Confusing Data and False Narratives: How the Death Rate for COVID-19 is Changing

There’s been a lot of discussion lately over the severity of COVID-19. President Trump recently claimed that the U.S. has one of the lowest coronavirus mortality rates in the world, saying that around “99% of cases are harmless,” which was met with a lot of outrage from health experts.

The mortality rate represents the number of coronavirus-related deaths compared to the overall population. According to John Hopkins University, we’re actually looking at a mortality rate of 39.82 deaths per 100,000 people. However, this number could be much higher as states continue investigating non-virus-related deaths to see if they were caused by the pandemic.

In reality, the U.S. currently has one of the highest mortality rates in the world, but the average age of those getting infected is trending down, which means these patients are much more likely to survive from the virus than those past the age of retirement. Elected officials are seizing this new narrative to promote the idea that the coronavirus is fairly mild, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to go out and celebrate.

Estimating the Mortality Rate

Scientists have been looking at two important numbers throughout the pandemic: the mortality rate and the case-fatality rate. The latter refers to the percentage of people who die once they have been diagnosed with COVID-19. It does not include those who were never tested. Currently, we are looking at a case-fatality rate of 4.4%, still one of the highest in the world.

The President and his allies dispute these numbers. If more people have the virus than we realize because they haven’t been tested, we could be looking at a much lower mortality rate.

Many countries have conducted extensive studies on the death rate, and most seem to teeter between 1 and 0.5%, which means, on average, 5 to 10 people will die out of 10,000 people.

Infectious disease experts say these numbers are usually misleading at best. For one, these numbers are constantly changing as states and counties update their records. These statistics only provide a snapshot of the pandemic at a specific moment in time.

The average age of those getting infected has dropped dramatically over the last few months. In April and March, most Americans who were newly diagnosed were in their 50s and 60s. As the pandemic spreads across the south and young people continue to go out and celebrate, the median age has dropped about 15 years, now mostly affecting those in their late 30s and early 40s.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently celebrated the news, saying he is grateful the virus is infecting those with a better chance of survival. But that doesn’t mean younger people are in the clear. During a recent press conference, he praised seniors in the state for being diligent about their health, while admitting there’s only so much he can do to curb the spread among younger generations. “They’re younger people. They’re going to do what they’re going to do,” DeSantis said.

How Does This Compare to Other Diseases?

Those who believe the coronavirus is nothing to worry about like to compare it to other infectious diseases and illnesses.

So far, the coronavirus has killed at least 544,536 people across the globe, but the World Health Organization estimates that influenza kills between 290,000 to 650,000 people every year.

Chronic illness runs rampant in the U.S. According to the CDC, heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the country, killing around 647,457 people every year. Meanwhile, cancer kills around 599,108 every year.

Setting the Story Straight

Even though most young people will likely survive COVID-19, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the virus, including how it affects young people and the long-term consequences of infection.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease scientist in the world, recently told reporters in Alabama, another major hotspot, “It’s a false narrative to take comfort in a lower rate of death. There’s so many other things that are very dangerous and bad about this virus, don’t get yourself into false complacency.”

The narrative around the pandemic will likely change as we collect new data on the numbers of cases and deaths, but we are still a long way from having this disease under control. Even if your patients will likely survive, urge them to not panic over numbers, stay safe, and protect others from infection.

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