Caught up with my friends Sam and Ben over breakfast Saturday morning. As Labor Day is just around the corner, the conversation turned to college football. Followed by a quick turn to life.
Ben: “Can you believe the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 have decided to play football?”
Sam: “Why would they not?”
Ben: “Duh, how about not getting Covid? Don’t you think the number of players in the conference contracting COVID over the course of the season will be fascinating?”
Sam: “In a vacuum, no.”
Ben: “What do you mean, ‘In a vacuum?’”
Sam: “I mean absent any comparison, that tells you nothing. Now, if you track the # of players in the SEC/ACC/Big 12 contracting Covid vs those in the PAC 12 and Big 10 contracting Covid, that will be quite interesting. Now you have a test and a control group. Both consist of well-conditioned roughly 18-23 year-old college athletes. One group will participate in the sport it trains to play. The other will not.”
Ben: “I see your point. Do you think all the conferences will track positive Covid tests?”
Sam: “If they care about measuring the outcomes of their decisions and getting things right, they will. If the Presidents and Commissioners would prefer not to know – or have anyone else know – they won’t. And another thing, positive tests shouldn’t be the ultimate metric. Symptomatic cases are much more relevant. As is the outcome of each symptomatic case. If the test group has five positive cases for every one in the control group, but none of the cases are symptomatic – that is, the person (athlete in this case) never even knew they had the disease, does it even matter? The number of symptomatic cases – fever, chills, shortness of breath, etc., and outcomes – time sick, hospitalizations required, time to recovery, deaths – are more important in comparing results between the two groups. And ultimately determining if any benefit gained by the disruption outweighs the cost.”
Ben: “Fair enough. But surely you appreciate the wisdom of protecting students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels?”
Sam: “I don’t know who they’re protecting, but it ain’t the students.”
Ben: “How do you figure that?”
Sam: “In my experience the majority of people in this country – I don’t know about worldwide – struggle with numeracy and weighing costs and benefits, or risk and reward if you like. Do you know how many people between the ages of 5-24 – which is a combination of the age breakouts the CDC uses for tracking and roughly corresponds to kindergarten through college – have died from Covid?”
Ben: “No idea.”
Sam: “340. And do you know how many 5-24-year-olds there are in the U.S.?”
Ben: “Don’t know that either.”
Sam: “83,142,000. Which means that the chances of a school aged child or young person dying from Covid are 0.0004% or less than 1 per 100,000. So those who have chosen to shut down schools and extracurricular activities may have other justifications and motives, but serving the customer – the student – isn’t one of them. In fact, I would argue the measures some see as life preserving are actually life destroying.”
Ben: “What?! Now you’ve gone too far.”
Sam: “Have I? We already know that substance abuse and crime are up as people deal with the economic and isolation stresses caused by government’s response to Covid. You think kids are immune to this? And that those who were just trying to make it through the summer so they could go back to school and participate in organized sports, band, drill team, cheer, and drama are not going to be depressed?”
“In 2018 – the last year for which data is available – 18,902 children and young adults between the ages of 5 and 24 were killed by auto accidents, suicide, or homicide. That is 55x the number who have died from Covid. You don’t think depression, unsupervised free time, and economic hardship is going to lead to an increase in these numbers? If they only increase by 2% -- 2%! – the increased deaths will exceed all the Covid deaths among young people. And I’m afraid the increase in the suicide and homicide rate could be much more than 2%.”
“That’s what I mean when I say many people in this country – including policymakers – aren’t numerate and do a poor job weighing probabilities, costs, and benefits. Look, I’m in my mid-50s, so I have a greater Covid mortality risk, although my chances of dying from heart disease are 417% greater than dying from Covid. And I know how to mitigate the risks of both. My parents are in their late 80s, and their Covid mortality risk is greater still, yet they have a 1,374% greater chance of dying from heart disease.”
“If I die from Covid (or anything else which is far more likely) it would be sad, but I’ve lived over half my lifespan. Likewise, my parents, who have lived the vast majority of their lives. But if a young person dies from a homicide, suicide, or drunk driving accident, that is a tragedy.”
I’m now coming out of character and speaking directly. A friend of mine was shot this weekend and remains in ICU. He is a good kid – I’ve coached him in church basketball – and is a senior in high school. A classmate of one of my sons committed suicide this weekend as well.
Neither the Superintendent of Schools, the Mayor, the State Health Officer, or the Governor pulled the trigger in either case. But they created the environment. So it’s on them.
In a democracy, it’s on us, too. All of us who know better than letting life destroying policies persist. We can choose to hold our public officials accountable and challenge policies that destroy, or we can go quietly about our business until someone we know is affected. What are we going to do? What are you going to do?
Kelley Williams, Jr. is a Northsider.