Dan O'Heirity

The Seasonal Influenza Argument

According to my preferred data source – which is updated daily with new cases and new fatalities with the data being reset at GMT+0 – there have been 14,459,917 confirmed cases of the Chinese virus along with 605,696 confirmed fatalities. Full figures for yesterday show 224,273 new cases and 5,011 new deaths and so the daily pattern of 200,00+ new cases and 5,000 or so new fatalities continues. Australia, the country where I live, is still in a bit of trouble with with with the virus. Figures for yesterday show 206 new cases and 2 new deaths. Figures so far for today show 361 new cases and 4 new deaths. As of today the total number of confirmed cases in Australia stands at 11,802 with 122 deaths. O.K. it’s not ideal but it is worth looking at the Australia Influenza Flu Surveillance Report No 8 for the period 29th July to 11th August 2019 just to see how many people caught seasonal influenza and how many people died from seasonal influenza.

According to the report, in the year up until the publication of the report in August 2019, there were 214,377 notifications of laboratory-confirmed influenza to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS). In the fortnight covered by the reporting period there were 22,144 notifications of laboratory-confirmed influenza to the NNDSS. The report also states that since seasonal sentinel hospital surveillance began on 1st April 2019, a total of 2,796 people were admitted to hospital with confirmed influenza. Of those admitted, 184 (6.6%) were admitted to ICU. In the fortnight covered by the report up to 11 August 2019, 165 people were admitted to hospital with confirmed influenza. Of the 165 admissions, 13 (7.9%) were admitted to ICU. In the period up until the publication of the report in August 2019 there were 486 influenza-associated deaths notified to the NNDSS.

If we take the Covid-19 reporting period to cover almost the same period in 2020 as the influenza report from 2019, there have been 11,802 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as compared with 214,337 notifications of laboratory confirmed influenza in roughly the same period in 2019. There have been 122 deaths from Covid-19 as compared with 486 influenza associated deaths in the same period for 2019. So, whichever way you look at seasonal influenza in Australia in 2019, influenza was far more “devastating than has so far been the case with Covid-19 in 2020. Of course, one argument against my line of thought will be that it is the potential impact of Covid-19 that we have to worry about because the virus is far more contagious than seasonal flu and because the mortality rate is significantly higher than the mortality rate for seasonal flu.

That may be so but we would need to see an 18 fold increase in Covid-19 figures for 2020 before the Covid-19 figures reached the seasonal influenza figures for 2019. The fatality rate in Australia from confirmed cases of Covid-19 currently stands at roughly 1%. If we assume this 1% fatality rate and also assume 214,377 Covid-19 cases then there would be 2,143 deaths form Covid-19 if the number of cases were to rise to 214,377. This fatality rate is about 6 times higher than the fatalities from the same number of seasonal influenza cases. This we know because the fatality rate with seasonal influenza is more like 0.1% than 1%. However, from a purely rational point of view, a figure of roughly 2,143 deaths from Covid-19 is not that high. Furthermore, the figure could likely be lowered by protecting the more vulnerable members of society such as the elderly and the sick.

We’re Bound to Find More Covid-19 Cases Because We’re Looking for Them

I would have to say quite honestly that the response to the latest Covid-19 outbreak in Australia kind of baffles me. Australia has identified a cluster of cases in metropolitan Melbourne and, as a result, metropolitan Melbourne has got back into lockdown. The wearing of masks has also been made mandatory in these areas. So far, so good. I understand these points. I also understand that the Victorian government is quite rightly being blamed for the new Covid-19 outbreak. It’s worth watching the full story to see just what went wrong.

However, having stuffed up, the State of Victoria is now conducting a massive targeted testing campaign which will, of course, identify lots and lots of people who have the virus. Thus, the Covid-19 figures will look horrible for a while. This is where I become confused because I would venture that the same would be true if one carried out intensive testing in just about any other metropolitan area in Australia. Tests would reveal people infected with Covid-19 who would be exhibiting either mild symptoms or no symptoms in the case of asymptomatic carriers of the virus. My point here is that I really can’t fathom why Australia has gone into such a panic as a result of finding a few thousand cases of the virus.

Another way to look at what seems to be something of an over reaction in the State of Victoria is to consider the number of tests being carried out. According to a live data source, Victoria has been carrying out an average of around 30,000 tests per day over the last week or so. The average number of cases identified over the same period is roughly 275 cases per day. So, around 1% of those tested are confirmed to have the virus. It might just be me, but I’m not seeing a figure of 1% as being in any way significant. Nor am I seeing the potential death rate as significant because if we assume a 1% fatality rate then 2.75 of the 275 people testing positive might die from the virus. I say “might” because the actual death rate will be contingent on whether, for example, those who have tested positive are elderly and / or whether they have pre-existing medical conditions. So, to conclude on the point about why I am baffled about what is going on in Australia, couldn’t Australia equally be reporting that having conducted hundreds of thousands of tests, the infection rate amongst those tested is, in fact incredibly low.

Possibly, but that is not the story that the news is telling. Rather, the “Herald Sun” makes the point that Victoria’s coronavirus cases have doubled to 5,164 in just 12 days. It took 160 days for the state’s case tally to climb from the first case on January 25 to 2,536 by July 4 and less than a fortnight for that figure to double “amid Victoria’s disastrous second wave”. Maintaining the rather alarmist tone of the story, we read that Health Minister Jenny Mikakos has said that, “We are in a fight for our lives.” However, if you look more closely at the story, I would say that it inadvertently supports the point that I am making. Referencing the 428 new cases in a single day, the story says that dozens of people will require hospitalization, several people may require intensive care support and a small number of people may well die. Assuming the 1% mortality rate, the actual number of people likely to die is roughly 4 people. I would note one further point. I have been operating on an “all things be equal argument” but a Sky News report, below, suggests that the current strain of the virus in Melbourne may be much more virulent than previous strains.

I don’t normally add comments that I read on YouTube videos but there are four comments about this video that rather hit the mark. First, “Reports emerge of incredible and horrific bullshit that continues to keep experts and politicians employed – this reads much better“. Secondly, and I do find this one amusing, “Oh no! Soon there will only be 99.9% of us left to rebuild civilization“. Third, “Who’s dying from this[?] People in their 80’s and 90’s and that’s the reason we are destroying the economy“. Finally, ” Sounds like time for herd immunity“. Whilst I might have written a paragraph about the video, these comments have pretty much covered off what I would have said. Essentially I maintain my argument of a 1% infection rate with 1% of those infected, most likely the elderly, dying from the virus. Perhaps I should refer to “much ado about nothing” because the most reasonable course of action would be to let the virus run.

First Published July 19th, 2020

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