Drowning, in data, part 1

Thank you all for your enthusiasm about my project to make daily(-ish) updated maps of the state of the COVID-19 epidemic in various countries around the world. I’m glad that I have been able to provide a resource that many of you have found useful. I will continue to post updates, but I will also return to my regular schedule of posting new content here most every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Arnold Schwarzenegger from Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Not actually a photo of my friend

I’ve had some fascinating discussions with many of you on various social media platforms about various aspects of the data, and what it means for evaluating our species’ response to the pandemic. Today I want to focus on a question that a friend asked me as part of our discussion on Facebook – and yes, I promise this is an actual friend, not one of those “my friend has a problem” “friends.”

We were talking about how various U.S. states have issued shelter-at-home orders and told businesses to close. Was this a reasonable thing to do? Is the reduction in COVID-19 deaths worth the economic damage that closing so many businesses will likely cause? In the course of this discussion, my friend asked a question I’ve heard in many other places, but I’ve never seen discussed in the way I would like to see it:

Should the government shut down all swimming pools to keep people from drowning?

The answer is No, but the real answer is that this is a terrible and misleading analogy that has no bearing on the COVID-19 epidemic. Let’s explore why, in the way that I like to explore questions on this blog: with data.

To begin to see the difference, the first question we should ask is: how many people per year die by drowning in the U.S.? Obviously, even a single death is a tragedy to someone – but equally obviously, there is a big difference between something that kills 10 people per year and something that kills 10,000 people per year.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, between 2005 and 2014, an average of 3,858 Americans drowned per year (and it’s usually better to use a multi-year average to remove year-to-year fluctuations). Let’s assume that an equal number of people drown every day of the year – I know that in reality, more people drown on weekends in the summer, but we need to compare to a cause of death that has so far killed people only in March, April, and early May. So, let’s assume that since January 1st, 2020, 3858/366 = about 11 people per day have died by drowning. Add them up to get a cumulative death count per day from then until today, May 20th, 2020. Here’s how they compare:

Deaths so far this year by cause

Simple model of drowning deaths: 1,468

Actual deaths due to COVID-19: 91,921

But there’s even more to it than that: drowning isn’t contagious, COVID-19 is! If you have the ill fortune to be there when someone drowns, that does not increase your chances of drowning. We’ll explore the implications of that simple fact in my next post, coming Friday.

5 thoughts on “Drowning, in data, part 1

  1. Covid will eventually go away though… pools are basically here to stay. If we extend the data to a 10-year period then pools are a bigger killer than COVID-19, and more pools are being dug every single day! Why are we not at least stopping new pools?!

    FYI I had never heard the pool analogy, I came up with it on a whim. It doesn’t have to be pools, it can be a variety of other things; smoking, alcohol, cars, fatty foods, soda, fast food, etc. What sets COVID apart from these other mass killers that makes COVID worth destroying the economy to stop but not the others? The government could save MILLIONS of lives by outlawing cars; sure it would destroy the economy but we’re talking about saving lives here!

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      You ask, “What sets COVID apart from these other mass killers?”

      I’m glad you asked that, because that’s exactly the question I’ll be answering in tomorrow’s post.

    2. Also, let me check my understanding on something you’re saying here. It sounds like the number of annual deaths makes no difference to your argument. If 300,000 people per year drowned in pools, you would still not support a temporary closure of pools to investigate why so many people were drowning. Is that right?

      The reason I ask is that if the magnitudes matter, I might make a change to my analysis for tomorrow, substituting a cause of death that makes for a more fair comparison with COVID-19. But I don’t want to a bunch of extra work if it’s not going to make a difference in how you see these arguments.

    3. Also also, there is no guarantee that COVID-19 will ever go away. Syphilis, cholera, and AIDS became all-new global pandemics within the last 1000 years. They’re not going away; COVID-19 might not either.

      Obviously I hope it will go away. But hope doesn’t stop pandemics. Public health interventions stop pandemics.

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