During the first COVID-19 surge of the spring, the mantra was “Flatten the curve”—to buy time, using every tool available.
Seven months later, it’s possible to measure what that time has bought: The death rate for COVID-19 has fallen dramatically. Hospitals in most places are not overburdened, and treatments are improving in many small but cumulative ways. In one study of patients hospitalized in a New York City health system, the adjusted death rate fell from 25.6 percent in March, at the pandemic’s onset, to 7.6 percent in August.
This change cannot be explained by COVID-19 patients getting younger and healthier. The study’s authors adjusted the mortality rates for age and other risk factors. “People should take this as validation of all the hard work and sacrifices they have been making,” says Leora Horwitz, an internist and the study’s lead author. “It has made a difference.” Similar patterns hold throughout New York City and in the U.K., and they underscore the reason for flattening the curve. The longer we can prevent infections, the better prepared we will be to treat the people who might eventually get it.
What was true about flattening the curve in March is still true now. As the U.S. faces a third coronavirus surge, Horwitz warns that “these numbers are not static.” We are still learning about how to treat COVID-19, and truly game-changing therapies have yet to arrive. When hospitals become overburdened—as they are starting to in El Paso, Utah, Wisconsin—death rates may rise again. The axiom from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic still applies today. “If I have to choose to have it, probably the later, the better,” says Sanja Jelic, a pulmonologist at Columbia University Medical Center.