As a statistician, I’ve followed the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and analyzed COVID-19 deaths closely for the past year, and there’s a disturbing fact that has been overlooked by many people: In 2020, the highest percent increase in death rates was among people 25-44 years old.

Please take a moment to let that sink in: according to CDC data, among those 25-44 years old, deaths increased 23.5 percent from 2019 to 2020.

Why is that? Some of it is surely due to COVID-19.  Some is also due to other effects of the pandemic, including lockdowns and overextended medical facilities. Disentangling the impact of the disease from effects of interventions to control the disease is complicated, but all additional deaths are of concern.

Deaths have also increased for all other age categories, but those increases ranged from about 7 percent for those under 25 to almost 17 percent for those 65-74 years old.  For people 85 years and older, the death rate was up nearly 12 percent. Scientists and health experts believe the overall death rate is a strong measure of the devastation of this pandemic, and by that measure it has hit everyone hard.

So why is it that all we hear about are the impacts on the older population? Well, the number of deaths in those 85 and older is much larger than those 25-44 years old. In a typical year (not 2020), about 106,000 people 25-44 years old in the U.S. die, while last year it is estimated that more than 131,000 died. Compare that to a typical year in which almost 650,000 people 85 years and older die and last year it was more than 725,000. So, many more people 85 and older last year died, but the greatest percentage increase was for those 25-44.

This is just one way that understanding COVID-19 is complicated. As I describe in a recent article COVID-19: One year on…: “SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads quickly but subtly and manifests in differential ways, making it hard to directly observe cause and effect and thus confounding people’s ability to accurately assess their risk of getting Covid-19. … Compounding this, the virus affects individuals in about the broadest way possible, meaning some contract the virus and have no symptoms at all and others end up in the hospital or die.”

In addition to changes due to our improving and evolving knowledge about the SAR-CoV-2 itself, there has been an “infodemic,” an information epidemic, of misinformation since the very beginning of the outbreak. Simply put, science and health findings have been disputed, contorted, misrepresented, and intentionally ignored. The net effect is that many are overwhelmed by information yet unsure of what to believe or do.

As members of the Virginia Tech community, this is where our educational thinking should kick in. “Scientific literacy” is the idea that, even with something like COVID that you hadn’t heard of a year ago, you should evaluate any situation with a critical approach. You should know, or be learning, to take a piece of information, look at the source, compare it to what you read elsewhere, question it, and determine what you think. If you determine a fact is supported, absorb it; if you assess that it’s based on thin evidence, faulty logic, a twisted premise, or an outright lie, question it or toss it out. Whether you’re an English or neuroscience major or an alum or a staff member, Virginia Tech is infusing you with the skills to assess information that you encounter in your daily lives.

Now would be a perfect opportunity to put these critical assessment skills to work. If you do, you will find some irrefutable and disturbing information about the devastation COVID has wrought, such as:

  • As of today, more than 465,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID. That’s the equivalent of seven sold-out football games at Lane Stadium.
  • About 20,000 people are dying of COVID in the U.S. each week right now. At that rate, by May it’ll be as if everyone in the state of Wyoming all died in one year.
  • More people have died from COVID in the U.S. during the first two weeks of February 2021 than the total number who die from auto accidents in an entire year.

These numbers are not just statistics – they are family, friends, relatives, and neighbors.

But as complicated as COVID-19 is, science has shown that mitigating its effects and staying safe is not complicated. Until enough people are vaccinated, it’s all about following some pretty simple public health guidelines: continuing to wear our masks, social distancing, and keeping our pods safe.

As much as an unmasked person tends to catch my eye, I have also seen the vast majority of Hokies on campus or on downtown streets protecting yourselves and keeping others safe. I am proud of how well our campus has done, and Virginia Tech students in particular, in navigating safely through this pandemic.

Here at Virginia Tech, we did the hard work in the fall - we’ve shown that we can do it, and it makes a difference. But for those of you who have gotten tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to normal, now is a critical time to re-commit to the effort – and even to reach out and encourage others. Vaccines are on the way. If you look to the horizon, that’s the goal line coming into view. But we’re not quite there yet and now’s not the time to let our guard down.

We have to keep our eyes on that goal and keep pushing. The toughest part of any task is the last bit, and I’d like to see every Hokie and every Hokie family get safely across the line. You know what to do – follow the science!

Ronald D. Fricker,
Interim Dean, College of Science