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Diane Francis: The known unknowns about COVID-19

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Diane Francis: The known unknowns about COVID-19

A Florida scientist claims she was dismissed when she refused to fudge COVID-19 figures in order to support plans to reopen, so the tourists and retirees the state’s economy depends on would return. Two other states — Texas and Georgia — have been accused of artificially lowering their numbers to push reopening, as well. On top of all that, there are so many different models forecasting death rates that figuring out which one is most accurate is as difficult as choosing the right slot machine in a cavernous casino. So what’s the real story with COVID-19?

Well, no one knows because it’s early days, but also because in America, the virus has been politicized. It is now an issue of red versus blue. This has resulted in a lot of fake news, along with statistics that are sometimes massaged or manipulated.

That’s bad enough, but the main issue is that the virus is a slippery customer. New and contradictory evidence surfaces regularly: it may not be as age-specific as previously thought; lockdowns may not permanently stop its spread; reopening helps or harms; kids may get it or only minuscule numbers do; people can catch it a second time; a vaccine is imminent or a pipe dream.

Canadians are also confused and divided over what to believe, but we are uncharacteristically united over our ability to withstand it, at least compared to our neighbours to the south, because our health-care systems are owned and operated by the provinces, but managed by health-care professionals. As a result, health policies are not political and splintered, but driven by data that’s analyzed by professionals.

Even so, the mess in the United States is an issue for Canadians because the two societies are highly integrated. A great deal of Canadians retire, trade, work, study, shop, play and are related by marriage or otherwise to American society.

This means that if Florida is fudging its figures, then Canadians with vacation plans, timeshares, deposits on cruises, residences or businesses must make decisions with imperfect information. The only guidepost for those who want to go to the United States is to understand what former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the “known knowns” and the “known unknowns.” Here are a few.

Anyone over 65 is at risk of catching and succumbing to this disease, and risks rise with age. Anyone at any age with diabetes, obesity, cancer, heart disease or other health problems is at risk.

Density is dangerous, but quarantining and self-isolation work. Germany is densely populated and its lockdown has resulted in a low death rates, while Sweden, which is also densely populated, did not lockdown and has soaring rates. In the case of Florida, deaths have been relatively low, considering the age of its population, but studies have shown that this is because much of its vulnerable and elderly population voluntarily stayed put without forced lockdowns.

To date, there is no evidence that heat or warmer weather slows the spread or decreases the danger of the disease. But there is also no evidence yet, only speculation, that the onset of cold weather this fall will cause a “second wave” of new outbreaks.

Must everyone wait for a vaccine and when will it arrive? Several credible scientists believe that the disease will automatically peter out after 70 days. But others have noted that new outbreaks have cropped up in South Korea and Singapore and there is evidence that some victims become re-infected (though there’s also evidence that they are not contagious a second time). Avoiding contagion is difficult, as around 80 per cent of those infected will not have any symptoms.

Press reports about the arrival of a vaccine vary wildly from being years off, to being available this fall (which is highly unlikely). Safety protocols require months of testing, and even if and when a vaccine is found to be safe and effective, it will take a long time to manufacture, distribute and be administered to hundreds of millions of people.

In the meantime, there are a few no-lose strategies to follow. Everyone should bolster their immune systems with vitamins, minerals, exercise, sleep and avoiding stress. And masks offer protection and should be worn everywhere that one may come into contact with other people. Wear one, avoid those who don’t, keep your distance, avoid gatherings and travel judiciously. And wait for the vaccine to arrive. This is how we will survive this pandemic.

Financial Post

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