October 22, 2020 -- Deaths have fallen among hospitalized COVID-19 patients this year, which could indicate that doctors have a better understanding of how to treat the disease and that coronavirus mitigation strategies are working.
The decline happened across all patient groups, including older adults and people with underlying conditions, according to two peer-reviewed studies that will soon be published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine and Critical Care Medicine.
“We find that the death rate has gone down substantially,” Leora Horwitz, one of the study authors and a population health scientist at New York University, told NPR.
At the same time, the death rate is “still higher than many infectious diseases, including the flu,” she said. “It still has the potential to be very harmful in terms of long-term consequences for many people.”
Horwitz and colleagues looked at death rates among 5,000 hospitalized patients at NYU Langone Health from March to August. They found that mortality dropped 18 percentage points during that time. Patients had more than a 25% chance of dying at the beginning of the pandemic, which has decreased to about 7%.
The research team calculated for factors such as age and other diseases to determine whether the drop in deaths was related to the trend of younger, healthier people being diagnosed with COVID-19 later in the pandemic. They found that death rates have declined for all groups. An early version of the research appeared as a preprint in August and will be published next week.
In another study conducted in England, similar declines in death rates were observed among 21,000 hospitalizations between March and June. Mortality dropped by about 20 percentage points, including different ages, racial groups and underlying conditions. An early version of the research also appeared as a preprint in August and will be published soon.
“Clearly, there’s been something [that’s] gone on that’s improved the risk of individuals who go into these settings with COVID-19,” Bilal Mateen, one of the study authors and a data scientist at the Alan Turing Institute in the UK, told NPR.
Across the country, doctors and other health care professionals are noticing the signs of severe COVID-19 sooner and have developed standard treatments to help patients with blood clots and immune issues, NPR reported.
COVID-19 safety measures — such as social distancing and face masks — have likely also decreased the viral load that people encounter, which can reduce the severity of the disease, Horwitz and Mateen told NPR. Now researchers and public health officials are watching the surge in COVID-19 cases to understand coronavirus-related death rates for this fall and winter.
“I do think this is good news,” Horwitz said about the research. “But it does not make the coronavirus a benign illness.”