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  • Pauline Hoffmann

Covid, Pandemics, Vaccines...Part I

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

The podcast this week and next features Dr. Xiaoning Zhang, professor of biochemistry - back in a more serious role - talking about Covid, pandemics and vaccines. This week she discusses what Covid is, what makes a pandemic, what we can do to keep ourselves safe, among other things.

At the start of the pandemic, several colleagues and I, including Dr. Zhang, penned editorials for our local paper regarding Covid They were in response to another colleague who wrote an editorial noting that Covid was no big deal. We had to take action. To read those posts, please click the appropriate link below (they may be found on the Olean Times Herald website as well as my other website: PWHoffmann):

In the podcast, we discuss historic pandemics and I got some flack for calling the SARS-COV-1 outbreak of the early 2000's a pandemic. My source? I did own that it may not be the best source of information. The site does have a nice pandemic timeline, though. Since we recorded, I looked for additional information about SARS-COV-1. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a pandemic "is the worldwide spread of a new disease." The WHO further notes that SARS-COV-1 started in China and spread to four other countries before it was contained. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted that SARS-COV-1 started in China and spread to over a dozen countries on four continents before it was contained. (A bit of conflicting info.....) Does that make it a pandemic?

Several historic pandemics were believed to be bubonic plague. Dr. Zhang didn't know exactly what bubonic plague is and neither did we. According to WebMD, plague is caused by a bacteria (unlike the virus that causes other pandemics like Covid). Additionally, the bacteria that causes bubonic plague "causes buboes, which are very swollen and painful lymph nodes under the arms, in the neck, or in the groin. Without treatment, the bacteria can spread to other parts of the body." (Source: WebMD)

In our discussion of Covid, we reference influenza (the flu) since many people think Covid is no different from the flu. Both are respiratory ailments but one is considerably more dangerous than the other. The flu pandemic everyone wants to reference is the 1918 Flu Pandemic which killed 50 million people globally.

The flu is still with us. The CDC notes that "in the US in 2019-2020 there were anywhere between 39-56 million cases of the flu; 18-26 million of those resulted in a doctor visit; 410,000-740,000 resulted in hospitalization; 24,000-62,000 deaths." It is estimated that there have been 322,000 deaths due to flu in the past 10 years.

The Journal of Global Health notes that "until recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated the annual mortality burden of influenza to be 250,000 to 500,000 all-cause deaths globally; however, a 2017 study indicated a substantially higher mortality burden, at 290 000-650 000 influenza-associated deaths from respiratory causes alone, and a 2019 study estimated 99 000-200 000 deaths from lower respiratory tract infections directly caused by influenza."

Some historic pandemics killed up to a third of the world population. While numbers of deaths associated with the flu and Covid seem high, as a percentage of the world population, they are both below 1% - the flu well below 1%.

Early in the pandemic, Dr. Zhang shared two websites with us so that we may track the spread of Covid. I refer to them regularly myself and share them below. Listen to the podcast to see how best to use the data in these resources:

  • Johns Hopkins University and Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. I often click on Tracking and then Global Map to see how Covid is spreading. Play with the site, though. It's incredible!

  • Worldometers Covid Tracker. I use this site as a teaching tool. It's interesting to see the breadth of data shown. You can see that the U.S. leads the world in number of deaths, but what I really like about this site is that it shows you the number of deaths per 1 million population thereby quantifying the data in a better way. If you look at those figures, you will see that the U.S. falls to 15. You may click on the up/down arrows in the box marked "Deaths/1M Pop" to sort the table from high to low or vice versa.

Dr. Zhang also referenced the counties in New York State and how much of a risk each faces. Certainly counties in and near New York City are expected to have higher case numbers and deaths but she also noted that given the comorbidities (more than one disease or ailment a person has like diabetes and asthma, for example) in our area, as a percentage we may be at greater risk. Where can you play with data like this? is an excellent resource. A word of warning....if you are a data nerd like me, you will get lost on this site. Tell your family not to wait for you for dinner.....

When talking about something as serious as a pandemic, it's important to make sure your sources are good. I spent considerable time, as did Dr. Zhang, making sure the sources used throughout this post and on the podcast are accurate and appropriate. For more information about how to determine if sources are solid, listen to Episode One and read the associated blog post. Also, look for an upcoming Data Doyenne class addressing this issue!

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