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Wisconsin Spotlight | May 11, 2020

MADISON — Once upon a time in America, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told a frightened nation, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’

Roosevelt’s famous message of consolation was delivered in another time of global anxiety, amid a horrific depression. The sentiment would fit the current crucible, the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments, including Wisconsin’s, have in too many instances failed to live by FDR’s adage and have instead led with fear.

While there has been much to be alarmed about with this unknown novel coronavirus, there is much we have learned since a cluster of pneumonia cases was first reported in  late December in Wuhan, China.

While COVID-19 can strike anyone we know this: The older you are the more likely you are to die from the virus and the vast majority of people who have perished from the infection have had underlying health problems.

Multiple causes  

It’s the comorbidity effect — the simultaneous presence of two chronic diseases. When serious health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease meet COVID-19, well, it can be like throwing gasoline on a fire.

“Moreover, 78% of intensive care unit (ICU) admissions and 94% of deaths (where complete information on underlying conditions or risk factors was available) occurred in those with at least one underlying health condition,” the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology reported last week.

Milwaukee County underscores the commonalities in COVID-19, and highlights another problem. Medical examiners and attending physicians have listed coronavirus as the cause of death in comorbidity cases, when other serious health conditions may have been the killer. That would certainly skew the numbers of deaths being reported — deaths and death rates that government officials have used to justify keeping states closed or drastically limiting individual liberties.

PolitiFact, per usual, takes issue with critics who see an overcount in the numbers, but even the liberal-leaning fact-checker had to concede it’s a “judgement call” as to the underlying cause of death in comorbidity cases.

Milwaukee County Medical Examiners office data obtained by CRG Network (Citizens for Responsible Government) found that residents 65 and over made up 75 percent of 193 COVID-19-related deaths in Milwaukee County. All but four of the victims had at least one underlying health condition.

Underlying conditions included cancer, COPD, heart attacks, stroke, congestive heart failure. Many of the victims were obese, many morbidly obese. The No. 1 comorbidity among the deceased was high blood pressure; No. 2 was diabetes.

There were seven deaths among people under 45, and each one of the victims had underlying health conditions.

“I also asked the Medical Examiners office for the documents that they use to determine if a death was caused bu COVID-19, the flu or some other respiratory illness. They have no documents, so in other words, they are classifying any questionable death as being caused by COVID-19,” said CRG’s Orville Seymer. He sought the information and CRG’s Chris Kliesmet broke down the data.

“The analysis suggests COVID-19 deaths may be wildly overstated and there is little risk of young (under 55), generally healthy people dying of COVID-19,” Kliesmet said.

‘Average victim’

In an analysis piece published Friday (more than likely influenced by CRG’s work, without attribution, of course), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asserts there is no “average victim” of the coronavirus in Wisconsin. And then the story goes on to describe what the average victim is.

“… a man, about 75 years old. He would almost certainly have an underlying health illness like diabetes or high blood pressure,” the piece’s author, John Diedrich, writes.

The Journal Sentinel analysis found “roughly 200” of the 384 people who had died ofCOVID-19-related illnesses in Wisconsin (as of Friday) were 70 or older.

“There is a smaller number of victims scattered across almost every age category, including eight victims in their 20s and 30s. Records are available on only half of those eight cases and all four were “morbidly obese.” There are no deaths of people younger than 20,” the story notes.

Another important number: At least 39 percent of all deaths were among people living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

No doubt there is concern about COVID-19 in a state where 32 percent of residents qualify as obese. But are we getting an inflated count of COVID-19 deaths? Does that justify quarantining the entire state?

The resounding question is, will what we’ve learned about COVID-19 guide us to a reasonable, strategic re-opening of Wisconsin’s economy and society, or will fear continue to lead public policy?

For the Record 

Milwaukee County Medical Examiners’ records of COVID-19-related deaths, obtained by Citizens for Responsible Government.

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