All I needed to know about the coronavirus I learned in 4th grade

Poor us. We’re bombarded with numbers on a daily basis. Remembering our numerators, and especially our denominators, would help.

A CHILD plays in New York City during the pandemic (photo credit: REUTERS)
A CHILD plays in New York City during the pandemic
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 1970, I was a fourth-grader at an elementary school in Brooklyn. I was an average student but for one week I excelled. That was the week we learned about fractions.
Mrs. Miltz, a biddy of a teacher, made the whole thing come to life by introducing the topic as “pizza-math” and explaining that nine-year-olds who know how to intuitively divide up the slices of a savory pie among themselves already “get it.” It all made sense.
Half-a-century later, we’re all trying to make sense out of this corona pandemic. Poor us. We’re bombarded with numbers on a daily basis.  Remembering our numerators, and especially our denominators, would help.
It would help to remember how many people live in Italy, Spain or Iceland when their death tolls are flashed on our screens. More importantly, it would help to know how many US citizens are infected before we hear how many died from the disease in America. Case fatality rates are critical.
When trying to decipher the value of a swab test as opposed to an antibody assay for Covid-19, it would be nice to get a refresher on the distinction between a test’s sensitivity (the ability of a test to correctly identify the percentage with the disease) and specificity (the ability of the test to correctly identify those without it). Ditto for terms like “false positive” and “false negative” rates.
I say this not only because, like Mrs. Miltz, I know we can handle it. I say this because it would give us a sense of proportionality. It would provide perspective.
These days, putting things in perspective is crucial in two areas. First, planning for re-opening the economy.
As decision-makers grapple with the lifting of stay-at-home orders, we must all be aware that a price will be paid in terms of life lost. We never want to embrace measures that guarantee a loss of life but at least we can examine precedents, such as speed limits on our highways.
As a society, when we decide that certain roads can have maximum speeds that exceed 100 kilometers per hour, we may not want to admit it, but we are acknowledging that there will be more motor vehicle accidents and therefore more human road kill. However, when establishing basic traffic safety rules, we are also adult enough to admit that a numerator of zero is not attainable even with speed limits well below 100 KPH.
Perhaps more significant, now and after the current pandemic, is the need to know how many people are unwilling to be connected to a respirator. If most of us would take the time to reflect on advance care planning, we would realize that we can easily draw lines when it comes to being mechanically ventilated (e.g., for how long the patient will be intubated and what is the probability that he or she will ever come “off the vent”).
Knowing such data would allow policy-makers at hospitals and in government to arrive at better modeling for the triage of medical resources, given the limitations on the capacity of the healthcare system. One of the true silver linings of the coronavirus era would be availing ourselves of the many user-friendly online tools for clarifying end-of-life preferences, writing wills, and signing advanced directives.
Many of us are afraid of numbers to begin with. If we add those worries to our fears of a lethal virus, we can quickly understand why restoring numerical context is essential.
I hope we find our way out of this pandemic for many reasons, not the least of which being that today’s fourth-graders need to get back to school soon.                                                                        
The writer is a professor of oncology and the founder of the NGO Life’s Door.