Last week, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick spoke about the coronavirus pandemic on a local talk radio show, and he told the host that the outbreak in this country looks more like the one in South Korea than the one in Italy.
“We’ve got to give the American public a rough estimate of how long we think this is going to take, based mostly on the South Korean model, which seems to be the trajectory that we are on, thankfully, and not the Italian model,” the Republican congressman from Bucks County said on The Dom Giordano Program.
We wondered how the spread of the coronavirus in the United States compares with the spread of the disease in other parts of the world.
When Fitzpatrick made those remarks, he was comparing the three countries’ case fatality rates, said Will Kiley, his spokesperson. That’s “the key metric we’re all watching,” he added.
Fitzpatrick is right that the fatality rate in the United States roughly matches South Korea’s and is far lower than Italy’s. But Drexel epidemiologist Michael LeVasseur cautioned against reading too much into those numbers.
The virus appears to be deadlier in Italy because the population there is older, and elderly coronavirus patients are the most likely to die. For example, 23% of people in Italy are over age 65, compared with only 14% in South Korea and 16% in the U.S.
The age-specific case fatality rates in the three countries are about the same, LeVasseur said.
He also pointed out that the curve epidemiologists keep talking about depicts the number of coronavirus patients and hospitals’ capacity to care for them — not deaths caused by the virus. “Flattening the curve” means slowing the virus’ rate of transmission and reducing the number of new cases so that fewer sick people need to seek treatment all at once.
The latest data on coronavirus cases show that South Korea did flatten the curve, while case counts in the United States and Italy keep climbing.
Another way to compare the virus’ impact in the three countries is to look at their economies.
Fitzpatrick’s comments came amid a discussion with Giordano about the economic pain the virus has already inflicted on Pennsylvania business owners, and how much longer the closures ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf might last. The congressman argued that businesses need to know when things will go back to normal if they have any hope of surviving this crisis.
In South Korea, businesses have remained open even as the country fights the virus, whereas in Italy, businesses have been closed for weeks.
The latest modeling suggests the outbreak will peak in the United States in two weeks. But that doesn’t mean that Pennsylvania businesses should necessarily expect to reopen by May, said Nate Wardel, a spokesperson for the State Department of Health. The scarcity of coronavirus tests and the time it takes to get results remain the biggest hurdles to relaxing restrictions.
Asked whether Wolf would use the state’s case fatality rate to determine when businesses may reopen, Wardle said it would be one of several metrics used to make that call. And no, he said, the similarity between the fatality rate in the United States and South Korea doesn’t mean Pennsylvania is ready for South Korea-style normalcy.
Fitzpatrick said the spread of the coronavirus in the United States matches the spread of the virus in South Korea, not Italy. The U.S. and South Korea have similar case fatality rates — Italy’s is higher — but all three countries have age-specific mortality rates that are about the same.
In addition, public health experts say the fatality rate wouldn’t be the only or the most important metric used to determine when businesses may reopen.
The growth in cases and hospitals’ capacity to treat new patients is the most important factor, and in that department, the United States looks more like Italy than South Korea. We rate this statement Half True.
Email interview, Will Kiley, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, March 30, 2020
Phone interview, Michael LeVasseur, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University’s Dornslife School of Public Health, March 30, 2020
Phone interview, Amesh Adalja, spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, March 30, 2020
Phone interview, Nate Wardle, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health
NPR, “Why 'Death Rates' From Coronavirus Can Be Deceiving,” March 27, 2020
The New York Times, “Flattening the Coronavirus Curve,” March 27, 2020
The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Flattening the coronavirus curve goes way beyond science | Expert Opinion,” March 24, 2020