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Virus policy likely causing many excess deaths

Perhaps it didn’t match the author’s intent, but a recent article in Louisiana’s largest newspaper illuminated a glaring weakness in Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ approach to battling the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic.

A piece in the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate replicated one in the New York Times about “excess” deaths from the virus. It noted that nearly 5,000 more Louisianans died in the first four months of the pandemic than did last year during the same period. With over 3,500 directly attributable to the virus, that meant around 1,400 from other causes also had occurred over and above the previous year’s.

In it, as well as in a prior piece, came musing about why. Some “other” deaths actually may have come undiagnosed as attributable to the virus (it works the other way around, of course, with government reimbursements higher for treating virus patients than for other maladies perhaps prompting virus mortality reporting inflation) and also could come from people delaying medical treatments and/or reluctance to visit hospitals for fear of staying in them.

But this particular article misses one obvious cause: death of “despair,” which includes suicides and drug overdoses. More people because of the current environment feel profound depression, some to such depths they take their own lives, while others accidentally end theirs by substance abuse.

This might constitute a significant portion of the excess. Anecdotal evidence suggests suicides may have increased by a third, and perhaps substance abuse deaths have seen the same. If so, in Louisiana that would translate over four months to 80 more suicides and 107 more overdoses. Assuming an undercount of virus deaths by 28 percent according to the literature, together these comprise well over half of the otherwise unexplained deaths.

Part of this comes attitudinally just from the nature of living with a pandemic, with a constant sense of lurking danger all around. Yet public policy responses to the pandemic also contribute. Some essentially can’t be avoided, such as imposing extremely limited access to nursing homes and hospitals that cuts patients off from social interaction with friends and relatives.

However, suicide and overdoses occur almost exclusively among the relatively healthy population. And another significant segment of the typically healthy populations, those with a short-term health crisis that a trip to an emergency room could ameliorate prior to death, also can be discouraged from taking that step by restrictive public policy.

Louisiana is one of the most restrictive states by Edwards’ hand, as well as being one of the most ravaged which itself comes partly as a result of policy and ultimately preys on people’s psyches. Keeping certain establishments closed in a state that disproportionately relies on them for employment, as well as in one overly dependent on tourism, creates unemployment and underemployment that feeds depression. Limitations on gatherings serve to exacerbate this.

There is another way. Although defenders of the orthodox heavy-handed typical U.S. government response fashionably attempt (not very convincingly) to play down Sweden’s success in handling the virus, the fact is that country over twice Louisiana’s population has suffered fewer per capita deaths – now down to none a day while Louisiana recently still experienced a dozen daily – and Louisiana that has 50 percent more cases shows the Swedish approach has worked better. It had far fewer restrictions imposed throughout, almost none now, and may have 30 percent immunity as a result – which means it should be at, if not past, herd immunity.

The numbers show Louisiana, at the worst, within striking distance of herd immunity. (And, finally, the T-P/Advocate seems willing to admit that, almost a month after this space noted this.) No doubt the face covering restrictions save a life or prevent serious illness here or there – although usage effectiveness significantly reduced by inferior workmanship and/or placement – as well as gathering restrictions having done the same, but these must be balanced with the psychological warfare they induce upon the population. Statistics are revealing these likely have triggered the loss of many dozens of Louisianans’ lives. Hesitation to ending restrictions that display increasingly diminishing returns doesn’t help.

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