How Lethal Is COVID-19 For The Healthy? Military Ships Offer Case Study
Back in April, the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Brett Crozier, was relieved of command after sounding the alarm about an outbreak of COVID-19 aboard his ship. The news made national headlines and catalyzed a spirited debate.
Since then, news of the Theodore Roosevelt has largely faded, with hardly anyone acknowledging the most important part about the COVID-19 outbreak: More than 1,100 sailors were infected, and only one died.
From the time the outbreak began and up until early May, the Navy offered daily updates regarding the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases on the Theodore Roosevelt. Once the Navy had completed testing of all sailors onboard, however, the daily updates were concluded. The Navy explained that going forward, it would only report “significant changes” on the ship.
The Theodore Roosevelt has now returned to sea, and the final data offered by the Navy remains at 1,102 cases, with only one reported death. Presumably, additional deaths aboard the ship would qualify as a “significant change,” and thus we can assume that, while still tragic, only one person, 41-year-old Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., died of the virus. The Navy has not disclosed whether Thacker suffered from any underlying health conditions.
Doing some simple math, COVID-19 aboard the Theodore Roosevelt had a death rate of 0.09 percent, while the estimated death rate for the seasonal flu is 0.1 percent.
This data point offers incredibly useful insight into how COVID-19 affects a young and healthy population. Most enlisted sailors are under 30 years old.
A similarly low death rate has been seen on France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, where more than 1,000 sailors contracted the virus but zero died. These death rates are even lower than estimates in a new CDC report, which estimates the death rate for people under 50 years old at only 0.05 percent.
We have long known that the Wuhan virus primarily affects elderly people, particularly those with underlying health conditions. For example, 81 percent of coronavirus deaths in Minnesota have occurred in nursing homes or assisted-care facilities. In Denmark, the median age of death is about 82 years old.
General population-based data suggests that young populations tend to fare well, with only 14 people between 20 and 29 years old dying from COVID-19 in Italy, an early hotspot. The death rate for those who are not only relatively young, but also healthy and physically fit, might be far lower than previously imagined.
If the data from the Theodore Roosevelt and other military vessels is correct, it must be brought to light and discussed. Public health policy might benefit from a shift toward strongly shielding the vulnerable in our population but allowing the economy to open for those who are relatively young and healthy.
Maclen Stanley is a practicing attorney, graduate of Harvard Law School, and licensed EMT. He also holds an Ed.M. in Developmental Psychology from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.