We’re more than a week into April–today is the 9th, in fact–and two things are happening up here in northwest Wisconsin. One is immediately obvious when we look outside: it’s snowing again. Recently, we’ve had some days nearing 60 degrees, but as is usual for early April, winter is reluctant to release us from its long, cold fingers. We got an inch or so of snow last weekend, which quickly melted over the next couple of days. Just yesterday, I was sitting in our wooden swing, which you can see in the photo, looking out over the lake and talking on the phone to my parents in Arizona.
Having lived up here for some 29 years now–and my wife is a native of the area–I know that spring will eventually win this battle. I’ll be able to finish up the remaining yard work and get my bicycle out and more. A lot of our neighbors will be unlimbering their boats and preparing for the official fishing season opener on May 2. The spring turkey hunt begins next week, and our governor has declared that hunting and fishing are essential activities, so the seasons will start as scheduled.
In Wisconsin, we’re halfway into our state-imposed “safer at home” lockdown. The coronavirus hasn’t spared us by any means. As of yesterday, our state health service listed 2,756 confirmed cases of the virus, with 99 deaths. The Milwaukee and Madison metro areas have been the hardest-hit so far, but that’s not surprising, as they are the most densely populated regions of the state. Up here in the rural areas, there are still a dozen or so entire counties without any reported cases. Our local county health people are saying that as testing becomes more widespread up here, we’ll get more cases, and unfortunately some of our neighbors who are walking around today might be gone in the next month or so.
It could be worse. They thought it would be, and some maybe wanted it to be.
A month ago, the state models for the virus predicted 22,000 infections by now. Our actual reported total is less than 14% of that. The mid-March model also predicted state deaths by now would be between 440-1,500. As noted, we’ve had 99. I’m no statistician (except for baseball and basketball, I’m pretty good there), but it seems to me things are not nearly as bad as the model predicted. And nationally, the most-watched models are trending in a similar direction.
This would seem to be good news, and yet there are some people, national commentators for the most part but also some bloggers, who almost appear to be disappointed. Their narrative has been decidedly apocalyptic, with deaths into the hundreds of thousands and economic calamity that will make the Great Depression seem like the good old days. But it isn’t happening, and I don’t think it will. That might disappoint some people who thrive on chaos and controversy–or at least, thrive on reporting on that from a safe distance–but for the great majority of us, it will be a good thing.
One of the most-watched models in the nation has been offered by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. It’s been criticized by some as being overly optimistic, but even many leaders of the hardest-hit areas, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, are saying now that we may be at or near the peak of the pandemic in those “hot spots.” The IHME model agrees with them.
There’s been no question that the IHME model has been getting consistently more optimistic, if you will, and doing so very quickly. It offers models for the U.S. as a whole and each individual state. I looked at it on April 1, and here’s a comparison of relevant stats as of that date and its most recent posting, one week later:
NATIONAL April 1 April 8
Hospital resource peak April 15 April 11
Daily deaths peak April 15 April 12
Deaths on peak day 2,644 2,212
Last death on July 14 June 14
Total deaths by August 4: 93,531 60,415
WISCONSIN April 1 April 8
Hospital resource peak April 27 April 13
Daily deaths peak April 27 April 15
Deaths on peak day 25 20
Last death on June 10 May 7
Total deaths by August 4: 951 424
As the experts have pointed out to us, it’s not wise to base policy, whether as a government or a family, on one model. As noted above, the State of Wisconsin’s model was pretty dire a month ago, and reality has shown it to be extremely pessimistic. Weather forecasters, for instance, typically use three or four in making predictions (and we know how accurate–or not–they tend to be). But without a doubt, the models are trending positively. Having said that, leadership from the local to the national level is certainly smart to follow the old maxim: Hope for the best but plan for the worst. (And expect something somewhere in between.) If we come out of this with a surplus of masks and ventilators and rubber gloves, that’s certainly better than having empty warehouses and lots more casualties.
We’re not out of the woods yet.
Let’s assume the latest IHME model turns out to be correct, and by June 14, the date of the last virus-related death, the pandemic is over and we wind up with a nationwide tally of over 60,000 fatalities. That’s a lot of people, especially for such a short period of time. It exceeds the number of combat deaths suffered by Americans in the Vietnam War, over a span of ten years. As many of the alarmists have shouted out, it’s far more than the total killed in the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks combined. So it’s very serious, without a doubt, but as this article on Health.com points out, we lose tens of thousands of Americans to more common influenza strains every year. The mortality rate of COVID-19 is much higher, making it a far more deadly strain than common flu, so obviously much more restrictive measures must be taken to contain it.
