Updated: Mar 19, 2020
I’ve heard several people say COVID-19 couldn’t really be much more of a problem than influenza – the seasonal colds we all suffer through every year.
I, too, was initially astonished at what seemed like out-of-control hysteria. So, I ran the numbers. I did it for the United States first, but I’ll follow up with the Canadian Numbers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the latest flu season in the U.S. caused an estimated 34 million illnesses, 350,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths this season. When you do the math, it means 0.058 per cent of those who caught the flu this year passed away.
That’s about half of the overall death rate from the seasonal flu which is 0.1 per cent. That means for every 1000 people who catch it, one person will die from it.
A study of the largest number of COVID-19 cases to date by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Protection analyzed 44,672 confirmed cases in China between Dec. 31, 2019 and Feb. 11, 2020. Of those cases, 80.9% (or 36,160 cases) were considered mild, 13.8% (6,168 cases) were severe and needed some medical help and 4.7% (2,087) were critical. "Critical cases were those that exhibited respiratory failure, septic shock, and/or multiple organ dysfunction/failure," the researchers wrote in the paper published in China CDC Weekly.
This means for every 1000 people who catch COVID-19, 47 will need hospitalization and intense treatment in order to survive.
Two studies detailed the potential death rates. The China CDC Weekly found the death rate from COVID-19 was around 2.3 per cent in mainland China. Another study of about 1,100 hospitalized patients in China, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the overall death rate was lower at 1.4 per cent.
For this illustration, let’s imagine we’re “lucky” and take the low end. It means for every 1000 infected, 14 will die. Put another way, 14 times more people are at risk of death from this coronavirus.
If the number of COVID-19 infections only matched the seasonal flu last season, 34 million infections in the U.S. reaches ONLY the numbers of seasonal influenza infections in the United States, it means 1, 598,000 people will need critical care and 476,000 will die. Half a million people.
If the number of infected climbs this high, there will be very little opportunity for the critically ill to receive the care they will need to survive. The Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins estimated the United States has a total of 160,000 ventilators available for patient care (with at least an additional 8,900 in the national stockpile). That’s a total of 168,900 ventilators, or only enough for ten per cent of the critically ill.
The United States has an estimated 924,100 hospital beds, according to a 2018 American Hospital Association survey, most of which are already occupied continuously by patients. If all the current patients were sent home, there would only be enough beds for two-thirds of the new patients. However, the critical cases would need intensive care unit (ICU) beds. There are about 46,800 to 64,000 ICU beds in America. That’s enough for two per cent of severely ill. Ninety-eight per cent will be forced to stay in their homes.
This is why the World Health Organization and scientists around the world are sounding the alarm bells and calling for nations to enact draconian measures in order to flatten the infection curve through social distancing and exceptional hygiene. Otherwise, as we’re already seeing, medical systems will find themselves overwhelmingly insufficient to handle the peak of COVID-19 infection.