Study projects ‘staggering’ death rate in US among those with COVID-19 who show symptoms

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A new study led by a researcher in the University of Washington Schools of Public Health and Pharmacy concludes that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is 13 times more deadly than the seasonal flu. Findings from the study, published May 7 in the journal Health Affairs, show a fatality rate of 1.3% among symptomatic cases in the U.S. The comparable rate of death for the flu is 0.1%. 

“COVID-19 infection is deadlier than flu — we can put that debate to rest,” said study author Anirban Basu, a professor of health services at the UW School of Public Health and Stergachis Family Endowed Director of the Comparative Health Outcomes, Policy, and Economics Institute at the UW School of Pharmacy.

For this study, Basu analyzed publicly available COVID-19 data from 116 counties in 33 states in the U.S. and developed a website with the School of Pharmacy, where he is also a professor. Knowing that the number of cases and deaths are underreported and change frequently, Basu’s model takes into account the trends in the ratio of these two numbers, or the “case fatality rate” to more accurately estimate just how deadly the virus is for those who become ill from it.

While the website’s data reflects what is currently happening on a county-by-county level, the data does not, however, predict what will happen in the future.

Information on the likely numbers for total infections and symptomatic cases as well as how the daily rate of infections changes are also indicated by the website tool. Basu says that the website’s projections will be updated as new data becomes available.

The study also notes that if the same number of people in the U.S. are infected by the end of the year as those infected with the influenza virus (roughly 35.5 million in 2018-2019), then nearly 500,000 people will die of COVID-19.

That being said, COVID-19 is more infectious than the influenza virus. If COVID-19 infected 20% of the population by the end of this year — assuming social distancing measures and health care supply stayed the same, and asymptomatic cases that recover were accounted for — the death toll could reach between 350,000 and 1.2 million.

“This is a staggering number, which can only be brought down with sound public health measures,” Basu said. “Our hope is that our study results can help inform local and national policies that will save lives in the future.”

Basu, also an adjunct professor of economics at the UW, emphasizes that the model should not be viewed as the “last word” on estimating the COVID-19 fatality rate, but as one of several methods used to measure the impact of the virus.

“The infection fatality ratio estimate is itself dynamic in nature,” Basu said. “The overall estimate can both increase or decrease in the future, depending on the demographics where the infections will be spreading. It is possible, as the infection spreads to more rural counties of the country, the overall infection fatality rate will increase due to the lack of access to necessary health care delivery.”

Read the full study from UW News.