with a regression analysis to examine how states with the earliest and strictest lockdown measures fared, in terms of their death rates from covid. Did more lockdown measures mean reduced death rates?
What we found might surprise you – it sure surprised me!
We used data (compiled here) that gave each state a ranking for its lockdown measures. We plotted this against covid death rate by state. Here’s what we found, as of mid October 2020:
Each dot is a state, and you can see that the states are pretty well scattered around. This implies that the correlation between restrictions and death rates, if there is one at all, is probably weak, and that other variables are in play. But, we needed the regression analysis, to show for sure if this was true.
Here’s what happened: The red line shown in this graph is where the regression analysis fell. A weak correlation was found, showing that more restrictions were weakly correlated with higher death rate.
In other words, states with more restrictions had higher death rates – the exact opposite of what we expected!
This analysis brings up a lot of questions: Did tougher lockdown measures create more collateral deaths? Or were they not strict enough? Is this why covid is making a comeback right now? If we depend so completely on lockdowns and nothing else, this analysis suggests we may continue to lose the fight against covid.
This analysis does not evaluate cause, only correlation. We all know correlation is not cause. And it is by no means the only analysis we should be performing.
But it begs the question: Are we moving in the wrong direction?
The costs of unilateral masking, lockdowns, restrictions and quarantines have created unsatisfying results, to say the least. Every day, we are bombarded with reports of covid cases on the rise. But little information is reported about death rates (which are not cases, and are also not the same as the numbers of deaths). There is some hopeful news on that score – look at this from California – we can all appreciate this bright spot that deaths are not necessarily increasing as the case number rise, as they did last spring.
When this happens, one possibility is that the virus has mutated to a less lethal form. Another is that treatments may have improved. Surely other possibilities are in play. The frustrating piece for me – as a clinician, and as a professional with public health training – is that no one seems to be asking these questions.
Many of us are stuck in the fear-narrative. Even my scientist friends – geologists, oceanographers, climatologists, engineers, computer scientists – people who pride themselves on being able to understand complex problems – can’t seem to leave the news narrative behind, and embrace some hard facts about this virus and how it behaves in our population.
Once the brain is in fear, it literally can’t reason, or listen. Fear creates distraction. Once we are entrenched enough in fear, we are no longer capable of critical thinking. And it seems this is where the media narrative has led many of us.
We have been told that masks, lockdowns, and closures are all we’ve got to stop the virus, until a vaccine shows up. Fines, arrests, and public shaming have become routine for those who question lockdown strategy. Is this right?
The economic losses, isolation, mental health crises, suicide in teens, loss of loved ones who died alone due to restrictions on visitation; not being able to bury our lost loved ones, or process their deaths, with funeral gatherings prohibited; collateral deaths from lack of access to health care; reduced health from losing access to fitness facilities … the devastation and toll of covid has reached every corner. This is not to even mention the economic losses from lockdowns, staggering in themselves. We have all been affected. I know virtually no one who has not personally experienced loss, tragedy, illness or extreme stress from the covid crisis of 2020.
If we are going to be putting our society through all these restrictions, they better be working, and it appears they have not done what we had hoped.
Restrictive strategies, no doubt, make sense and are effective in certain places: Health care spaces, closed environments, airplanes and so forth. But imposing them indiscriminately, universally, outdoors, or without criteria for who is at risk has cost society too much, and it has not created the result that we are told it is creating.
We need better strategies to meet this challenge.
If you remember the SARS virus outbreak from 2002, you know that corona viruses are not new – but they do work differently than ordinary seasonal flu viruses once they infect a host, and can become dangerous quickly, in susceptible persons. Corona viruses have the largest genome of all the RNA viruses, so they are especially good at producing new variants (that is, mutating quickly), and this may be what we are now seeing with COVID-19. This makes vaccine development an exceptional challenge. Read more here about some of those challenges.
Another suprising piece of covid news that we analyzed: Flu vaccination correlates with higher death rates for covid. We plotted flu shot uptake by state in children against covid death rate by state. Here’s how it fell:
We found a positive correlation between higher covid death rate and percentage of children who received flu shots. States that had higher compliance for children receiving flu shots also had higher covid death rates. Flu shot data came from this CDC site, while state lockdown score came from here.
Once again, this is a correlation. It does not mean flu shots cause covid deaths. It means that perhaps, getting a flu shot isn’t protective as we have been told it is. It may also be a clue as to why some children who seem quite healthy have died from covid, and at the very least, warrants more research.
Whether a flu shot will help or hurt us in fighting covid is a question that some researchers actually looked at. The findings were not what you might expect: Flu shots increased risk of getting corona virus.
Your immune system depends on nutrition and food to build its components and do its work. Masks and restrictions have not done the job we hoped they would, and may be inadvertently making the crisis worse. Flu shots may not help as much as we would like to think either. These possibilities need analysis and critical thinking, and we can’t access that when we are in fear.
Meanwhile, do all you can at home. Maybe shut off your news feed for a bit. Learn here about how you can support strong immune function in your family with food and nutrition. Leverage these to manage covid better for your family. And, keep a calm, open mind – the answers to this pandemic may come in unexpected ways.