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More On the Age Distribution of Covid’s Victims

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Here’s a slightly modified version of a comment [2] that I left at EconLog on this post by Thomas Firey [3] – a post in which Firey argues that official Covid death counts are likely not overestimated.

Tom:

Your analysis here is solid and important. Thanks for doing it. (While I still have some lingering worry about possible distortions introduced into the data by the point raised by commenter DeservingPorcupine [4], your analysis significantly weakens my suspicion that the premium paid to hospitals for each Medicare patient listed as having Covid [5] creates a serious overcounting of Covid deaths.)

But I want to warn against a possible, although unintentional, misimpression created when you write that

though COVID’s dead were predominantly aged, it doesn’t appear that much of that death toll can be dismissed as simply depriving a few weeks of life from already-deteriorating victims. Again, half-a-million-plus more people died in 2020 than 2019.

“Predominantly” is an understatement. A more-accurate descriptor is “overwhelmingly.” According the latest CDC data [6], more than half – 52 percent – of Covid deaths in the U.S. are of people 75 years old and older, with 27 percent of Covid deaths being of people 85 years old and older.

Seventy-five percent of Covid deaths in America are of people retirement age (65) and older.

On the other side, only 7 percent of Covid deaths are of people below the age of 50.

Also, the argument made by those of us who insist on the relevance of the undeniable and very steep age gradient of Covid’s serious health consequences does not rest on any claim that most Covid deaths are of people whose remaining life expectancies were only a few weeks. For example, the typical 85-year-old in the U.S. can expect to live about another six or seven years [7]. And so while Covid is more likely to kill an 85-year-old who is unusually ill for his or her age (than to kill a healthier 85-year-old), it’s still unlikely that the typical elderly person killed by Covid had only a few weeks of life remaining. That person likely had several months or even a few years of life remaining.

Covid is real and it really kills. And such a loss of life is, of course, unfortunate. No serious person ignores these deaths or wants them to be “dismissed” as unimportant. Yet two related realities loom that too many people ignored since early 2020.

The first of these realities is that a disease that overwhelmingly reserves most of its dangers for the elderly should be recognized as such, especially by policymakers and people in the media. But this reality was played down and even ignored, while others who acknowledged this reality denied its relevance. Even now many people act – and seem to believe – that Covid’s risks are general. The mania for closing schools, masking children, and mandating vaccination very much reflect, I think, the public’s continuing failure to understand that Covid poses little risk to the bulk of the population, and virtually no risk at all to children and young adults.

The fact that the typical elderly person killed by Covid had, at the time of his or her death, an expected life span of more than a few weeks is true enough, but it doesn’t begin to nullify the relevance of the reality that the great bulk of Covid’s dangers are reserved for the elderly.

The second of these realities is that the failure to recognize and act on the distinct age profile of Covid’s effects means that the response to Covid was not only disproportionate to the danger posed by the SARS-Cov-2 pathogen to the general population, but likely harmful to the vulnerable population.

Resources are scarce. By spending these resources indiscriminately across the entire population, these resources were not concentrated – “Focused” (as the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration [8] wisely recommended) – on where they would have the greatest positive benefits.

The following analogy (like any other analogy) isn’t perfect, but it conveys an important truth. Suppose that category 5 hurricane Mortimer devastates New Orleans. If so, the appropriate response is to concentrate emergency supplies on that city. A wholly inappropriate response would be to declare as a disaster area the entire United States and send emergency supplies indiscriminately across the country. If the latter course were taken, the toll of death and destruction from Mortimer in New Orleans would wind up being worse than if the emergency response and supplies were focused on that city.

Also scarce are human attention and fellow-feeling. And so just as calamitously as the failure to focus material resources on the vulnerable, by treating Covid as if everyone is at equal risk of suffering from it, human attention and fellow-feeling were spread too thinly. A mother who believes that her fifteen-year-old son and her 45-year-old husband – and she herself – are as likely to die from Covid as are her 75-year-old parents will not concentrate as much of her loving attention and concern on her parents as she would were she aware that she, her husband, and her son are at much less risk of suffering from Covid than are her parents.

No one will ever be able to say for sure if – and if so, how many – lives were failed to be saved by the indiscriminate, unfocused response to Covid (as opposed to the focused response recommended by the Great Barrington Declaration – and by many public-health experts prior to 2020). But I can’t believe that this number is small.