Coronavirus death rates plummeting as infections shift to younger, healthier people

NEW YORK — As health officials fear a new wave in the coronavirus pandemic is starting, one study is delivering some optimism despite the lack of a vaccine. Researchers in New York say the death rate among COVID-19 patients is plummeting across the state. Much of this is due to a major shift in who is contracting the virus since the pandemic’s start.

A team from NYU Grossman School of Medicine finds the coronavirus death rate by mid-August among hospitalized patients had dropped by a stunning 24 percent; going from 27 percent in March to just three percent by the summer. One of the leading factors for the change is hospitals began seeing younger and healthier people becoming infected. These patients arrived with less severe symptoms than those hospitalized in the spring.

‘Our efforts to improve treatment are probably working’

Study authors say there’s more to the decline in deaths than just who’s getting sick. The report finds healthcare workers in recovering regions continue to gain more skill in treating COVID as cases keep pouring in.

Researchers say doctors have learned to rest COVID-19 patients on their stomachs instead of their backs to improve outcomes. Physicians are also delaying the use of ventilators as long as possible as they ease people through their symptoms. The study adds less virus exposure, earlier testing and treatment, and more effective drugs are all contributing to the turnaround in recovering regions.

“Our findings suggest that while COVID-19 remains a terrible disease, our efforts to improve treatment are probably working,” says study lead author Leora Horwitz of NYU Langone Health in a media release. “Even in the absence of a silver-bullet treatment or vaccine, we are protecting more of our patients through a host of small changes.”

Where are coronavirus death rates dropping most?

Researchers say New York isn’t alone in this population shift during the pandemic. The results point to lower death rates in southern and western regions of the United States. This is also being driven by a younger and healthier group of people contracting the virus.

The study examined over 5,200 cases on COVID-19 across NYU Langone hospitals in New York City and Long Island between March and August. On average, the likelihood of death fell by 22 percent among the most critically ill patients. The average age of a hospitalized coronavirus patient also dropped from 63 to 47 years-old.

Doctors are seeing fewer COVID patients with chronic conditions getting sick as well. In March, 73 percent of infected patients had pre-existing health problems such as diabetes and lung disease. That number dropped to 65 percent in mid-June.

“Other pandemic hotspots should take hope from the lessons learned here in New York,” study senior author Christopher Petrilli adds. “If we can do better at managing the disease, they can too.”

Researchers plan to expand their study beyond New York to explore the improving outlook in other areas of the country. Petrilli cautions that even though the death rate is falling, patients may still deal with fatigue, blood clots, and lung damage after they leave the hospital.

The study is scheduled to be published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine.

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