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Are fewer people dying now from COVID-19 than they were at the beginning of the pandemic?

percentage of people who die from covid
Photo via Hospital CLINIC/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

The mortality rate from COVID-19 has dropped in recent weeks, despite a record number of new cases in November. Speculation is swirling about the cause of this shift, but experts warn it may not last. Eight months into the pandemic, the percentage of people who die from COVID-19 had been reduced, but that could certainly change.

When the pandemic first struck the U.S. in March, the mortality rate was between 2- 3%, according to the Washington Post. Early reports from China put the mortality rate at closer to 7%. Elderly and high-risk populations were the hardest hit initially, leading to a sharp rise in deaths. As the U.S. enters its ninth month of staggered lockdowns and careful social distancing, this population is at far less risk. Most people who are considered high-risk are well versed, by this point, in mask-wearing, social distancing, and avoiding large crowds.

These days, a far younger portion of the U.S. population is making up the vast majority of the COVID-19 case count. Young people tend to be far less vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, leading to milder cases and a far greater chance of recovery. A number of antiviral treatments and steroids have also become available, and they’ve proven effective in treating the coronavirus. 

Larger-scale testing has also contributed to the downward shift in death rates. As the U.S. tests more broadly, there’s a greater pool of data to pull from, instead of only recording the worst cases. The current mortality rate, based on reported cases, is 2.5%, according to Johns Hopkins. The CDC estimates this percentage would be far lower if it included people who are infected but unaware. Asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 are very common, and if those cases were included, the CDC predicts the mortality rate would be closer to 0.65%.

Expansive mask wearing and social distancing are also likely contributors. Experts believe those falling ill may be coming into contact with less of the virus, thanks to masks and distancing, and are therefore becoming less ill. 

The U.S. still has a higher death rate, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. A study published in October compared the U.S. death rates over the previous five months to those of 18 other countries with populations of above 5 million. The data is considered “all-cause,” which allows it to take into account unconfirmed deaths that may have been caused by COVID-19 as well as those that occurred due to overcrowded hospitals or people avoiding hospital care. 

Overall deaths in the U.S. in 2020 are more than 85% higher than those in places like Germany, Denmark, and Israel, adjusting for population size, according to NPR. Considering only COVID-19 deaths and no potentially connected deaths, the U.S. mortality rate is still an average of 50% higher than every other country in the study. 

Since June 7, the rate of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. is 27.2 per 100,000 people. In Italy, where the death toll was initially devastating, the rate has lowered to 3.1 per 100,000.

Even if death rates were lowering substantially, it wouldn’t be cause to ease protective measures just yet. The case count in the U.S. set a new record on Nov. 3-5, surpassing 100,000 new cases in a single day for three-straight days. No other country has experienced that many cases in a single day. Until Americans have a far better grasp on this deadly pandemic, every citizen must do their part in washing their hands, wearing a mask, and keeping socially distanced wherever possible. 

Sources: Washington Post, Johns Hopkins, NPR, StatNews


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