The case for not panicking about contracting the coronavirus

On Friday night, Henry developed a fever. It wasn’t anything exceptional, just shy of 102 degrees. When Thomas got a similar fever when he was about a year old, my wife and I took him to the hospital, where they very quickly deduced that Thomas was our first child. This was Henry’s first fever, and, this time, we knew how to deal with it.

To an extent. While Henry’s temperature wasn’t exceptional, it came at an exceptional time.

Our first thought, of course, was that the plague had seeped through the walls of our house. That it had Trojan-horsed on a piece of mail or on a delivery or that one of us had been unduly lax on one of the rare occasions this month that we’ve left the house. For some time, I’ve been engaging in a mental exercise in which I try to imagine the location the closest coronavirus is to me at any given point: Down the street? On the doorknob of our house? My first thought on Friday was that it had finally gotten as close as I feared it might.

The concern wasn’t immediately what to do about Henry. The concern, instead, was what to do if things got any worse. We live in the New York City area, so, when I called his pediatrician’s office, I got the response I had expected. Unless his fever was extreme, 105 degrees or so, or unless he was having trouble breathing, we shouldn’t take him to the hospital. It was safer to stay home and fight it with Motrin and Tylenol than even to risk taking him to his normal doctor. It was safer to simply rebuild the outer walls that we worried had been breached.

By the time Henry’s fever appeared, I’d already seen stories that undercut whatever confidence I had in the limits of the virus. I’d read the various first-person accounts of those who’d contracted the virus, reading how it appeared and how difficult the struggle had been to overcome it. I’d seen the data on how common more severe versions of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, were among people my age. I’d seen a study about how as many as 1 in 10 kids who hadn’t turned 1 ended up with severe and critical cases of the illness. On Saturday, news that put a fine point on that risk: An infant in Illinois died from covid-19.

This, however, is not helpful. It is not helpful to focus on these outlier cases, however inevitable it may be. It’s like buying a lottery ticket in reverse. You buy a lottery ticket and you know you won’t win, but you can’t help imagining how you’d spend the money. Contract coronavirus as a relatively young and relatively healthy person and you will probably end up okay — but it’s hard not to focus on the fact that you or someone you love might not.

I decided, then, to focus on the strong likelihood that things would, in fact, turn out all right.

We can start with data from New York City, now the epicenter of coronavirus cases in the country. In the city, more than 36,000 people have contracted the virus. Of that total, about 7,400 had needed to be hospitalized by Sunday night. That’s a lot, and it’s straining the hospital system, but adheres to the ratio that we’d understood to be the standard when the pandemic first emerged: About 80 percent of those who contract the illness don’t need to go to the hospital. The city has recorded 790 deaths from the illness, most of them people age 65 or older. Even among those age 75 or older, only 11 percent succumbed to the illness. At least 4 in 5 of those who did die in that age group had underlying conditions that put them at greater risk.

None of this is to downplay the tragedy of those deaths. It is, instead, an effort to contextualize the deadliness of the virus and the disease. The illness itself is often grim and dangerous, but it’s usually also something from which people recover.

What’s important to remember, too, is that the illness itself isn’t always grim and dangerous. This is a problem for transmission, since many people contract the illness but have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. That means they might be carriers of the virus without knowing it, and that is also why efforts to keep people away from one another — social distancing — are so critical.

But the fact that the illness can present itself so mildly introduces two other reasons for optimism. The first is that the data for New York City above include only confirmed cases. The state has heavily tested people who have symptoms suggesting that they are ill, meaning that there are probably many, many cases with milder or no symptoms that haven’t been caught. Again, this is dangerous for the population as a whole but good news for those worried that they or a family member might have contracted the illness.

The other is that we can focus on well-known examples of people who have recovered from the disease or who never showed incapacitating symptoms.

The mayor of Miami, for example, contracted the virus but showed only mild symptoms. In an opinion piece for the Miami Herald, he points out that this might “provide a false sense of security, especially for young and healthy asymptomatic individuals who unknowingly may be carrying COVID-19 and infecting others.” Which is true — but it also offers a sense of hope to those who might end up contracting the virus anyway. It’s not that we should assume invincibility based on his experience but that we should know that most of those who contract the virus will not end up on a ventilator in an intensive care ward.

Celebrities have contracted the illness and appear to have recovered. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson prompted a spike in awareness when they announced earlier this month that they had been infected. Wilson declared publicly on Sunday that she was a covid-19 “survivor.” A number of NBA players who had been identified as having the virus at that time have announced that they are now better. Bravo’s Andy Cohen announced last week that he’d contracted the virus — and on Monday that he was feeling better and getting back to work (albeit it at home).

Several of the individuals who contracted the illness early in its appearance in the United States (and, therefore, become exemplars of what might happen) have recovered. The lawyer in New Rochelle, N.Y., who was at the center of an outbreak there is now back home with his family. The Post profiled an Episcopal priest in Georgetown who caught the virus weeks ago and is now back with his family.

These are just anecdotal, of course, but anecdotes are also the things that clouded my assessment over the weekend. I couldn’t stop thinking about those stories, including from people I know, about how the effects of the virus slowly increased, pushing them to the hospital. I kept thinking about comments that popped up repeatedly in those stories about parents not knowing whether they’d ever see their kids again.

The vast majority of those who contract the virus do. It’s dangerous and highly contagious, and we can’t lose sight of that. But panic isn’t helpful and panic isn’t accurate.

Henry, as you probably guessed, is fine. There’s no indication he had anything other than the sort of virus that kids get all the time. The virus is still out there somewhere, of course, some incalculable distance away from our house and from my kids. Henry’s brief illness forced me to reassess what might happen if it gets closer than we’d like. This article has one goal: reminding others that the worst-case scenarios are, by definition, not the most likely ones.

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