31. Personifying a number

Sunday May 24 2020

According to the chief creative officer of The New York Times, it’s been at least forty years since the newspaper’s front page didn’t have any images or photos. So, today’s front page is remarkable with displaying only text; a listing one thousand names of people chosen to represent the loss of life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s estimated that the death toll in the United States will hit 100,000 in the next few days. The editors of the prestigious New York Times wanted to mark this milestone in a way that, a hundred years from now, it will be better understood what we’re going through.

I don’t have a subscription to the NYT, but I was able to find these quotes on an article about today’s edition.

Alain Delaquérière, a researcher, combed through various sources online for obituaries and death notices with Covid-19 written as the cause of death. He compiled a list of nearly a thousand names from hundreds of newspapers. A team of editors from across the newsroom, in addition to three graduate student journalists, read them and gleaned phrases that depicted the uniqueness of each life lost:

“Alan Lund, 81, Washington, conductor with ‘the most amazing ear’ … ”

“Theresa Elloie, 63, New Orleans, renowned for her business making detailed pins and corsages … ”

Florencio Almazo Morán, 65, New York City, one-man army … ”

“Coby Adolph, 44, Chicago, entrepreneur and adventurer … ”

It’s all meant to be dramatic and impactful. A representation of life stories cut short by this invisible enemy.

And it is.

Then we consider the rumors that the numbers are inflated. That someone’s death was completely unrelated to the virus, but was reported anyway as the cause. It’s true, they say, because someone told me it happened to someone they knew. Hospitals are getting more money for COVID cases, they say.

Of this, I’m only a bit skeptical. Actually, I don’t doubt there is some number fudging going on. There always is a degree of sloppy recordkeeping in times like these; those who work the system to get more. The real question is, what percentage is false?

Think about this. Nobody dies from COVID-19, similar to how nobody died from AIDS. The disease affects the body so that an individual dies from a heart attack because their lungs are too damaged to maintain the oxygen needed by the heart. Or there’s a full organ shutdown because of the domino effect of one system needing another. Or a stroke, same reasons.

COVID-19 is hard on the cardiovascular system. More so than other types of flus. The stress on the heart is atypical of the usual heart attack. Doctors say clot busting drugs are ineffective since there’s no blockage. It’s referred to as “broken heart syndrome.”

Here’s an example of what the CDC is offering as a guide for medical professionals when citing cause of death for COVID-19 related cases.

And by the way, CDC is aware of the inflated numbers and is adjusting for them. A really good read is at https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid19/excess_deaths.htm that explains how death certificates are coded.

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