The odd thing about reporting on the coronavirus is that the nonexperts are supremely confident in their predictions, while epidemiologists keep telling me that they don’t really know much at all.
“This is a novel virus, new to humanity, and nobody knows what will happen,” said Anne Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at U.C.L.A. . . .
Some conservatives scoffed that the coronavirus was like the flu, which was utterly wrong. Some liberals foresaw a disastrous outbreak when Jerry Falwell Jr. kept Liberty University open this spring, and that never happened. . . .
One study reported in Health Affairs found that government restrictions collectively averted some 35 million infections in the United States by the end of April; if that’s true, those restrictions also saved an enormous number of lives.
Yet the same study found that school closures didn’t much help, and we still haven’t figured out the optimal level of restrictions to smother the virus’s spread without stifling citizens’ daily routines.
That’s not surprising, notes Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, because we still haven’t figured out the 1918 pandemic. “In 1918, why did the spring wave go away, and then why did it come back in the fall?” Osterholm asked. “We don’t know.”
Epidemiology is full of puzzles. In 2003, the World Health Organization feared that SARS would return in a devastating wave that fall, but instead it was extinguished. In 2009, experts worried that the H1N1 flu would be a lion, but it turned out to be a kitten. Random luck shapes outcomes along with biology; some officials took reckless risks this year and got away with them, but that doesn’t make the actions prudent
“You’ve got to have a lot of humility with these viruses,” Professor Osterholm said. “I know less about viruses than I did 10 years ago.”