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A Harris poll conducted at about the time the lockdowns commenced produced a peculiar result: that the age group least threatened by the virus was the age group most afraid of it--57 percent of the millennial respondents (those born between 1981 and 1996) said they were worried about dying from the virus, while just 47 percent of those over 65 expressed such concerns.

More recent surveys from various sources tell us that many Americans are still supportive of staying locked down because they don't "feel safe" coming out.

The primary problem with such perceptions is that they fly in the face of abundant data telling us that it was never "unsafe" for the vast majority of the population in the first place.

To wit, three fairly representative data sets on the degree of threat to different age groups:

• Fatality rates per 100,000 population based on data published on the Statista website as of May 17 for New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic: 18.1 for those 18-44; 167.75 for those 45-64, 549.41 for those 65-74; and 1,373.19 for those over 75.

In other words, fatalities in the over 75 age cohort in New York City are approximately 70 times higher than for those in the 18-44 cohort (for those wondering whether it was safe to go back to school, the rate was zero for those under 18).

• The Minnesota Department of Public Health as of May 18 identified 731 deaths attributed to the virus in that state, with 595 (over 80 percent) of those occurring in "long-term care or assisted living facilities." There were zero deaths in the 6-19 and 20-29 age groups, 3 in the 30-39, 7 in the 40-49, 37 in the 50-59, 77 in the 60-69, and 607 in the above 70 cohort.

Taken together, there had been just 10 deaths below the age of 50 in Minnesota and 721 above it.

• The Alabama Department of Public Health issued data as of May 11 identifying 393 virus deaths in the state. 79.6 percent of those who died were over 65, 17.6 percent were between 50-64, and 2.8 percent were between 25-49.

Slightly more than 95 percent of those who died to that point in Alabama also had serious underlying conditions (with 63 percent suffering from cardiovascular disease and 57 percent from "multiple underlying conditions"). Of the 19 who had died from the virus absent serious underlying conditions, 73.7 percent were above 65 and the other 26.3 percent between 50 and 64 (which also means, parsing the data, that no one had died in Alabama below the age of 50 who didn't suffer from such conditions).

These are just three parts of the country, but there is little evidence that the numbers vary significantly in other places. Nor, for that matter, is there much evidence that such percentages differ from country to country--Statista reported that as of May 17 more than 80 percent of the fatalities in the Netherlands had occurred in the above-75 age group, with another 10.5 percent among those between 70 and 75. As of May 16 in Germany, a country hit less hard by the virus than most others in Europe, 5,034 out of 7,876 total fatalities were in the above-80 age group, with another 1,764 in the 70 to 79 (and only 85 below the age of 50).

Whichever country one picks, the fatality distribution is similar, even before accounting for the serious underlying conditions that were also present and disproportionately found within the oldest age groups.

Few of the young people I've talked to (defined as those under 40) have demonstrated much familiarity with these numbers. To the contrary, most were shocked to see such data because it contradicted the message that the media has been relentlessly disseminating for months now (with many commentators speculating that the much greater reliance of young people upon social media has made them even more susceptible to fear and hysteria than the rest of us).

It was understandable that, at the outset of the pandemic, when facing great uncertainty and influenced by worst-case scenarios (that disastrous Imperial College study!), public health experts and elected officials would err on the side of frightening the public, of coaxing them into their bunkers and getting them to stay there for week after week so as to not overwhelm our health-care system. But now, after having "flattened the curve" and beginning to open things up, we face the new challenge of convincing them that it is safe to come out.

There is a difference between engaging in social distancing because we fear infecting the vulnerable and engaging in it because, contrary to the data, we think the vulnerable are us.

We need to stop scaring healthy young people out of their wits, and as long as we focus on protecting the elderly and those with underlying conditions, there is no reason that the rest of us can't now return to something resembling normalcy.

People won't be able to go back to work until their kids can go back to school, and there will be no benefit in reopening businesses if those who aren't seriously at risk refuse to frequent them because they mistakenly think they are.


Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 05/25/2020

Print Headline: Out of the bunker

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