COVID Phobia Is All Around Us

Dear Editor,

The term “COVID-19 Pandemic” is tossed around by our government, health officials and media like salt over one’s shoulder, as if they believe scaring us on a daily basis that we are facing looming death and other untoward consequences unless we lock down, mask up and vaccinate is the only way we can safely ward off this “deadly” virus. In doing so, they have created a new medical condition I will refer to as “COVID Phobia.” A phobia is commonly defined as an exaggerated fear of something. The fear itself may not be wholly irrational. It is the level of fear and the lengths to which one will go to protect oneself that warrant the label “phobia.” Make no mistake, “COVID Phobia” is all around us. 

I agree with former County Chairman Jeff Phillips: The Guilford County mask mandate is sheer lunacy. Unfortunately, I do not believe anyone (to my knowledge) has fully explained why this is so. Many have argued that masks don’t work and that individual liberty is being threatened. While I strongly agree, these arguments are to some extent in the eye of the beholder. This letter attempts to appeal to rational thinking based on data from official government sources available online, not fear and emotion.

Our county commissioners, playing to widespread COVID phobia, seek to justify their latest edict by citing a purported rise in total COVID cases. And to the typical “Covidphobe,” that makes perfect sense. “Death and destruction are waiting outside my door. I must do everything possible to keep from contracting this virus. If one mask is not enough, give me two or even three masks.” But this is classic misdirection. The misdirection consists in directing our attention to the total number of confirmed cases. It is akin to asking how many people on any given day have come down with the flu, a cold, or a stomach virus. From the beginning it has been true and will remain true until the end of time, all humans get sick at various points in their lives. We are fighting a doomed battle if we believe we can eradicate COVID, any more than we can eradicate the seasonal flu and the common cold. This virus is here to stay and no amount of mask mandates, lockdowns, and vaccination will change that fact. 

The number of confirmed cases, in the abstract, is wholly unhelpful for three reasons. One, it does not tell how many persons comprise the relevant test group. Two, it does not tell the acuity level of the confirmed cases. Many persons contract COVID without even knowing it, and the vast majority suffer symptoms no different (or even less severe) than the seasonal flu. Three, it draws no comparisons to other common causes of hospitalization and death. How many people are dying from COVID? How many are being hospitalized? And how do these numbers compare to other causes of death and hospitalization? The answers to these questions provide context and allow one to draw rational conclusions and make rational public policy decisions. 

In Guilford County, during the last 18 months, there have been 738 deaths attributed to COVID. That is an average of 41 deaths per month in a county with a total population of 537,134 persons. So, your overall statistical chance of dying from COVID during the last 18 months was 0.14 percent. This also holds true for all of North Carolina, where there have been 14,735 COVID deaths out of a population of just under 10 million (0.14 percent). Most importantly, deaths continue to decline dramatically. In Guilford County, there were 11 deaths attributed to COVID in July and 7 deaths attributed to COVID in the first 14 days of August. By way of comparison, there were 133 deaths attributed to COVID in February alone. 

If you are still not convinced that COVID is not the biggest threat of the century, let’s consider some additional context. During the last 18 months, a total of 139,546 persons died in North Carolina for any number of reasons, of which COVID was but one. So, the overall chance that a random North Carolinian would have died from any cause during that 18-month period was roughly 1.4 percent, and if that random person had died, there is an 89.4 percent chance it would have been for some reason other than COVID. Of course, we are not random persons, and COVID is not an equal opportunity virus. It is well accepted that the risk of death or hospitalization due to COVID rises with age. It also rises based on one’s general health, obesity being the predominant comorbidity. Because there is no manner in which one can account for individual health, I will focus on age. Based on reported data for the state of North Carolina, the chances of dying from  COVID over the last 18 months was 0.003 percent for 18 to 29-year-olds, 0.01 percent for 30 to 39-year-olds, 0.03 percent for 40 to 49-year-olds, and 0.12 percent for 50 to 64-year-olds. Even 65 to 74-year-olds had only a 0.5 percent chance of dying from COVID. The vast majority of deaths have been of persons 75 years of age up (1.12 percent chance) and 85 years up (3.38 percent). And I won’t even mention the risk that your school-age child will die from COVID. The risk is so low my calculator doesn’t have enough zeros to do the math.

The fact of the matter is that our risk, regardless of age, of dying from COVID is minuscule compared to our risk of dying from other causes such as cancer, stroke, heart attack, pneumonia, drug overdose, car accident, suicide, or even murder. Based on state-wide data, if you had died during the last 18 months, the chance that it would be for some reason other than COVID is 98.6 percent for 18 to 29-year-olds, 96.4 percent for 30 to 39-year-olds, 93.2 percent for 40 to 49-year-olds, 91.0 percent for 50 to 64-year-olds, 88.1 percent for 65 to 75-year-olds, and 88.2 percent for 85-year-olds and up. Rather than frightening ourselves needlessly over COVID, I believe we would be better served to focus on reducing our risks of dying from these other causes, which are far more likely to kill us than COVID.  

I have talked about the risk of death. But what about hospitalizations? These numbers are similarly extremely low. In Guilford County, there have been a total of 1,294 hospitalizations attributed to COVID. Thus, the statistical chance of a random person being hospitalized over the last 18 months due to COVID was only 0.24 percent. Currently, in the Cone Health system, there are 92 persons hospitalized due to COVID. On January 13, there were 264 persons hospitalized due to COVID. The ICU capacity is currently only at 71 percent and most rooms are filled by non-COVID patients. Although there has been a slight uptick in COVID hospitalizations in August, the numbers are still way below the numbers from December 2020 through March 2021. Thus, the average daily hospitalizations exceeded 150 in December, 250 in January, 200 in February, and 100 in March. Current hospitalizations are equivalent to the numbers in April and May. The current number of hospitalizations represents an “increase” only because the average declined significantly in June and July to below 50 each month (even though there were no mask mandates in place.)

We are being bombarded with a propaganda campaign designed to instill mass fear, and we are becoming a nation of Covidphobes. Wearing masks exacerbates this mentality of fear, not to mention fills your lungs with carbon dioxide. Eat right, exercise regularly, get out in the sun and breath fresh air, and enjoy some social contact and interaction face to face with family and friends. Assess your personal risk, and take the precautions you believe are appropriate. But don’t impose on yourself or others irrational fears and excessive precautions.  It seems to me that would be a much better recipe for good health than compelling us to wear masks everywhere we go. I, for one, will not be masking up or living in fear. 

Understand that our collective silence merely enables politicians who are either manipulative or clueless. In the words of Paul Simon: “Fools, said I, you do not know. Silence like a cancer grows.” 

Charles Roberts