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CDC reveals the frightening reason coronavirus spreads so quickly

Published May 22nd, 2020 1:17PM EDT
Coronavirus Symptoms
Image: Aflo/Shutterstock

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  • The CDC recently updated information pertaining to coronavirus symptoms on its Pandemic Planning Scenarios page.
  • According to the CDC’s current best estimate, 35% of all coronavirus infections will be asymptomatic, which explains why the virus is able to spread so quickly — many infected people don’t even realize they have COVID-19.
  • The CDC also says 0.4% of all symptomatic patients will die from the virus, though some experts are pushing back against the low fatality rate being estimated by the CDC.
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Everything that we think we know about the novel coronavirus changes on a daily basis, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has to do what it can to provide public health officials and modelers with the best data available. As such, the agency has developed five COVID-19 Pandemic Planning Scenarios, four of which “represent the lower and upper bounds of disease severity and viral transmissibility.” Meanwhile, the fifth scenario “represents a current best estimate” about severity and transmissibility.

According to the fifth scenario, which is the current best estimate based on the data available, 35% of the people who are infected with the novel coronavirus are asymptomatic. This helps explain why the novel coronavirus is able to spread so quickly — many infected people aren’t even aware that they have COVID-19. Additionally, the CDC estimates that 0.4% of all people who become infected and show symptoms will die, which is about quadruple the fatality rate of the flu.

There are a number of caveats worth noting about the scenarios, including this one from the CDC: “The scenarios are intended to advance public health preparedness and planning. They are not predictions or estimates of the expected impact of COVID-19. The parameter values in each scenario will be updated and augmented over time, as we learn more about the epidemiology of COVID-19.”

Medical professionals and local governments need actionable data as they attempt to safely reopen their cities and states. The CDC wants these scenarios to be used to help inform decisions moving forward.

The only problem is that not everyone is thrilled with the estimates the CDC is sharing with the public. Speaking with CNN, Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington, said that while many of the numbers “are reasonable, the mortality rates shade far too low.” In even the worst scenarios — in which the virus is more transmissible and the disease is more severe — the CDC puts the case fatality rate at just 1%.

“Estimates of the numbers infected in places like NYC are way out of line with these estimates,” said Bergstrom. “Let us remember that the number of deaths in NYC right now are far more than we would expect if every adult and child in the city had been infected with a flu-like virus. This is not the flu. It is COVID.”

“As I see it, the ‘best estimate’ is extremely optimistic, and the ‘worst case’ scenario is fairly optimistic even as a best estimate,” he added. “One certainly wants to consider worse scenarios.” Even though the CDC repeatedly claims that these scenarios are not predictions for how the pandemic will progress, they “underestimate fatality by a substantial margin compared to current scientific consensus,” which Bergstrom believes is “deeply problematic.”

Jacob Siegal
Jacob Siegal Associate Editor

Jacob Siegal is Associate Editor at BGR, having joined the news team in 2013. He has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience, and helps to lead our technology and entertainment product launch and movie release coverage.

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