As cases of coronavirus continue to climb and new deaths are reported each day in Kern County, it's easy to get lost in the numbers.
But here's one way to put them in perspective: COVID-19 has now claimed as many lives in three months as valley fever has over a five-year period, according to available data. So far 51 people have died from coronavirus in Kern County, while 52 people died from valley fever in the years 2014 through 2018.
Or put another way, the number of COVID-19 deaths so far is equal to about half the number of the 90 homicides Kern saw last year, and about one-third the number of the county's average annual deaths from traffic accidents, which is about 160.
In terms of diagnosed cases, the number of COVID-19 cases reported since early March is now equal to the 2,937 valley fever cases reported in Kern in 2018, which was the highest number in a single year since 1992. And the number of COVID-19 cases so far is about double the number of HIV/AIDS cases reported annually in recent years.
Comparing the coronavirus with valley fever or car crashes is not perfect. They're an apples to oranges comparison. But it does provide some sense of the reach and toll of COVID-19 since the first case was diagnosed in Kern in mid-March.
Valley fever and COVID-19 — both respiratory illnesses — vary in a couple of important ways, according to Kim Hernandez, lead epidemiologist and assistant director of the health services division of the Kern County Public Health Services Department.
"With valley fever, deaths are a little difficult (to track) because valley fever is not necessarily an acute illness, it’s kind of a chronic condition for many people. Someone may have had valley fever for many years," Hernandez said. By contrast, most people who contract COVID-19 and become ill will recover in a matter of weeks or in some cases die in a similar timeframe.
And the two diseases are transmitted differently, Hernandez said: Valley fever by exposure to dust containing fungal spores, which occurs seasonally, and COVID-19 through exposure to people.
Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist with UC Irvine, said valley fever deaths and cases in Kern are also impacted by the number of prisons here, which drives up the valley fever incidence.
Hernandez and Noymer said influenza would likely be a better illness to compare with COVID-19 but exact annual figures of flu deaths over the years at the county level are hard to come by.
The Kern County Public Health Services Department reports that 20 people have died from flu in Kern in the past 11 months, which is less than half the deaths from COVID-19 so far. However, the severity of flu can vary each year and a state report on county health shows that Kern averaged about 92 deaths per year in 2015, 2016 and 2017 from flu and pneumonia.