Ordinary Death vs. Extra Ordinary Death
A Minnesota Perspective on the Covid-19 Outbreak
By John W. Palmer, Ph.D.
Death and taxes are often mentioned as the only things certain in life. Another common statement is that no one ever gets out of this life alive. Death is something people do not usually dwell upon and those who frequently dwell upon death are often considered unbalanced. These past two months, our state and nation have obsessed on a virus associated with death. While that has been going on the ordinary death that surrounds us has continued to happen. I do not write this to minimize the threat to people’s health that COVID-19 presents. I write this to put COVID-19 death into perspective with the leading cause of death that individually and in total kill many if not overwhelming people the covid-19.
In a typical year about 44,500 Minnesotans die. These deaths often can be prevented or delayed by engaging in specific behaviors. Unlike the current bug du jour, these ordinary causes of death do not receive much public attention and as a result they continue to cut lives short. One of the causes of death that does not get captured in our census of death is the role fear plays. Dr. Marc Siegel’s book False Alarm: The Truth About The Epidemic of Fear provides insights into how fear leads to health problems and often is used to manipulate behavior. For a glimpse into this excellent book go to https://www.amazon.com/False-Alarm-Truth-about-Epidemic-ebook/dp/B00DNL355U/ ref=sr_1_3? crid=2SACHBGM8GKPW&dchild=1&keywords=false+alarm&qid=1585752693&s=books&spre? x=False%2Caps%2C177&sr=1-3 As I read the book during the last few days and experienced the COVID-19 phenomena, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is just another bug du jour to be added to Siegel’s narrative. Only time will tell the truths of the COVID-19 outbreak.
What will be true are the predictable side-effects of the stay-at-home and constant urging of social distancing and good personal hygiene since we know less travel will mean less vehicle crashes and less work-related injury. It is also known that increases in good personal hygiene will mean less spread of bacterial and viral infections. It is possible that more lives will be saved by the side effects of the COVID-19 public health efforts than the principal target of COVID -19 related death.
The following Death by Leading Causes table which follows summarizes death in Minnesota and the leading causes of death in Minnesota. The total Minnesota Coved-19 deaths will not be known until year end but based on the mid-point of the range of COVID -19 deaths in the USA currently projected (120,000), it is hard to believe Minnesota’s (1.7% of US population) share of these project deaths (2039) would place COVID -19 in the top five leading cause of death in Minnesota.
Another way to look at the relationship between covid-19 and leading causes of death is to examine covid-19 deaths occurring during the last two months (see table titled February and March) with the typical deaths in a 2-month time period. The typical deaths over a two-month time period exceed the COVID-19 deaths in the last two months by a factor of over 600. Each of the top four leading causes of death also exceed COVID-19 deaths. Cancer deaths exceed COVID-19 deaths by a factor over 130 with Heart Disease deaths exceeding COVID-19 by a factor of 115 and Alzheimer and unintentional injury death both exceed COVID-19 death by over 35.

Two final comparisons of COVID-19 deaths which are interesting are the comparison of February 2020 motor vehicles deaths and Influenza deaths. All three of these censuses of cause of death occurred over a period of one month so these comparisons are over a similar time frame and does not use an estimate of monthly death. A total of 56 Influenza deaths happened in March of 2020 and 21 motor vehicle fatalities happen in February of this year. Influenza deaths exceed COVID-19 deaths by a factor of 4 and motor vehicle deaths by a factor of 1.75 (see the next two tables). Since the mitigation strategies for COVID-19 also will impact on influenza (virus spread in the same way) and motor vehicle fatalities (less driving will lead to less fatalities) it will be interesting to see what happens to motor vehicle and influenza related death.

I set out to put COVID-19 death into perspective with the leading cause of death that individually and in total kill many if not overwhelming numbers of people than COVID-19.

My hope is that as we face the impact of COVID-19 we do not lose site of the need to address the leading causes of death. With rare exception these cause of death all have potential of significant reductions in the number of deaths each year. Just as COVID-19 can be mitigated by shifting human behavior, each of the leading causes of death can also be mitigated by changing human behavior. Things like wearing protective equipment, washing hands and doing sensible things like staying home when you are sick all can reduce the chance of bad things happening and enhance the quality of life if people learn the importance of primary prevention. Unfortunately, our society has ignored, to a great extent, things which cause ordinary death. Hopefully, a positive side effect of COVID-19 can be renewed interest in primary prevention of the leading causes of death. We can’t eliminate death but we can take actions to delay its appearance. Perhaps, if in addition to the daily posting of COVID-19 cases and death, everyone will start to post the ongoing count for the ordinary deaths.

One Response to “Ordinary death vs. extraordinary death”

  • Patrick says:

    well written John. Thanks for the tip on Dr. Siegel’s book “False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear”. I hope he comes out with a 2020 or 2021 edition with a chapter(s) on the Covid-19 situation.

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