How many COVID casualties will Americans accept in order to reopen society? A poll

How much will America accept to live with the pandemic?

I have a poll, but let me explain it first.

Right now the COVID-19 virus seems to be ebbing in many nations.  Total infections and deaths since 2020 keep growing (420,908,184 cases and 5,869,200 dead worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins) but the gigantic Delta and Omicron waves are subsiding.  Here, for example, are how the most infected nations are faring, according to 91-DIVOC:

coronavirus cases by countries-EuropeanUnion highlit_91-DIVOC_2022 Feb 18

That downward slope is great to see and experience.

Hospitalizations and deaths lag, of course, but seem to have stopped rising, and instead hit something like an oscillating plateau:

coronavirus deaths by countries-EuropeanUnion highlit_91-DIVOC_2022 Feb 18

If no new infectious waves washes through us, we can expect the deaths to gradually drop.

These new developments are inspiring all kinds of calls for societies to “open up” – to end masking, stop pretending to care about social distancing, and get back to the interpersonal activities we did before COVID hit.  To resume the economy of fall 2019.  To get those haircuts and hit the bars without dread or guilt.

At the same time nobody seriously thinks we’re going to utterly erase COVID-19 from civilization in the near term. Instead, we’re hazily expecting some measure of losses: of hospitalizations, sickness, deaths, and long COVID. We’re starting to rethink cost/benefit as a cold, macro level.

Which brings me to the poll.  Let’s focus on the United States for now, where we have had 78,060,327 infections and endured 926,497 deaths, according to the CDC, whose numbers tend to be conservative.  Let’s assume COVID doesn’t disappear, but continues circulating through the population, doing some amount of damage.

How much human damage will we come to terms with, in order to re-open?

I’ll narrow it down to a single number for clarity’s sake.  How many COVID dead will be accept as the price to pay for a post-pandemic society?

Here’s the poll.  More notes below.

This question might seem cold or ruthless, yet it reflects the calculus we perform at some level. As individuals we make risk assessments frequently, as when we cross the street and estimate likelihood of being run down or when we decide to be among people when we’re ill.

As a society we make all kinds of decisions based on estimates of human damage. We set road speed limits by balancing likely casualties and our desire to race along. We construct and adjust projects, policies, and large institutions to reduce deaths based on certain causes: public health campaigns and shots to drop flu infections, calls for exercise and a vast sports domain to keep so many people from dying of certain heart problems, an anti-smoking effort to cut down tobacco-caused cancer cases.

For example, cars kill around 39,000 people per year in the United States.  (36,096 in 2019, 38,680 in 2020, or “as many as 42,060 people are estimated to have died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020“) To keep this butcher’s bill from being even worse we teach driver’s education classes, police streets with speed traps, conduct public awareness campaigns, etc.  It’s an number to consider – worse when you think of non-fatal injuries – but it’s one we live with, in order to do things we value with cars, trucks, and motorcycles.

We seem to be doing the same thing now for COVID-19.  We have a decent sense of who tends to be most vulnerable to injury and death: people over 75, the immunocompromised, those with certain comorbidities.  As we end mask mandates and give up on some people who refuse to get vaccinated, we are bargaining that we can collectively bear the number of illnesses, injuries, deaths, and long COVID cases.  My question is: what number?  How far will we go?

I realize that “we” is a hasty construct to account for the combined decisions of around 330 million people in a wide range of circumstances.  “We accept” papers over all kinds of disagreement and dissent. Yet for now I want to focus on crowdsourcing a rough, single number to give a sense of what will result from those combined decisions, that democratic compromise which we collaboratively construct.

I am very interested in the wide range of ideas, assumptions, and behaviors that go into such a large scale decision.  Ableism, ageism, capitalism and its opposition, technophilia and technophobia, party politics – all are welcome in the discussion boxes below.

One more thought: please don’t read the tone of this post as being inhumane in a Strangelovian way. I’m writing directly here to get the poll going. As some of you know, I have been terrified and outraged by the horrific suffering COVID has inflicted, thanks in part to certain human decisions which let it rip or made it worse.  I have friends and family members who are at serious risk of coronavirus illness, injury, and death.  I’m not posting to make light of their experience.  Instead, I’m writing to determine how we all choose to value them.

I have also polled people on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I’ll follow up with a post comparing results.

