George Plumb: Covid-19 intensity tied to population density

Editor’s note: This commentary is by George Plumb of Washington, Vermont, who is a board member of Better (not bigger) Vermont and Buddhist Peace Action Vermont.

The Covid-19 pandemic is worldwide but there are many more cases in some areas than others. 

The primary reason is population density, the number of people living in the area per square mile. New York City, the U.S. epicenter of the epidemic, has a large population but also a very dense population as any visitor can tell. Similarly, Burlington is the epicenter of the epidemic for Vermont and it also has a very dense population. In stark contrast, the rural county of Essex has a very low density of population and therefore a very small number of people who have tested positive to date.

See the current Vermont data by town here.

The main reason that more people become infected in more densely populated areas is that prior to the “stay at home” and physical distancing orders, they were in closer contact with a lot more people as they live in crowded neighborhoods, ate out a lot in restaurants, worked in crowded situations, shopped in crowded stores, walked on crowded streets, rode in crowded buses or subways, and  attended events with lot of people. 

Despite the fact that people are staying home more, keeping their distance, and wearing masks, the infection is still spreading because it is very hard for people living in these dense areas not to come into some form of contact with others.

In comparing the data for the number of people testing positive and the number of people dying, while the total figure is important, an equally important figure is the rate per thousand people. This figure is not shown on the health websites but must be mathematically calculated. To see how to use the calculation go to the footnote. 

Covid-19 is not the first pandemic. We are not old enough to remember the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed 675,000 people. With a U.S. population of 103 million at that time, it was a death rate of 6.5 per thousand. Data from that epidemic also showed that it was more widespread in cities of greater density.

 According to an article in the Health Daily News on Oct. 16, 2018, regarding flu outbreaks: “The researchers found that epidemics in smaller cities were focused on a shorter period of the influenza season, while the incidence was more diffuse in larger cities.” And according to a CNN report on April 22, 2020: “A second coronavirus outbreak could emerge this winter in conjunction with the flu season to make for an even more dire health risk, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the Washington Post in an interview.”

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So, what does this mean for Vermont? Several experts in the past predicted the rise of infectious disease. In “Beyond Malthus,” published in 1999, the authors stated: “Increase in population number and densities will make the threat of infectious disease even more acute.” Now today’s experts are predicting that more epidemics are to come. Therefore, if we want to keep Vermont’s mortality rate from future epidemics as low as possible, we should not be encouraging more development and more population growth. Having a smaller Vermont population will certainly present many challenges but dealing with those challenges rather than more epidemics will be better for all of us.

While all the focus at the current time is on the Covid-19 epidemic we are ignoring an even more important issue, that of environmental destruction. A catastrophic loss in biodiversity, reckless plundering of wildland and warming temperatures have allowed disease to explode. Ignoring the connection between climate change and pandemics is a dangerous delusion.

As the young college student Margit Burgess wrote in a recent editorial: “We need to move to what is referred to as a steady state economy, an economy that uses the environmental resources in a sustainable way and that distributes wealth in an equitable manner. Such an economy will not only help to reduce the impacts of future epidemics it will also bring more income equality, help to maintain our quality of life, and protect the environment.”

The “stay at home” order for this pandemic has dramatically changed our lives and in terms of dealing with the even greater long-term catastrophe of global heating, has had a positive result. There is a lot less traffic on the roads and carbon emissions have dramatically gone down from that source. Ditto with planes in the sky; there are no contrails! People are reaching out more to neighbors. Early signs are that Vermonters are going to be growing more of their own food. This is all an indication that we can make major changes in our lifestyles and how we spend our money. Let us move to a new “normal” that is good for us as individuals, good for the economy, and good for the Earth and all life on it.


Here is how to calculate the rate per thousand. 

Suppose the area being studied had a population of 6,700 with 32 people being tested positive for Covid-19. Then start with:

32/6,700 = .005  
Then .005 x 1,000 = 5
The number of people testing positive then is 5 per thousand.


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