Understanding big numbers can be difficult. This is particularly true in a large country like the United States – over 330,000,000 residents – with a variety of contexts. Debates over COVID-19 numbers have been sharp as different approaches appeal to different numbers. To some degree, many potential social problems or public issues face this issue: how to use numbers (and other evidence) to convince people that action needs to be taken.
This week, the number of deaths in the United States due to COVID-19 approached the population of my suburban community of just over 53,000 residents. We are a mid-sized suburb; this is the second largest community in our county, the most populous suburban county in the Chicago region outside of Cook County. The community covers just over 11 square miles. Imagining an entire mid-sized suburb of COVID-19 deaths gives one pause. I had heard the comparison a week or two ago to the deaths matching the size of a good-sized indoor arena; thinking of an entire sizable community helps make sense of the number of deaths across the country.
Of course, there are other numbers to cite. Our community has relatively few cases – less than hundred as of a few days ago. Considering the Chicago suburbs: “If the Chicago suburbs were a state, it would have the 11th-highest COVID-19 death toll in the nation.” The COVID-19 cases and deaths are scattered throughout the United States, with clear hotspots in some places like New York City and fewer cases in other places. And so on.
Perhaps all of this means that we need medical experts alongside data experts in times like these. We need people well-versed in statistics and their implications to help inform the public and policymakers. Numbers are interpreted and used as part of arguments. Having a handle on the broad range of data, the different ways it can be interpreted (including what comparisons are useful to make), connecting the numbers to particular actions and policies, and communicating all of this clearly is a valuable skill set that can serve communities well.