Baseball Season, Our Distorted View of COVID-19, and What the Facts Tell Us

COMMENTARY Public Health

Baseball Season, Our Distorted View of COVID-19, and What the Facts Tell Us

Aug 6th, 2020 3 min read

Commentary By

Doug Badger

Visiting Fellow, Domestic Policy Studies

Norbert J. Michel, Ph.D. @norbertjmichel

Director, Center for Data Analysis

The Philadelphia Phillies celebrate their win after defeating the New York Yankees in Game One of the doubleheader at Citizens Bank Park on August 5, 2020. Mitchell Leff / Contributor / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

If you’re not convinced that Americans have been sold a distorted view of COVID-19 risk, consider Major League Baseball.

Government officials stubbornly have promoted uniform policies of widespread lockdowns, shunning policies tailored to the age-related risk disparities of COVID-19.

Major League Baseball so far has resisted demands to cancel its season, preserving the hope that reason may yet prevail in our pandemic response.

If you’re not convinced that Americans have been sold a distorted view of COVID-19 risk, consider Major League Baseball.

Most of the league’s players are among the 46 million Americans between ages 25 and 34. A total of 992 people in this age group have died with COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a mortality rate of 2 per 100,000.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 5,569 people between 25 and 34 died in traffic accidents in 2018, suggesting that a pro baseball player is more likely to die in a bus accident on the way to a game than because of the coronavirus.

Players are tested frequently. Those who test positive are isolated. Those with whom they’ve come into contact also are tested.

Major League Baseball’s COVID-19 manual runs 101 pages and sets forth excruciatingly detailed rules (for example: no spitting, no high-fiving, no sharing rosin bags).

And yet MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is facing calls to cancel the season because some players have tested positive for the illness despite these extraordinary precautions.

COVID-19 is a highly contagious disease. It spreads rapidly, even in communities under lockdown orders and in major league clubhouses, where strict rules prevail. We can’t eliminate the risk of infection.

But although everyone is at roughly equal risk of infection, not everyone is at equal risk of serious illness or death with COVID-19.

COVID-19 is a serious disease primarily for the elderly, especially those in nursing homes, and those with certain medical conditions.

Younger people have gotten seriously ill from the disease and some have died, but the consequences of infection are vastly different for a 75-year-old than for a 25-year-old or a 15-year-old or a 5-year-old.

Consider these data points from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Those under 45 (58% of the U.S. population) account for less than 3% of coronavirus deaths.
  • Those under 35 (45% of the population) account for less than 1% of coronavirus deaths.
  • Children under 15 (31% of the population) account for 0.03% (3 per 10,000) of coronavirus deaths.
  • More than 12,500 children have died so far this year; 99.7% of them from something other than COVID-19.

Although the picture is not so bleak for younger people, it is very different for seniors, especially those living in nursing homes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, as of July 25, those 65 and older had accounted for 80% of COVID-19 deaths, although they make up less than 17% of the U.S. population. COVID-19 accounted for nearly 10% of all deaths among the elderly, making it one of the leading causes of death among those 65 and older.

Most of these deaths occurred among nursing home residents. Indeed, the majority of all COVID-19 deaths are among nursing home residents, according Phil Kerpen of American Commitment, who publishes a daily online tally of COVID-19-related deaths in nursing facilities.

For whatever reason, most public officials and news outlets seem incapable of distinguishing between the risk of getting infected—which affects all age groups more or less equally—and the risk of serious illness and death—which is predominantly a problem among the elderly.

Not only has this failure needlessly created widespread panic, but it has slowed, and sometimes prevented, the provision of more targeted public health interventions needed by those most at risk.

A recent study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists concluded that targeting interventions to those most at risk is the optimal policy approach:

We find that optimal policies differentially targeting risk/age groups significantly outperform optimal uniform policies, and most of the gains can be realized by having stricter lockdown policies on the oldest group. … Targeted policies that are combined with measures that reduce interactions between groups and increase testing and isolation of the infected can minimize both economic losses and deaths in our model.

Government officials stubbornly have promoted uniform policies of widespread lockdowns, shunning policies tailored to the age-related risk disparities of COVID-19. They have perpetrated a distorted view of COVID-19 risk on tens of millions of Americans, stoking a climate of fear instead of rationality.

Major League Baseball so far has resisted demands to cancel its season, preserving the hope that reason may yet prevail in our pandemic response.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal