At the Epicenter

New York City is the epicenter of coronavirus death. 

I don’t want your pity.  The reality is that the vast majority of us haven’t even gotten sick.  We’re carrying on, as best as anyone can.

I also wish you wouldn’t gloat.  Not because it hurts my feelings, but because we don’t fully understand what’s happening, and while you’re not suffering now, your turn may come next week, next month, or next winter.  For my part, I believe the explosion of Covid in the city means that we are taking our pain now, and any future outbreaks will be less severe.

New York City has been a big, densely packed, dirty city for over 150 years.  Its character as such is independent of the politics of whoever may be Mayor or Governor.  While we can fault our leadership for what they might or might not do, the essential character of New York City, and consequent risk of disease, is a fact of life and not the politicians’ fault.

Much has been written about the subway as a vector for the coronavirus.  Uncle Andy, last week, ordered the subways closed late at night for cleaning.  While that may make some people feel good, it won’t change much.  The trains and stations were cleaned periodically even before Covid, and an enhanced cleaning regime, in itself, doesn’t require the system to be shut down.  The only difference the nighttime shutdown makes is that the homeless will be chased off the trains for a few hours every night.  But while the subway almost certainly had a role in spreading the virus through the city, blaming the spread of the virus, and the death toll, on the subway seems a bit simplistic.

Over the last week, I’ve pulled together data from various places:

PopulationCasesper 1000Deathsper 1000
NYC and vicinity:
Essex/NJ (Newark)798,97514,52118.171,2821.60
Other US cities:
Orleans/LA (New Orleans)391,0066,54816.754411.13
Allegheny/PA (Pittsburgh)1,216,0451,3451.111020.08
Cook/IL (Chicago)5,150,23343,7158.491,6730.32
Los Angeles/CA10,040,00026,2172.611,2560.13
King/WA (Seattle)2,252,7826,5452.914630.21
NY/NJ vs other states
New York State19,453,561330,40716.9826,2431.35
New Jersey State8,882,190135,84015.298,9601.01
Other 48 + DC299,903,772817,4012.7341,9630.14
London UK8,982,00018,0002.005,2310.58
Ile de France (Paris) FR12,210,00023,7571.956,1160.50
Madrid ES6,642,00062,9899.488,4201.27
Stockholm SE974,0738,5368.761,288 (1)1.32
Coronavirus in Various Places

Note 1: Estimated.  I don’t have a death toll for Stockholm by itself, but Stockholm has less than 10% of the population of Sweden, and about a third of the reported coronavirus cases.  I’ll overestimate a bit and presume that it has 40% of Sweden’s reported 3,220 coronavirus deaths.

These figures were captured at various times last week, and not all on the same day. 

For the moment, let’s focus on the death tolls: the number of reported cases depends on the availability of testing, which is more a function of politics than biology.  But dead is dead, even though politics figures here, too: about 1/4 of New York City’s dead are ‘probable’ as opposed to ‘confirmed’ Covid cases.  Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere.

The next highest city after NYC, in terms of Covid death rate, is Detroit.  But Detroit has no subway, and having suffered a great loss of population, is nowhere near as dense.  The places with comparable death rates are all in the suburbs of NYC.  Is the virus somehow wafting out of the city itself?  Do commuter trains have a role to play?

Looking at other American cities, there doesn’t seem to be much correlation.  Philadelphia, DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles all have subway systems, but have lower death rates.  In fairness, their subways are not as extensive as New York’s.  Meanwhile, New Orleans has no subway, but a higher death rate.

And all the European cities have extensive subway systems, but lower death rates, even Stockholm, which has refrained from the lockdowns in effect pretty much everywhere else.

Meanwhile, I’m also compelled to wonder about the wisdom of locking everything down.  It was OK as emergency measure before we knew quite what would happen.  But as a policy, I suspect that it only nibbles around the edges in terms of limiting the spread of the virus.

When this emergency passes, we need to calmly analyze and identify the factors that led to the rapid spread of Covid in NYC and other hot spots around the country and around the world.  And while it’s easy to blame the politicians or the subway, I suspect the reality will be a bit different.

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