Did policymakers overlook large number of undiagnosed coronavirus patients?

Studies showing the majority of coronavirus patients go undiagnosed date to February — early enough to have been factored into projections and public policy decisions weeks ago.

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Stanford coronavirus study
Stanford med students, faculty, volunteers take blood samples for coronavirus antibody study, Mountain View, Calif., April 3, 2020.
(Ray Chavez/Getty)
Updated: April 28, 2020 - 12:22pm

Many reporters, scientists, and public health officials are now saying it appears as if COVID-19 was more common than we thought in the United States because many patients had it without knowing it. A number of them are expressing surprise as if it is unexpected, new information.

The news comes after numerous studies have begun providing hard data. Scientists are measuring antibodies in the blood of people never diagnosed with coronavirus. They are finding that a significant number silently battled coronavirus with few or no symptoms.

Based on results from Santa Clara County, California, scientists estimate the true number of coronavirus cases is as much as 85 times higher than the recorded case count. One in five people tested in New York City had antibodies.

However, this news should be of little surprise. Beginning as far back as February, there were published reports and studies indicating the majority of coronavirus patients go undiagnosed. This could have been factored into calculations, projections, and public policy decisions many weeks ago.

“Some 80.9 percent of infections are classified as mild,” reported Agence France-Press on Feb. 19, 2020. “Vast Majority of Coronavirus Infections Are Mild, Huge Study Has Revealed.” From Business Insider: “The biggest breakdown yet of novel coronavirus cases suggests that 80% are mild. Some patients never show symptoms.”

Almost six weeks ago, on March 16, the journal Science built on the verification of the significant number of asymptomatic Covid-19 patients: “We estimate 86% of all infections were undocumented.” In practical terms, that means for every 14 people diagnosed with coronavirus, scientists believe there are 86 more who have it but will not be diagnosed. 

On April 5, when issuing new guidance that more people should wear masks, CDC acknowledged, “We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms.”

The implications are large, but were often not mentioned or accounted for in death rate projections and other information released to the public.

By way of example, if the U.S. has one million documented cases and 53,928 deaths, the death rate is 5.4% when asymptomatic cases are ignored. But factor in the undiagnosed cases, as one must for an accurate statistic, and the 5.4% rate is more than seven times too high. There are actually an additional 6.14 million cases for a total of 7.14 million coronavirus cases in this example, making the true death rate instantly fall to .76%

We addressed this phenomenon on March 13 in “Facts vs. Panic,” March 20 in “Better Math,” and March 31 in “Fauci Offers More Conservative Death Rate in Scientific Journal.”

For more on this topic, listen to Sharyl Attkisson’s latest podcast.

 

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