coronavirus pandemic

COVID-19 Cases Soaring but Deaths Not Rising at Same Rate

More than 250,000 deaths are attributed to the virus, but the mortality rate among hospitalized COVID-19 patients hasn't kept pace with the rising infections

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As COVID cases rapidly increase, so does the squeeze on hospitals, doctors and staff. But while there have been more than 250,000 deaths nationwide attributed to the virus, the mortality rate among hospitalized COVID-19 patients hasn't kept pace with the increase in infections.

In general, it's been pretty easy for the sickest COVID-19 patients to get tested since the start of the pandemic, and, more recently, testing has become more readily available for the general population, with some of those people being testing just as a precaution, with others exhibiting mild symptoms.

As more people are getting tested, there have been more positive cases, but better testing capacity hasn't made much of a difference in the death numbers.
Patients themselves are more knowledgeable as well, said Dr. Hai Shao, an infectious disease specialist at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center.

"People are more educated about how serious this illness is," Shao said, "They are likely to seek medical attention at an earlier stage of their illness instead of waiting until the last minute."

Patient care has also improved, and more severely ill patients have survived.

"We are more comfortable in treating patients who are severely ill requiring hospitalization," Shao said. "For example, we are more comfortable using non-invasive oxygen support for people who are requiring oxygen instead of simply intubating them and putting them on a ventilator."

Another factor? Early in the pandemic, older people made up a large percentage of COVID cases. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 27% of known infections in May were among people 60 and older. By August, though, that number dropped to 18%. Shao said younger people who contract the virus tend to have milder symptoms and are less likely to require hospitalization and die.

Shao also said senior care centers have implemented stricter infection-control measures and visitor policies to mitigate transmission of the virus in the susceptible population.

Still, Shao said this doesn't mean we can become complacent.

"Approximately two weeks ago, the Sharp system as a whole only had 80 patients with COVID-19 that required hospitalization," Shao said. "Two weeks later, that number increased to 270."

There is still no cure for the disease, and even patients who recover can have long-term side-effects.

Shao, who is more worried now than ever before, has a dire warning.

"We are already seeing a shortage of nursing staff, shortage of medication," Shao said. "Eventually, if the whole system is overwhelmed, the quality of the care will suffer and people will start dying from unwanted complications and mortality rates will be higher."

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