By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Even as the media warn of a winter explosion of new coronavirus cases and presumably deaths, there is conflicting – and confusing – evidence of a simultaneous decline in mortality from the COVID-19 disease.
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For instance, two new peer-reviewed studies “are showing a sharp drop in mortality among hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The drop is seen in all groups, including older patients and those with underlying conditions, suggesting that physicians are getting better at helping patients survive their illness.”
“We find that the death rate has gone down substantially,” Dr. Leora Horwitz, who studies population health at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine and author of one of the studies, recently told Geoff Brumfield of National Public Radio.
Mortality Has Dropped among Hospitalized Patients by 18% Since the Coronavirus Pandemic Began
The study of a single health system looked at thousands of patients from March to August. It found that “mortality has dropped among hospitalized patients by 18 percentage points since the pandemic began. Patients in the study had a 25.6% chance of dying at the start of the pandemic; they now have a 7.6% chance.”
Horwitz and her colleagues adjusted the research to include age and other disease factors, such as diabetes. The idea was to rule out the possibility that the numbers had dropped only because younger, healthier people were getting diagnosed. However, they found that death rates dropped for all groups, even older patients by 18 percentage points on average.
The death rate “is still higher than many infectious diseases, including the flu,” Horwitz noted. And those who recover can suffer complications for months or even longer. “It still has the potential to be very harmful in terms of long-term consequences for many people,” she added.
Research in the UK Also Found a Similarly Sharp Drop in the Death Rate
And the mortality decline was not confined to the U.S. NPR’s Brumfield cites the findings of Bilal Mateen, a data science fellow at the Alan Turing Institute in Britain. “He has conducted his own research of 21,000 hospitalized cases in England, which also found a similarly sharp drop in the death rate.”
These findings stand in sharp relief to the sudden surge of new coronavirus cases across the U.S.
The country has averaged at least 71,000 new coronavirus cases a day over the past week, the most in any seven-day stretch of the pandemic, The New York Times reported Tuesday. At least 14 states have a record number of coronavirus hospitalizations.
“More than 41,000 people are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus in the United States, a 40 percent rise in the past month, and cooler weather that pushes more people indoors is threatening to expand the outbreak still more,” The Times said.
As of Sunday, October 26, there were 8.6 million cases of coronavirus in the U.S., bolstered by 62,315 new cases on Sunday, as reported by the COVID Tracking Project. That was an increase of 6% over the past seven days.
Dr. Anthony Fauci Says the US ‘Is Facing a Whole Lot of Trouble’
The United States is “facing a whole lot of trouble” as coronavirus cases continue to surge across the country heading into the cold winter months, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNBC on Monday. Dr. Fauci also serves on the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
He noted that the percentage of tests coming back positive, or the test-positivity rate, is on the rise across states in the Midwest and Northwest especially.
That figure is seen as an early indicator of a growing outbreak that will lead to “more cases, and ultimately more hospitalizations, and ultimately more death,” Fauci said.
Colder Months Will Present Serious New Challenges in the Fight against COVID-19
The colder months will present serious new challenges in the fight against COVID-19, chief among them the arrival of flu season and the potential for high-risk indoor gatherings, Dasia Moore of the Boston Globe explained.
“The 1918 influenza pandemic claimed far more lives in fall and winter than in its initial springtime surge, and other coronaviruses tend to peak in cold months, suggesting this one might as well,” Moore wrote. “Preliminary studies have shown that in laboratory settings, lower temperatures allow the virus to linger longer on surfaces and in the air.”
Cold weather’s effect on this virus remains mostly largely unknown, despite its first appearance in December 2019.
“We’re seeing hospitalizations starting to climb. This is not where we want to be going into the winter,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, told Moore. “There is no single thing that can stop this,” Jha said.
His recommendations for moderating the spread of COVID-19 include ramping up contact tracing, imposing targeted restrictions on places found to be high-risk, and making plans to protect vulnerable populations, including the elderly, essential workers, and the homeless.
“Individuals can get flu shots, avoid indoor socializing, and take extra precautions like keeping the windows open when being inside with others is unavoidable,” Jha explained.
“This virus can be controlled, even in the winter,” insisted Dr. David Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a Boston University epidemiologist.
“If we were to intensify [social distancing], we could keep it under control.” Hamer told the Globe. Intensified measures could include lowering the limit on social gathering sizes as well as closing any high risk locations.
The official start of winter is still two months away. If state and municipal governments heed the advice of the epidemiologists and other public health officials, we may beat back the tide of the pandemic and emerge in the spring ready for the expected vaccine to ameliorate the lethal disease.