It is well known that COVID-19 is significantly more dangerous for older populations. Data from Michigan shows that about 83% of the deaths associated with the disease in 2020 were of people 65 or older. But how does the risk of dying from COVID-19 compare with other risks, especially for younger populations? Turns out that this risk is not different from others faced on a regular basis.
The chance of dying in a traffic accident in a given year, for example, is extremely low. State data shows that there is one fatality per 100 million miles traveled. Given the unprecedented and draconian policy response to this coronavirus outbreak, this next fact may come as a surprise: Most people in Michigan faced a similar or smaller risk of dying from COVID-19 in 2020 as they did from dying in a car accident.
The 6.9 million people in Michigan who are under 55, about 69% of the state’s population, had a 0.009% chance of dying in a motor vehicle crash in 2019. Their chance of dying from COVID-19 in 2020 was 0.012%, a difference of just 0.003 percentage points. Another way of saying this is that 99.99% of people under 55 in Michigan, no matter their health condition, lived through the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 — nearly the same percentage that lived through all the traffic accidents in 2019.
For younger populations, car crashes were more deadly than COVID-19. For Michiganders under 45, the chance of dying in a car crash in 2019 was almost double that of dying from the coronavirus in 2020. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, 489 people under 45 died in car accidents, while 250 people in this age group died of COVID-19 last year.
People under 25 had an even smaller chance of dying from this new disease, measuring just 0.0005%, or 1 in about 180,000. The risk of dying in a car crash in 2019 for this same group was 0.006%, or 1 in about 17,000. This means that traffic accidents were about 11 times riskier for young people than COVID-19.
This data comes from traffic statistics published by the Michigan State Police and mortality data published by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The latter is provisional data that has not yet been made final, but it is unlikely to change in a significant way, especially in its tally of COVID-19 deaths.
For seniors, those 65 and older and 17% of the state’s population, the coronavirus is a much more serious threat than traffic accidents. In 2020, the chance of dying from COVID-19 for this population was 0.6%, or 24 times greater than the chance faced by those under 65. This scaled up with age, so those who faced the highest risk were 85 and older, and they had a 1.9% chance of dying from COVID-19 in 2020.
A key difference between traffic accidents and COVID-19 is that the latter presents a new risk of dying on top of all the others we are accustomed to. Taking precautions to reduce this risk is prudent, just as reducing the risk of dying in a car crash by wearing a seat belt and not texting while driving are smart things to do, too.
With this perspective in mind, the preventative measures Gov. Gretchen Whitmer subjected everyone to in response to COVID-19 seem disproportionate to their potential benefit. For most people, these policies could only reduce an already extremely low risk — a level of risk we’re obviously comfortable with since it is similar to what we face in our regular commutes. Yet Michiganders were forced to practically turn their lives upside down when the governor mandated lockdowns, business closures, prolonged school disruptions and more. Even if these policies reduced the probability of dying from COVID-19, this risk was so small for most of the population that the costs these policies imposed — their collateral damage — assuredly exceeded their potential benefits.
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