Line of burned matchsticks with several unburned matches to signify the COVID-19 death rate.

Measuring the risk of COVID-19

When we talk about the severity of COVID-19, we may hear a lot of numbers.

Things like the numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths are in the headlines and on the news every day.

How are we to make sense of it? What numbers should we be looking at to understand the threat posed by the novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2?

For Stephen Hippler, MD, chief clinical officer of OSF HealthCare, there is one number that is most telling – and it’s one of great concern.

“Three thousand Americans are dying every day,” Dr. Hippler said.

“We’ve made advances since the spring. We know more about the disease and we have better treatments for it. We know how to protect our most vulnerable – and yet, in spite of that, 3,000 people a day are dying. And it’s predicted that many more will die from COVID-19 as winter progresses.”

Death rate

One thing many people want to understand is the death rate associated with COVID-19, but Dr. Hippler points out that number isn’t one we can accurately pinpoint.

“The data is imperfect due to the lack of widespread testing and difficulty in reporting, but we can’t let the lack of precision distract us from the fact that COVID-19 is fast approaching the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S.,” he said.

Dr. Hippler acknowledges that the death rate – imperfect as it is – has gone down over the course of the year. This is something he attributes to improved medical treatments as well as efforts to protect people most at risk, such as older people, especially those living in nursing homes.

However, he also points out that we are all at risk of contracting COVID-19. A low death rate multiplied across an entire population will result in significant loss of life.

Reframing the question

All of this gets to a central question – how much risk does COVID-19 pose?

And the answer depends on your frame of thinking.

How much risk does COVID-19 pose to me?

“It depends somewhat on your age and other risk factors – but even for those who are young and vibrant, the risk is never zero,” Dr. Hippler said.

“I think it’s human nature for those who are young and healthy to think they are invincible. This disease has proven that most young and healthy people will do well. But it’s also clear that some will have severe disease and some will even die from this – as well as those who will transmit the virus to someone who will do poorly.”

If you frame the question differently – How much risk does COVID-19 pose to all of us? – the answer is quite different.

“People will want to break this into absolutism – those who are at risk and those who are not – and I just don’t think you can,” Dr. Hippler said.

As long as COVID-19 spread continues at the current rate, thousands of our friends, neighbors and family members will die each day. That is true in big cities and rural areas, across all ages and other demographics.

We shouldn’t follow public health advice only to protect ourselves – we should do it to protect each other.

“Isn’t that what civilization is all about? It’s about having a sense of belonging to a larger group,” Dr. Hippler said.

It’s why we invest in public safety, it’s why we repair our roads, bridges and stoplights, and it’s why we make laws against drunk driving. We want to make our communities safer.

Protecting each other from this disease should be no different.

“Stay committed. Keep following the public health guidelines. Educate yourself about the vaccines being developed, and consider getting vaccinated when that opportunity becomes available to you,” Hippler said.

About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale is a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

View all posts by

Tags: , ,

Categories: COVID-19