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Real People, Not Just a Number

Would You Do This If You Thought You'd Get Cancer?

Let us imagine a football stadium. We don’t have to imagine because on any given Saturday it is certainly not uncommon for 100,000 fans to sit unmasked shoulder to shoulder. Since we are a culture driven by odds, percentages, and probability, here are numbers we need to understand. And I’m not talking about rankings in the Big Ten or yardage.

Let’s do some simple arithmetic: Take those 100,000 fans and divide by 500. Why 500? Because 1 in 500 individuals are currently dying from COVID. The answer to our equation is 200.

Two hundred of those fans who attended that football game in that stadium on that day will die from COVID. And we now know that the vast majority these deaths are largely preventable.

Our infectious disease experts, including my colleague here at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Gregory Poland, said 500 is the number generated by dividing the American population of approximately 330 million individuals by US COVID deaths (677,988 deaths).

I’m a cancer doctor so I know the risks and the odds when someone is diagnosed with cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2020 there were approximately 600,000 deaths from cancer. Deaths from COVID are a little higher, yet the numbers are almost identical. But there is one clear, unequivocal, and fundamental difference.

Within some reason, with smoking and sun exposure, we can prevent some cancers too. But we do know for certainty that we can prevent most COVID deaths.

We now know from credible scientific and public health experts that if we are vaccinated, if we wear a mask, if we follow social distancing guidelines, we can shift the odds in our favor and probably not be fearful of dying from COVID. On the other hand, there are some cancers for which treatments are of limited value and these deaths are not wholly preventable.

Would you want to be among the 100,000 individuals to attend a football game knowing that 200 of you could get cancer just from the exposure to others in the stadium? The man sitting behind yelling at the refs? The kids in the adjacent seats screaming and crying? Someone coughing in the line for beer? That is a question for you to answer.

Similarly, most of us would never even consider driving while intoxicated, driving without a seat belt, or driving recklessly on a frozen road. So why would you consider sitting side-by-side with strangers whose vaccination status you don’t know? With people who are unmasked? Who are yelling and screaming and coughing in your face?

Reasonable people would make reasonable decisions. And we need to be reasonable and thoughtful on how we can shift the odds in our favor.

With the resurgence of the delta variant of COVID, our neighborhood once again has turned into a digital village of telecommuters. The bustling downtown area with shops and restaurants and bookstores is now almost empty. And thousands of workers who had been in a warren of cubicles and offices are, once again, shackled to their home offices with all sorts of technical gadgets.

Several months ago just when we thought that COVID-19 was contained and we could get back to life as we knew it, the delta variant ripped through our lives. Turn back the clock and now we are faced with one of the most contagious and transmissible viruses that continues to threaten every dimension of life. And at the same time there is the concern that the immunity against the virus, which was highest within several weeks after being vaccinated, is now slowly deteriorating and this is the basis of the discussion about a booster shot.

Those are the critical numbers. Yet we humans are not simply a number. Life is not a football game. Death and disability from COVID remain very real. But in this game, COVID wins.

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