Pennsylvania Doctor: Coronavirus May Be Less Deadly than Feared

Nurse Canan Emcan shows a test kit for coronavirus samples at the isolation ward of the Uniklinikum Essen university hospital in Essen, western Germany, on March 9, 2020. - The number of coronavirus cases in Germany has passed 1,000, official data from the Robert Koch Institute disease control centre showed. …
INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Dr. Donald Yealy said on Thursday he believes the coronavirus death rate is much lower than feared, and he sees hospitals returning to normalcy soon.

“We’ve learned that way more people, far, far more people have actually been exposed to the infection without any knowledge of it,” Dr. Yealy, chair of emergency medicine explained during an extended conversation with reporters. “That makes the overall death rate much lower. Many people just didn’t feel sick at all and recovered without difficulty.”

Yealy cited studies of New York and California, alongside the official death counts due to the COVID-19 coronavirus in Pittsburgh. Studies found that somewhere between five and twenty percent of the populations had been infected, with the majority facing only minor illness — and many remained completely asymptomatic.

Yealy raised a hypothetical situation, in which roughly three percent of Allegheny County residents were infected. That would mean an estimated 36,000 people contracted COVID-19. As of Thursday, the novel coronavirus death toll for Allegheny County is sitting at 94. That puts the death rate closer to .25 percent than current estimates as high as seven percent. “There is a big difference between 0.25% mortality and 7%,” he said.

There are, of course, many caveats. First among them is that Allegheny has only reported about 1,300 patients who tested positive. Second, it is impossible to say how many deaths can be attributed to the virus without proactive testing — impossible outside of already-critical cases with the current supply. It is also important to note that even at .25 percent, the coronavirus would still be nearly three times as deadly as influenza, which is estimated at around .1 percent fatality.

But the doctor said that “2% percent of the UPMC system’s 5,500 beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients,” and the hospital is seeing a decline in new cases. Dr. Rachel Sackrowitz, the chief medical officer for UPMC’s intensive care units, told reporters that 234 COVID-19 patients have recovered and been released. “This is very good news. It means people are getting better and we’re all on the right track together,” she said.

Dr. Sackrowitz hesitated to make any guesses about the danger of a nationwide relapse and focused on a long-term evaluation: “What I suspect is COVID-19 will be a part of our experience treating patients for an extended [period of] months to maybe years,” she said.

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