The death rate for COVID-19 patients who ended up in intensive care has improved dramatically compared to the first few months of the pandemic, according to a new study. This glimmer of good news is most likely a reflection of advances in treatment and medicine’s increasing understanding of the disease.
The new study, reported in the journal Anaesthesia this week, saw researchers sift through 52 observational studies that included over 43,000 patients from across the world, analyzing the overall mortality of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units (ICU). At the end of March 2020, the mortality rate for COVID-19 patients in ICU was 60 percent. This rate fell to 42 percent by the end of May 2020 and then 36 percent by October 2020.
This is promising news. Although the number of COVID-19 cases rose throughout 2020, the data shows that a person’s chances of surviving a severe case of the disease in ICU dramatically improved over the course of the year.
Explaining the trend, the researchers write in the study: “In the last few months, several studies have clarified which treatments do and do not provide benefit in the ICU management of COVID‐19. Steroids (particularly dexamethasone) were shown in early June to improve survival in patients who are oxygen‐dependent or receiving mechanical respiratory support, while other drugs including chloroquine, azithromycin, lopinavir/ritonavir, and remdesivir have been shown to have no clear mortality benefit.
“Management of COVID‐19 has also likely evolved over the year with changes in approaches to oxygen therapy, fluids, and anticoagulation management.”
As of October 2020, the mortality rate for COVID-19 patients in ICU was around 33 percent in Europe, 40 percent in North America, 30 percent in East Asia and Pacific, 16 percent in South Asia, and 61 percent in the Middle East and North Africa.
However, the researchers note that this rate of improvement appears to be plateauing. Furthermore, the increasing number of newly detected variants across the world, such as the UK and South African variants, has “transformed the trajectory of the pandemic.” For example, the UK government recently announced early evidence that suggests the UK variant may be associated with a higher degree of mortality than other strains.
"Our analysis includes studies published only up to October 2020. Since then, several variant viruses have emerged and in some countries transformed the trajectory of the pandemic through December 2020 and into January 2021. This has increased the demand on ICU in those locations and will merit further analysis in due course," the authors write.
However, as vaccines are starting to be rolled out to millions of people in certain parts of the world, over the coming months, this will positively impact the pandemic trajectory and hopefully reduce strain on ICUs, which will also help mortality rates in hospitals. As ever, the next chapter of the pandemic is extremely hard to predict.
For more information about Covid-19, check out the IFLScience Covid-19 hub where you can follow the current state of the pandemic, the progress of vaccine development, and further insights into the disease.