What’s the Message, Here?

The average age of death from COVID in Alberta is 83, and I remind the House that the average life expectancy in the province is age 82. – Premier Jason Kenney, May 27th 2020.

That really caught my ear, when it came across the local news. What the hell is our Premier saying, that the elderly are expendable? It was so outrageous, I wanted to dig into it further and get the full context. The original news report I heard only had that one sentence, though, so I did a bit of research. I couldn’t find an unedited clip of his speech, but I did find a clip with one extra sentence in place.

Mr. Speaker, it is critical as we move forward, that we focus our efforts on the most vulnerable; on the elderly, and the immuno-compromised. The average age of death from COVID in Alberta is 83, and I remind the House that the average life expectancy in the province is age 82. – also Premier Jason Kenney, May 27th 2020.

That radically changes the meaning, doesn’t it? Still, I have to point out I’m getting mixed messages here.

The summary from Alberta's COVID-19 statistics page, on May 12th and 13th.

On May 13th, the official website for Alberta’s COVID-19 statistics went through a minor revamp. The gender ratio of people who have COVID-19 was bumped in favour of the average age of death, even though the former is of much more medical interest. It also comes in the context of US politicians and world leaders arguing that old people were expendable and the health impacts of COVID-19 are secondary to the economic impacts. Even if Kenney himself wasn’t making the “let the elderly die” argument on the 27th, someone in his government seems to think it is sound.

While that soundbite had me hopping mad, now that I’ve had a moment to reflect I’m far angrier about the rest of his speech.

We are learning more about this disease as we go through it. And what we are learning is that younger people – while not completely immune – have a rate of mortality related to COVID that is no higher than their mortality rate for other illnesses. For most Albertans, the risk of death from other pathogens, accidents, and traffic fatalities is actually higher than it is from COVID. There will be more infections, there will be more outbreaks, there will be clusters, there will be more hospitalizations, and sadly there will be more COVID-related deaths. But as we learn more about this, Mr. Speaker, I challenge our public health experts and our officials to ensure that our policy response is predicated on protecting the vulnerable in the strongest and the most discrete ways possible, because we cannot continue indefinitely to impair the social and economic – as well as the mental health and physiological health of the broader population – for potentially a year, through measures for an influenza that does generally threaten life apart from the most elderly, the immuno-compromised, and those with co-morbidities. – still Premier Jason Kenney, May 27th 2020.

In 2018 Alberta, 1,922 people died in traffic accidents, whereas in 2020 (so far) 143 people have died from COVID-19. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? But how many of Alberta’s 4.3 million people took a trip in a car during 2018? Roughly 4.3 million. How many Albertans have had COVID-19? Roughly 7,000. The risk of dying from COVID-19 is lower than the risk of dying in a traffic accident only because the risk of catching COVID-19 is currently low. If we applied COVID-19’s fatality rate of 2% to vehicle trips, and we ballpark that 5% of Alberta’s population drives on any given day, then after one year 1.3 million Albertans would be dead! Conversely, if Alberta had a much larger outbreak and matched New York’s crude mortality rate of 0.28%, then at least 9,890 Albertans would be dead from COVID-19, five times the total from traffic accidents.

Since we’re on the subject of automobile accidents, in 2018 an average of 1.42 US-ians died per 10,000 motor vehicles. In 1913, that number was a whopping 33.38 per 10,000. Does this mean that we’re justified in rolling back safety features like seatbelts, airbags, and crumple zones, to reduce the cost of cars? Of course not! Those safety features are the main reason why that stat has improved. And yet, here’s our Premier arguing that because public health measures have been effective in reducing mortality due to COVID-19, we should consider removing those public health measures.

As we have cars, people will die from car accidents. Automation isn’t going to change that. So should we stop sending ambulances out to motor vehicle accidents, if death is inevitable? No way! What kind of lousy society turns its backs on those in need, because that need can never be eliminated? This is why we do everything reasonable to reduce illness due to pathogens, from providing vaccinations to doing health inspections to developing effective treatments. Since COVID-19 is so new, we don’t have any of those and thus until they arrive our only way to protect one another is via social distancing and other crude measures.

Flu doesn’t have that much impact on the general population, for instance take this graph from Alberta’s report on the 2017-2018 flu season.

Flu rate per type and age group, Alberta, 2017-2018.So why are we giving everyone a flu shot in Alberta, free of charge, when we could save millions of dollars by just giving those flu shots to the elderly? Because the elderly don’t just hang around their age group. Their children and grand-children come to visit, and the support staff that care for them don’t live in the same building. The general population can incubate the flu, as they aren’t nearly as badly effected, and spread the disease to populations who are more vulnerable. The more prevalent the disease is in the general population, the more likely an outbreak is to happen among the vulnerable population and the more deaths will result. Even vaccination isn’t a silver bullet, as some people can’t be vaccinated or don’t gain immunity from it. Hence why it’s important to minimize the total number infected and establish herd immunity. If there’s no vaccine, we can still establish something like herd immunity through health measures applied to the entire population.

In the span of a few sentences, our Premier equivocated between total fatalities and the fatality rate; argued that because public health measures have protected us from a deadly COVID-19 outbreak, COVID-19 cannot be a deadly outbreak; that because some event is inevitable, we should do nothing to limit its impact; and misrepresented health measures put in place to protect vulnerable populations. That was an astounding display of ignorance, despite Kenney have access to the best public health officials in the province for months and watching his peers get roasted for poor communication, let alone misinformation.

The overall message seems to be that our lives are in the hands of someone who either hasn’t put much effort into understanding the situation, or cares more about building pipelines during a pandemic than protecting the public that voted him into office.