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Expert recommends relating statistics and familiar concepts to understand COVID death totals

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COVID-19 coronavirus deaths

MADISON (WKOW) -- The United States is set to mark 400,000 deaths due to COVID-19 about a month after recording 300,000 deaths.

Ten percent of all American COVID deaths have been reported in the past 11 days, according to data from the New York Times and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Dr. Ajay Sethi, an infectious diseases expert from UW-Madison, said it doesn't look like the pace for new deaths will slow down any time soon.

"[With] our current trajectory, we're gonna be at about half a million deaths in the United States a little after Valentine's Day," he said.

The numbers are increasing quickly because of the way the virus spreads, according to Dr. Oguz Alagoz, a professor at UW-Madison who models the spread of infectious diseases.

"Infectious diseases always multiply exponentially," he said. "Every person who is infected is going to infect multiple people, and they're gonna infect multiple people. So the impact is like a snowball. It's just getting bigger and bigger every time."

In recent weeks, the country has frequently recorded more than 4,000 deaths per day.

"It's like more than 9/11 pretty much every day," Alagoz said.

But Dr. Dominique Brossard, a science communication expert at UW-Madison, said the climbing number of deaths isn't resonating with people as much. She said this has to do with the way our brains are wired.

"We do not tend to process numbers the same way we process other types of information that evoke emotions," she said.

Plus, she said people can become numb to information they frequently see.

"Just by being exposed again and again, day after day to something, you get used to it and it becomes a new normal," she said.

Even though large statistics can be difficult to grasp, Brossard said relating them to familiar concepts can make understanding them easier.

Based on the most recent numbers, about one out every 1,000 Americans has died from COVID-19.

Brossard tied this statistic to the capacity of Lambeau Field.

"Think about 80,000 people in Lambeau Field," she said. "That means there would be 80 people dead at the end of the game. Imagine how people would feel if they knew they were going to the game and, at the end of the game, 80 random people died."

Even though coming to terms with the gravity of deaths during the pandemic can be hard, Brossard said it's important to remember the numbers represent people who left loved ones behind.

And Sethi said it's critical for everyone to maintain virus precautions because the death toll would be higher without any mitigation strategies.

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Caroline Dade

Reporter/Multimedia Journalist, 27 News

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