A Glimmer of Hope: Mortality Rate Is Improving for Hospitalized COVID Patients

The drought in New England made this year’s foliage season a foreshortened russet-and-dun affair, and it suits the moment. The hills are painted red in homage to the third surge of COVID-19 that will soon cover every COVID-charting map in a wine-spill of scarlet from sea to sea and border to border. We know this beast by now; that which we are told is coming soon has already arrived in stealth.

This past Sunday, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, appeared on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press” with the sublimely fireable Chuck Todd. “The next six to 12 weeks are going to be the darkest of the entire pandemic,” Osterholm told Todd’s audience.

“When I was on this show last on Sept. 13,” continued Osterholm, “we had 33,000 cases reported that day. You may recall I warned that we were going to see a very dark fall. Friday, we had 70,000 cases, matching the largest number we had seen back during the really serious peak in July. That number, we’re going to blow right through that. And between now and the holidays, we will see numbers much, much larger than even the 67,000 to 75,000 cases.”

Indeed, that third spike has already dug deep into parts of the country that were mostly spared the havoc of springtime. North Dakota saw 1,000 new cases just yesterday, and Ohio has more hospitalized COVID patients than at any prior point in that state’s experience of the pandemic. The daily average of new infections nationally stands at just under 60,000, but as Osterholm has bluntly indicated, that is about to change dramatically.

But if earlier surges were defined by acute and concentrated outbreaks — in the Northeast this spring, and in the South during the summer — the virus is now simmering at a worrisome level across nearly the entire country,” reports The New York Times. “Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming each set seven-day case records on Tuesday. Even New Jersey, once a model for bringing the virus under control, has seen cases double over the past month.”

Nightfall comes ever earlier now, and the growing chill in the air is a whisper in the ears of all the restaurant and bar owners who have been life-boating their businesses with outdoor seating. Southern California, the border and southern states, south Florida, can all expect to maintain a decent outdoor service atmosphere for much of the winter, unless this eternal run of buzzard luck runs to the meteorological, as well.

For most of the country, however, having a burger in a snowbank or in a 20-degree wind is only slightly more appealing than, say, falling down an icy flight of stairs. Many of the businesses that made it this far will not see the next spring, thanks in no small part to Mitch McConnell’s senate Republicans and their steadfast refusal to spend another dime on aid or stimulus packages.

Many of them believe Trump will lose in two weeks, and intend to trash the economy as much as possible to make it impossible for Joe Biden to govern effectively. When you see all your favorite spots shuttered by February, that is why they are gone.

Amazingly enough, however, even this bleak and bitter harvest comes with the slimmest of silver linings: According to a pair of peer-reviewed studies, a significantly smaller percent of COVID-19 patients are dying from the virus. More are becoming infected every day, and the side effects after recovery remain as gruesome as they were eight months ago, but the burying has slowed dramatically.

“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,” reports NPR. “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 percent chance of dying at the start of the pandemic; they now have a 7.6 percent chance. That’s a big improvement, but 7.6 percent is still a high risk compared with other diseases.”

A number of possible explanations for this drop in mortality are available, but the two most likely appear to be practice and masks. Doctors and front-line medical professionals have had so many COVID patients to learn from since March, and they have learned well.

Also, a wider prevalence of people wearing masks may be keeping people who do get infected from absorbing a larger viral load; the bigger the load, the sicker you get, and masks very much appear to be helping not only to stifle the spread, but also to mitigate its impact.

Not enough to get folks dancing in the streets, to be sure. Certainly not enough to blot out the larger despair of this experience. Donald Trump crows about an imminent vaccine, billions worldwide hope for one that will be safe and effective, but there is absolutely no promise one will ever appear. Scientifically speaking, it is a daunting undertaking under the best of circumstances. If one does arrive, the logistics of shipping hundreds of millions of doses to those in need is equally fraught.

All that being said, less death is progress. Less death is an absolute good. Less death means that we are learning, ever so slowly and in the face of massive anti-science disruptions pushed from the highest echelons of government. It is further proof that if we let science be science, we will come out of this nightmare someday.