A viral Instagram post claimed that COVID-19 is 99 percent survivable for most age groups—the elderly being an important exception. The post cited projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but was flagged as misinformation by the social media site and rated “false” by the Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact.
That’s a curious verdict, since the underlying claim is likely true. While estimates of COVID-19’s infection fatality rate (IFR) range from study to study, the expert consensus does indeed place the death rate at below 1 percent for most age groups.
PolitiFact is correct that the CDC’s September 2020 modeling projections should not be used to calculate the IFR. The post also erred in comparing the vaccine efficacy rate of 94 percent to the COVID-19 survivability rate. This is an apples and oranges comparison; it does not mean that the average person’s natural immune response is better at fighting the disease than the vaccines. At present, the overwhelming majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated. Since the beginning of the year, 98 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Virginia were among the unvaccinated. The vaccines are not in competition with the body’s natural immune system—they render COVID-19 even more mild, and even more survivable.
To the extent the post is implying that most people have no use for the vaccine, it is indeed a piece of misinformation. But PolitiFact went much further, rating as false the very idea that COVID-19 has a low IFR for most people.
“Experts say a person cannot determine their own chances at surviving COVID-19 by looking at national statistics, because the data doesn’t take into account the person’s own risks and COVID-19 deaths are believed to be undercounted,” wrote PolitiFact. “Survival rate data is not yet available from the CDC. We rate this claim False.”
Deaths are probably undercounted, but so are asymptomatic cases where the infected person’s experience with the disease is so mild that they don’t bother to get tested (which would decrease the IFR). The national case fatality rate, which includes deaths among the hard-hit elderly population, is currently 1.7 percent, according to CDC data. (PolitiFact did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Moreover, the suggestion that a person can’t make any reasonable guesses about his own likelihood of surviving COVID-19 given his age group and health status is misleading. Just 300 Americans under the age of 18 have died from COVID-19. Young people can and should infer that they have a high degree of natural immunity against a severe coronavirus health outcome. Policy makers can and should use this information productively: i.e., by reopening schools this fall with minimum restrictions in place.
It often seems like the mainstream media reporters, federal health experts, and policy makers who form Team Blue are so concerned about people taking the pandemic insufficiently seriously that they resort to needless fearmongering. For another example of this, see a recent New York Times headline about long COVID-19 titled “This Is Really Scary,” which makes the as-of-yet completely unsupported claim that even mild infections are causing very serious “mental, physical, and neurological symptoms” in “many” children.
The vast, vast majority of healthy nonelderly people who contract COVID-19 will survive the illness. They should further improve their odds—and reduce their likelihood of infecting anyone else—by getting vaccinated, because even a low percentage of deaths can still mean a great many deaths, in absolute terms, if the infection rate is spiraling out of control. But we don’t need to live in fear, ignorant of the plain reality that the infection fatality rate is, in all likelihood, somewhere in the under–1 percent range for most age groups.