It does, however, help to put things in perspective. Not only do we lose up to 60,000 or more people a year to influenza, we lose ten times that many every year to heart disease, the leading cause of death in America. We lose half a million every year to cancer. Twice as many people die of Alzheimer’s disease every year than will be taken by COVID-19. And, perhaps most tragically, we lose about 70,000 Americans to drug abuse and another 50,000 to suicide, every year. But none of those causes of death have sparked national panic or prognostications of gloom and calamity. If we paid even half as much attention to those things as we are now paying to the coronavirus, we could come up with some answers and lower those numbers, too.
Nobody lives forever. Advances in medical science have significantly increased our chances of living a long life, though; in 1950, the average American lived to age 68 years and two months, and today it’s 78 years and 11 months. When my paternal grandfather was born in 1902, it was just 49 years and nine months for men, slightly higher for women. He beat the odds, passing away of heart disease at age 76 and a half. My maternal grandfather died of cancer at 64, but he beat the odds, too; born in 1916, his life expectancy was 49 years and seven months. I’m closing in on mine: a man born in 1956 could expect to see 66 years and eight months, but I’m confident I’ll be around well past that. Like I’ve sometimes told my kids, I intend to live to age 100 or die trying.
We have a lot of control over our lives, a lot more than we sometimes think. Government leaders can make all the decrees they want, but if people don’t follow through, things won’t happen. We’re seeing that now with things like social distancing and self-quarantining. By and large, Americans are paying attention and doing what is necessary to stay safe and keep their neighbors safe, too. Society is not breaking down. I haven’t seen reports of roaming gangs of criminals terrorizing neighborhoods or rural areas. In some cities, authorities have had to close parks and playgrounds to enforce the rules, but there have been no revolts, no displays of defiant citizens overwhelming police barriers just to play basketball or walk their dogs. In Wisconsin, the governor announced this morning that several state parks in the southern and southeastern parts of the state will be closed, due to overuse. High Cliff State Park, on Lake Winnebago in the east, had a record number of visitors (over 16,000) last weekend.
Up here in the northwest, we’re hanging in there. If the weather improves, Sue and I plan to take Sophie for a hike in Pattison State Park, just south of Superior, on Saturday. Pattison is still open, at least as of now, and features Big Manitou Falls, the tallest waterfall in the state at 165 feet, which is just two feet lower than Niagara Falls.
It should be cloudy and 53 degrees at Pattison on Saturday, ideal weather for a vigorous hike. I see that some of its trails are still under repair from the 2018 flood, but we should have a good time. It will be interesting to see how many other people might be there. We’ll maintain social-distancing, of course, and I’m confident all will be well. Our son Jim, who lives in a suburb of Milwaukee, tells us things are a lot more strict down there, but he still gets out on his daily run and is able to visit his girlfriend and make occasional runs for supplies. I subscribe to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel online newspaper and have seen no reports of lawlessness down there that could be traced to the virus. In fact, crime appears to be down.
How long will this go on? How long can we keep it together? Those are the big questions right now. Nobody knows the answers, of course, and every time a prominent person suggests an approximate date, there are howls from many in the media. I noticed that President Trump, in his briefing yesterday, refused to be pinned down by a persistent reporter about a date by when he expects to have things opening up around the country.
My guess is that we’ll start seeing some parts of the country getting back toward normalcy in early May. If the models hold, we should be well on the downside of the curve by then. Re-opening the economy will come in phases, of course; there won’t be a nationwide “We’re Open!” day. Some areas will open before others. That only stands to reason. And even when we do start getting back out, it won’t be business-as-usual from the start. We will likely still have some restrictions on how many people can attend ballgames, for example. It might be June or July before we see pre-COVID levels of activity and socializing.
But, as a friend mentioned to me this morning (by phone), maybe some good will come out of all this. People are now discovering that being at home with the family is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not a requirement that we stay constantly busy. We can get better organized with our shopping, reducing the number of trips we need to make to the supermarket or the convenience store. That will help us save money on gas, at the very least. Married couples have been using this time at home to reconnect with each other, to get long-overdue household projects done, to rediscover the joys of simple things like card games and reading and cooking. When things open up again, people will want to get out and enjoy themselves, of course, but we’ll have a new perspective on things, a better perspective.
We will mourn our dead, and we will insist that everyone be better prepared for the next pandemic. It may not come for a long time, but we will learn our lessons. And perhaps the biggest lesson is that we forgot, for a long time, what it really means to care for one another, to show compassion, to help each other through tough times. These were lessons our grandparents tried to teach us, because they survived times much tougher than these, but I don’t think we were paying attention too closely.
But when you think about, considering how things are going now, maybe we were. The country has not gone to hell in a rocket, and it won’t. We’re not out of the woods yet, but we can see the light up ahead.