COVID-19 death rates are witnessing a big drop and not just among the young and healthy, partly because of improvements in treatment, researchers say.

Iran Press/America: More hospitalized patients are surviving than early in the pandemic. Improved treatments make a big difference, but so does flattening the curve to keep hospitals from overfilling, researchers say.

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, NPR reported.

"We find that the death rate has gone down substantially," says Leora Horwitz, a doctor who studies population health at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine and an author on one of the studies, which looked at thousands of patients from March to August.

The study, which was of a single health system, finds 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.

That's a big improvement, but 7.6% is still a high risk compared with other diseases, and Horwitz and other researchers caution that COVID-19 remains dangerous.

The death rate "is still higher than many infectious diseases, including the flu," Horwitz says. 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."

Studying changes in death rate is tricky because although the overall US death rate for COVID-19 seems to be dropping, the drop coincides with a change in whom the disease is sickening.

"The people who are getting hospitalized now tend to be much younger, tend to have fewer other diseases and tend to be less frail than people who were hospitalized in the early days of the epidemic," Horwitz says.

Bilal Mateen, a data science fellow at the Alan Turing Institute in the United Kingdom has conducted another research on 21,000 hospitalized cases in England, which also found a similarly sharp drop in the death rate.

Mateen says drops are clear across ages, underlying conditions and racial groups. Although the paper does not provide adjusted mortality statistics, his rough estimates are comparable to those Horwitz and her team found in New York.

"Clearly, there's been something [that's] gone on that's improved the risk of individuals who go into these settings with COVID-19," he says.

Horwitz and others believe many things have led to the drop in the death rate. "All of the above is often the right answer in medicine, and I think that's the case here, too," she says.

Doctors have gotten better at quickly recognizing when COVID-19 patients are at risk of experiencing blood clots or debilitating "cytokine storms," where the body's immune system turns on itself, says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease, critical care and emergency medicine physician who works at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

But Horwitz and Mateen say that factors outside of doctors' control are also playing a role in driving down mortality. Horwitz believes that mask-wearing may be helping by reducing the initial dose of virus a person receives, thereby lessening the overall severity of illness for many patients.

For these reasons, Horwitz and Mateen believe that masking and social distancing will continue to play a big role in keeping the mortality rate down.

And many people will continue to die, even if the rate has dropped. A recent estimate by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation suggests the US total death toll could reach well over 300,000 by February.


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