According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States is experiencing around 400 covid deaths every day. At that rate, there would be nearly 150,000 deaths a year.
But are these Americans dying from covid or with covid?
Understanding this distinction is crucial to putting the continuing toll of the coronavirus into perspective. Determining how likely an infection will result in hospitalization or death helps people weigh their own risk. It also enables health officials to assess when vaccine effectiveness wanes and future rounds of boosters are needed.
Two infectious-disease experts I spoke with believe that the number of deaths attributed to covid is far greater than the actual number of people dying from covid. Robin Dretler, an attending physician at Emory Decatur Hospital and the former president of Georgia’s chapter of Infectious Diseases Society of America, estimates that at his hospital, 90 percent of patients diagnosed with covid are actually in the hospital for some other illness.
“Since every hospitalized patient gets tested for covid, many are incidentally positive,” he said. A gunshot victim or someone who had a heart attack, for example, could test positive for the virus, but the infection has no bearing on why they sought medical care.
Dretler also sees patients with multiple concurrent infections. “People who have very low white blood cell counts from chemotherapy might be admitted because of bacterial pneumonia or foot gangrene. They may also have covid, but covid is not the main reason why they’re so sick.”
If these patient die, covid might get added to their death certificate along with the other diagnoses. But the coronavirus was not the primary contributor to their death and often played no role at all.