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15 Responses to How many COVID casualties will Americans accept in order to reopen society? A poll

  1. Deborah says:

    Religion seems to be a factor in my area of rural KS. We are to trust God to
    preserve us or accept his timing of our deaths. Distrust of worldly entities is also a factor. However, it is sad to see the obit pages filled with those who seem to be dead before the expected time and not due to an accident. Missing from these obits is any mention of cause of death and woe to the person who asks about vaccination status of the departed.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Deborah, American religions must play a powerful role in this. They’ve always been important in our thinking about health.

      That part about not mentioning the cause of death saddens me so much.

    • Dahn Shaulis says:

      Religion is a factor? Are there particularly religions and denominations that are more (or less) likely to be vaccinated?

  2. Trent Batson says:

    We don’t see numbers for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and rarely for the annual flu. In the 1950s, 50,000 people died a year in car crashes — now the number is lower but we have almost 3 times the population. The perception of threat is probably more important than numbers — if a new variant appears and takes a quick toll, opinion would shift.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Ah, that’s my fault – well, here in the post, not in the nation as a whole. I was going to add the CDC list of leading causes of death, right here: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm

      But yes, that’s not how we tend to think of things.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      “The perception of threat is probably more important than numbers ….”
      Exactly right! Very insightful !!!
      So, Florida’s Governor is a social constructivist and a post-Modernist after all! DeSantis’s approach is exactly that — to manage “the perception of threat” by actively suppressing data-flows, suppressing school-masking mandates, and foregrounding treatment instead of prevention.
      His Surgeon General poo-poos masking (a visible reminder of that King Covid rules) and vaccination. All this attempts to manage the “perception of threat” but not the disease itself. The downside is, should a lethal variant surface, more will die and blame will placed on DeSantis.

      This suggests the need for an alternative assessment — that is, a comparison of the extent to which state and local governments are (or are not) managing the “perception of the threat” versus the extent to which they are managing the actual disease. That would make a very interesting bar chart, Red versus Blue.

      Ironically, Red states could prove post-Modern, more so than Blue states!

  3. Bryan Alexander says:

    (copied from poll comment feature – BNA)
    “David Drake – 1 hour ago
    I think this will vary considerable based on your political base. For example, QAnon and Trumponians don’t seem to give a damn about the general welfare of others and all that matters is their “freedum”.”

  4. Joe says:

    Since I currently have COVID, I have a rather jaundiced view. My case has been mild, but still the worst respiratory distress I’ve ever had. That must be because I was vaccinated and boosted.

    I have heard people say “oh, we will all get it,” and when I hear that again, I will say “just you wait until your throat feels full of broken glass, for a few days. Then talk to me, if you can talk.”

    Americans may be “over” COVID, but it is not over us. And sadly, life here looks like it did in 2019, plus masks.

  5. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    The Covid poll reminds me of my Student Loan Debt question — $2 trillion, $3 trillion, $5 trillion, $10 trillion or more?
    Not one person has committed to an upper limit or when we need to pull the plug. It is impossible to comprehend the numbers.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      In Florida, the Governor has done all in his power to marginalize the reality of Covid, to erase it, to foreground “personal choices” etc. Shutting down the weekly Covid dashboard — a valuable tool for managing my personal activities — is the most obvious example. The inability to gauge where we were at a given time means — from the Governor’s perspective — that it went away. Without the ability to visualize, or orient oneself toward it, Covid has disappeared. And THAT certainly counts as an achievement in the post-Modern era.

  6. Rob C. says:

    Great question Bryan, and I look forward to poll results and continued comments. I think the lens of Acceptable Risk is appealing since it is familiar to most (the decision to drive each day) and demands a concrete answer (how many dead?). When faced with this question one inevitably moves into moral self-exploration. From this viewpoint, I think the less familiar, but more appropriate lens is to look at this as a Trolley Problem: The Covid train is hurtling down the tracks and it is about to run into a nursing home, you can pull the lever to make it switch tracks, but the train will run into the local college… (infinite number of derivative scenarios). By looking at this as a Trolley Problem, I am able to accept that there is no definitive right nor wrong answer. We have been presented with a problem that requires us to determine the lesser of two bad options, and to decide if we should intervene at all. As the Trolley Problem exposes, just the decision to intervene, shifting accountability onto oneself, is a deeply moral decision for some.

  7. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, given the effects of climate chaos, politicians will have to ask a number of questions about drought, famine, flooding, wildfires, wars, and pandemics. One million US deaths may not be enough for people to remember very long–and those numbers are definitely not enough to connect the dots back to greed, overconsumption, and human-caused environmental destruction.

  8. Czesko says:

    Thank you Bryan Alwexander!!!

    Czesko!

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