By now you’ve probably seen the viral coronavirus “data pack” infographic making its way across Instagram. Kristen Bell shared it, as did Kendall Jenner, before taking it down following criticism from Italian influencer Chiara Ferragni. The aqua and orange infographics were created by Information is Beautiful, the data company founded by David McCandless. While the data visualizations seem helpful, the graphic is getting a significant amount of pushback on social media.
The first graphic is a bar graph showing that 80.9 percent of novel coronavirus cases are mild, 13.8 percent are severe, requiring hospitalization, and 4.7 percent are critical, requiring intensive care. Each graph in the data pack features a headline such as “The Majority of Infections Are Mild,” and “The Majority of People Recover.” The pushback is coming from folks who believe the headlines and data are misleading, and taking the attention away from the real problem: healthcare systems becoming overwhelmed as a result of too many Covid-19 patients.
You can see the graphic here:
Chiara Ferragni, for example, commented, “The problem is not the mortality rate but the numbers of people that could get sick at the same time. No healthcare system has the right amount of intensive care units that would be needed if this virus reach a lot of people at the same time. That’s what’s happening here in Italy. Please don’t send the wrong message.”
Dr. Shannon Sovndal, MD, medical director for the fire department, police department and dispatch center of Boulder, Colorado, took time to analyze the graphic for Women’s Health amidst his work with the city to prepare for an influx of Covid-19 patients. (As of Friday evening, there were 72 cases in Colorado, according to Fox31 News Denver.)
“When I look at [these infographics], these stats, they’re not inappropriate and they’re not wrong,” Dr. Sovndal told Women’s Health. But he agrees they don’t tell the full story of what’s going on.
Whenever there’s a new disease on the rise, he explained, there’s limited information available, and it’s constantly changing. “If we put out the information we have at that time, that information might change over the course of the next few days or even hours. You need to look at the date, where the data is coming from.”
According to Information is Beautiful’s website, the COVID-19 data pack has been updated a few times over the last three days, and the viral graphics circulating Instagram are from March 9th.
However, there’s an even bigger reason why the data doesn’t tell the full story of COVID-19.
The reason most counties are asking people to stay home and practice “social distancing” is not so much to prevent themselves from getting sick (for most healthy people, symptoms are indeed mild)—though for the elderly or infirm, that’s certainly the case. Instead, most of us are being asked to stay home and practice “social distancing” so we don’t give the illness to the elderly or immunocompromised, who are more likely to become hospitalized from COVID-19.
In the United States, Dr. Sovndal says, “The case rate is advancing at a pretty similar rate to other countries. As a person gets it, they’re likely going to give it to 2.5 other people.” By staying home, we’re “flattening the curve” and containing the spread of COVID-19 so hospitals have enough beds to treat every patient.
“As an emergency physician, I am very concerned about COVID-19,” Dr. Sovndal says. “I’m inundated currently because I’m the medical director for our city and for our county, getting prepared for if we get too many patients for our resources. We’re spending a lot of time getting ready for this, and it does make me nervous because we have a large at-risk population.”
He added: “I think that it’s wise for every family to be prepped for at least some incident where you’re going to have to stay at home for a while. That’s just good practice.”
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