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'Listen to the data, look at trends': Dr. Bob Lutz explains importance of some COVID-19 numbers

With more than 5 million confirmed infections and more than 160,000 American deaths, there’s no doubt a huge part of the pandemic has been about the numbers.

SPOKANE, Wash. — When it comes to the numbers related to coronavirus, Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said some are more important than others when it comes to what’s happening in communities.

With more than 5 million confirmed infections and more than 160,000 American deaths as of Thursday, there’s no doubt a huge part of the pandemic has been about the numbers. Lutz said not all numbers matter.

For example, you may have seen that Spokane has about 1,500 available hospital beds. While that is true, the bed isn’t the part that matters. It is the specialized equipment to treat the patient in the bed and the trained healthcare workers who care for them.

“Yeah, that's really a useless metric for the most part,” Lutz said. “I mean, it does give you some reflection on capacity, because it's a moving target. A bed is just that, it's a physical structure. A lot of people get really stuck on some of those numbers that, really, in the grand scheme, are not very useful.”

Lutz spoke with KREM’s Whitney Ward to answer questions about the numbers and other concerns about the pandemic.

Ward: Way back when this first started, the goal in shutting everything down was to keep from stressing the hospital system. How do we know when we're starting to stress the system? If it's not about available hospital beds, what is it about?

Lutz: You really have to understand who's in there, why they're in there, how long they have been in there. It's much more complex than I think people can fully appreciate and understand. We are seeing that COVID-19 is not just a respiratory illness. It is truly multi-system, anywhere from the brain to the heart to the lungs to the kidneys, which has made caring for these individuals much more complicated.

Ward: What do you say to those people who keep comparing this to the flu and that we just need to let it run its course?

Lutz: Well it's not the flu. If you look in this country right now, Whitney, we have more than 150,000 who have succumbed to COVID-19. The average flu year is between 25,000-65,000 give or take, and that's from October to April/May. So, we've surpassed that in many, many ways already.

Ward: Will there be another surge, just like the one we're seeing right now, when that mask mandate is relaxed again?

Lutz: The assumption is that masking mandate is going to be relaxed. I honestly don't see it. I honestly think that's an assumption, I really do believe, Whitney, the only way we're going to be able to get through this is if the interventions we are recommending right now, the physical distancing, the masking, the washing your hands, staying home when you're ill. I don't see it changing.

Ward: Have you been more worried about the fact that we are so close to another state that is handling things very differently?

Lutz: Oh, it's been a concern for many, many months. I've heard from many people, who say they go to Idaho, or they like to go there because the restrictions aren't in place. Unfortunately, COVID-19 doesn't recognize restrictions. What it recognizes is opportunities to infect people.

Ward: Does it weigh on you emotionally?

Lutz: Yeah, I won't get verklempt, I promise. But no, it's a heavy burden. Pure and simple. And it's disappointing that we find ourselves here, this far into this. Right now, the recent data has been encouraging, that maybe we're seeing a plateauing. That's encouraging. We could take that message and say, 'Things are changing, we're over the hump. we're flattening the curve. Now we can relax.' We can't do that. We need to really control this pandemic to get our lives back to some semblance of order. And what that means is to listen to the data, look at trends. Because that's what we're looking at.