If you’re looking for a silver lining in the middle of a rather blue holiday season, let me take a moment to remind you of one thing we can all be grateful for: Even as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are soaring across the U.S., we have yet to see the death rate increase significantly.
Of course, by the time you’re reading this, the situation could have already changed. So keep in mind that I’m not talking about the absolute numbers of those who have died—just the proportion of deaths relative to the total number of total cases.
As of this writing, at least—and as I shared with you last month—the COVID-19 mortality rate in the U.S. has actually fallen since the pandemic started back in the spring. And while experts don’t quite know what to make of this trend, they do have some theories…
Young patients tip the balance
Last month, I focused on one key factor, which is the fact that we’ve clearly gotten better at identifying and treating critically ill patients. (Which is to be expected—remember, we knew absolutely nothing about the novel coronavirus when it gripped the world more than nine months ago now.)
But that’s not the only part of this equation that has changed since the spring. Indeed, we also saw higher rates of infection among younger members of the population.
Between June and August, the age group with the highest incidence of COVID-19 was 20- to 29-year-olds. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the median age of patients with the virus dropped a full eight years, from 46 to 38, within the same time frame.
It’s no secret that younger people generally fare better against this illness. Researchers have pegged the fatality rate at a rock bottom .002 percent at age ten, and only 0.1 percent at age 25. But that rate climbs as high as 15 percent by the age of 85.
That said, studies show that mortality rates decreased among the older population, too. In fact, in an NYU study of more than 5,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, researchers noted a steep drop in mortality rates—from 26 percent to 8 percent—from March to August.
This helps speak to my original point—which is that whenever a new illness pops up in a population, the most vulnerable are always bound to succumb to it first. But as time goes on, we can (and do) learn more about prevention and treatment.
We are all at risk
Another major factor behind low mortality rates—and arguably, the most important one to keep in mind as we attempt to surf a second tsunami of infection—is less overcrowding in hospitals.
Of course, I probably don’t need to point out that this advantage is rapidly starting to decrease.
The cold, hard truth is that overburdened hospitals lead to more deaths. Period. And as the NYU doctor heading up this research pointed out, the crowded hospitals we saw at the beginning of the pandemic absolutely deepened the crisis. And they’re threatening to do so again.
Right now, New York hospitals are not overwhelmed. But the same cannot be said for other parts of the country. And winter (and cold and flu season) has only just begun.
To make matters worse, we can’t send healthcare workers out to the hardest hit areas, because everywhere is quickly becoming a hard–hit area! Sadly, the entire nation is on its way to being overwhelmed.
As cases continue to rise across the country, we’ll see more people of all ages die. (Yes, even the young ones. One study pegged COVID-19 as the leading cause of death in people aged 25 to 44 years.)
In other words, we are ALL at risk—some of us more than others. So let me reiterate this, once again: We are not out of the woods yet. And despite the vaccines on the horizon, it is still going to be a long road.
The lower death rate does not mean the virus has changed. Rather, it means we are doing our parts—learning and growing as a society.
We brought the mortality rate down together. Now, we just need to keep it up for a bit longer. In the meantime, continue wearing your mask, practice social distancing and good hygiene, avoid large crowds, and support your immune system. (To learn more about my top immune health recommendations, I encourage you to check out my Complete Guide to Year-Round Immunity.)
“Here’s Why COVID-19 Mortality Has Dropped.” MedPage Today, 11/17/2020. (medpagetoday.com/infectiousdisease/covid19/89750)