Drowning, in data, part 2

Not actually a photo of my friend

On Wednesday, I wrote about one of the many fascinating conversations I have had as a result of my continuing series plotting the history of the COVID-19 pandemic in real time. I was talking with a friend (pictured to the right, although it’s totally not him) about one of the most persistent misconceptions that we encounter in discussing COVID-19: that somehow it’s not so bad, because people die all the time.

Three thousand Americans a year die by drowning, the logic goes, so should we close all the pools in the country to protect them?

Of course we don’t close all the pools in the country, because the magnitude of the problem makes a real difference. I looked at what the differential death rates between drowning and COVID-19 actually mean. But of course, even that isn’t the real reason that we protect ourselves from COVID-19. As I pointed out at the very end of Wednesday’s post:

Drowning isn’t contagious.

But what if it was?

Like in this sketch from the classic comedy series The State, which has nothing to do with the rest of the post but you should watch because it’s funny:

But here’s what I really meant: what if being present when someone drowns increased your chance of drowning yourself? That would be a pretty cool horror movie plot, kind of like The Ring – but let’s run with it and see us where it takes us.

Everything else is the same, people continue to drown at a rate of about 11 a day, just like they have every other year. But this year, starting on March 1st, drowning magically became contagious. Whenever someone drowns, their drowning causes others to drown two weeks later. There is no way to predict exactly how many other people will drown, but on average it will be around 2 or 3 – let’s say 2.3.

As you’ll see once I get to the math, this small change makes a tremendous difference in how many people will die. You can probably see where this argument is going. We’ll keep talking about drowning here, and then we’ll pivot back to COVID-19 at the end. And it will be even worse than it looks.

How bad would it be?

Remember the rules we set out for this model: starting on March 1st, drowning magically became contagious. By that date, already 632 people have drowned. Another 11 people drown on March 1st.

Nothing appears different at that time, but the wheels are in motion – as a result of each of those drownings, an average of 2.3 more people will inevitably drown in two weeks. Every day until March 14th, it continues – 11 more people people drown each day, and each of them infects an average of 2.3 people.

Every day from March 15th to 28th, 35 people drown.

Every day from March 29th to April 11th, 90 people drown.

Every day from April 12th to April 25th, 219 people drown.

Every day from April 26th to May 9th, 514 people drown.

Every day from May 10th to today, 1,193 people drown.

Total amount of people who have drowned in this model: 28,290

Imagine this situation: in a normal year, 1,507 people would have drowned by this point. This year, 28,290 people have drowned. If this were the case, would you support temporarily closing pools to figure out why, even if it causes some economic turmoil?

It’s even worse than that.

See the graph below, an adaptation of the graph I showed on Monday. The blue line is drowning in a regular year. The green line is this year’s contagious drowning. The orange line is COVID-19.

In every other year in American history, zero people died of COVID-19. So far this year, 94,702 Americans have died of COVID-19. More deaths are coming.

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