To live with reasonable freedom, will we accept a certain number of COVID-19 deaths?

How many COVID-19 deaths each year are we willing to tolerate as a society?

That may be a question we don’t want to answer, but we need to think about it. It’s much more than an academic exercise.

We obviously don’t want to tolerate any deaths. We want to eradicate the disease. Perhaps we will. It’s quite certain that an effective vaccine will be produced, and better treatments will be developed for those who contract the virus.

But we haven’t yet eradicated the common flu, despite vaccines and therapeutics, despite the miracles of modern medicine. In Utah, well over 300 people die each year from the flu.

Some people are offended at even the thought of accepting a certain number of COVID-19 deaths. But every day we tolerate deaths that would be preventable if we took sufficiently draconian measures.

For example, Utah is on pace for more than 280 traffic fatalities this year, virtually all of them preventable if we were to reduce speed limits to 20 mph and build cars like tanks. But, as a society, we want to be mobile, drive fast, and buy affordable vehicles. We must work harder to eliminate all traffic deaths but, realistically, we tolerate a certain number. We get in our cars and drive, despite the risk.

Likewise, we tolerate a certain number of flu deaths and deaths from other diseases that would be preventable or less deadly if we adopted onerous restraints. We allow smoking, excess alcohol consumption, and lifestyles that contribute to preventable deaths. We build homes that burn down, live in floodplains, and some people jump out of airplanes and climb steep cliffs.

Obviously, in all of these things there is a balance. So what is the balance with COVID-19? Utah has suffered 672 deaths so far this year. Are we willing to go into lockdown, shut down schools, dramatically reduce interaction with other people, suffer job losses and economic decline, and mental health deterioration to prevent more, or all, deaths? Or is a return to some level of normalcy worth the risk of sickness and death?

A big factor is overwhelming our hospitals, of course. But, if the number of sick people stabilizes at some level, the medical community will adapt to deal with it.

What if the number of deaths rose to 1,000 people a year and stabilized there? Would you and I be willing to accept dramatic lifestyle restrictions to reduce that number?  Where is the balance?

Obviously, the right thing to do right now is to wear our masks, social distance, and follow the suggested and mandated health guidelines. As someone in the vulnerable category, I’m willing to do those things, and I hope everyone else will.

But if COVID ends up being like the flu, only deadlier, and it can’t be eradicated, we will eventually reach an equilibrium, a point where society continues to fight the disease, but also tolerates a certain level of disease and death so we can live without overbearing constraints. 

Just what that number is, I don’t know. And I hope we don’t have to find out.