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The grim math that connects new COVID-19 cases with fatalities

What case fatality rate (CFR) tells us
Posted at 11:17 AM, Nov 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-20 11:43:19-05

CLEVELAND — You may have noticed that we focus quite a bit on new coronavirus cases in our daily reporting. In fact, some of you have asked, “What’s the big deal? It’s the hospitalizations and deaths that matter. Why are you always going on and on about cases?” I agree that hospitalizations and deaths do matter greatly because of how much they impact our world, but we keep our eye on cases because they tell us a story about our present and future.

How I’m about to talk about this all -- meaning deaths as numbers -- may sound cold, and for that, I apologize in advance. We’re in a pandemic, and we’re losing to it, and there’s no other way to say the things I’m about to say without sounding a little inhuman. Please know that’s not my intent at all. Every death is a tragedy. Every single one. It hurts to think about the devastating losses felt by all of the friends and families of the more than 5,000 Ohioans and the 250,000 Americans taken before their time. I can’t imagine what their pain feels like, and I pray I never ever have to.

We care about case numbers because they tell us where the virus is now, and they are the canary in the coal mine for hospitalizations and deaths.

When we hit this third wave here in Ohio, a statistician friend turned me onto The COVID Tracking Project, which is a volunteer organization launched from The Atlantic dedicated to collecting and publishing data to help folks understand the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. One of the pieces of data the COVID Tracking Project recently focused its attention on is a stat called the case fatality rate (CFR.) The CFR estimates how many people who have tested positive will die from the coronavirus.

That number, according to researchers, has stayed remarkably consistent. It’s 1.5%. The virus has killed at least 1.5% of all Americans diagnosed with COVID-19 for the last four months.

That, unfortunately, is the good news.

The Atlantic reports: “This rate is a major improvement, down more than tenfold from the earliest days of the pandemic when deaths were high and the extreme limits on coronavirus testing held down the number of diagnosed cases. But in this new phase of the pandemic, when testing is more widely available and a much higher proportion of cases are diagnosed, to begin with, it is also terrible, terrible news.”

It is terrible because Americans – and Ohioans – are testing positive in ever-increasing numbers, which means more deaths will follow.

The cases come first. Those cases turn into a smaller number of hospitalizations. Those hospitalizations turn into an even smaller number of deaths. It all plays out within a few weeks. In Ohio, we recently crossed the threshold of 8,000 daily cases. According to the CFR, if we sustain that pace, it means we may see 120 deaths a day in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Our current average is 29.

The Atlantic calls it “brutal arithmetic,” and I can think of no better term.

At 10,000 cases per day, which is possible given the state’s trajectory, we’ll lose over 1,000 Ohioans a week and suffer a statewide 9/11 per month.

I don’t know about you, but I find that unacceptable, which is why I’m here sharing the CFR with you, in hopes that it sheds some new light on the news we report every day.

These case numbers can feel a bit like wallpaper after a while. They do have consequences. Those consequences are not known for weeks. The CFR lets us peek into the future. It’s a future we still have the power to change.

Joe Donatelli is the digital director at News 5 Cleveland. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Email: joe.donatelli@wews.com.