Coronavirus cases in North Texas continue to soar, setting new record highs nearly every day. Yet some health experts have noticed a surprising trend: a divergence in the rate of additional cases and COVID-related deaths.
That shouldn’t be cause for celebration, though, said Dr. Erin Carlson, an associate clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“I take no comfort in the reduction of deaths; it’s still a very, very, very serious situation because of the nature of the disease,” she said. “So even though we’re seeing a reduction of deaths, that doesn’t mean we’re seeing a reduction in the number of people whose lives are forever changed by this virus.”
Health experts have noted a similar discrepancy in coronavirus cases and fatality rates nationwide. But as more people are hospitalized for the disease, a surge in the number of deaths could be around the corner.
Wednesday, Dallas County Health and Human Services counted 1,029 new cases and an additional 16 deaths. Its director, Dr. Philip Huang, said that Dallas hospitals could soon become overwhelmed as cases continue to climb.
Huang warned that an increase in the mortality rate is possible if not probable. It’s well-known that symptoms can take up to 14 days to appear. Similarly, coronavirus patients can sometimes be hospitalized for weeks before they are either discharged or die, he said.
In mid-June, Texas saw a sharp rise in the rate of additional cases, Huang said. It just may take a while for the death rate to climb, too.
“We’re certainly hoping we won’t see more deaths,” Huang said, “but there is some lag-time.”
The trend could also be explained by the fact that a higher percentage of young people are contracting the disease, Huang said. Now, nearly 60% of new cases are among people age 40 and younger, he said.
Dr. Rajesh Nandy, an associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, agrees that the younger age group could be a factor in the divergence.
“We know they are the least likely to die from COVID,” Nandy said. “I think that is one of the reasons that even though the case count is going up, the death count is not necessarily going up.”
In the early stages of the pandemic, around 43% of COVID deaths were tied to long-term care facilities, Nandy said. Now that the case rate has skyrocketed among the younger population, that could also help to explain the apparent drop in deaths.
At the pandemic’s outset, doctors struggled to find ways to treat the wave of coronavirus patients. Over time, methods were developed to help patients combat the disease.
Prone ventilation treatments have greatly improved a person's chance of survival, Carlson said. Doctors will roll a patient on their stomach, which lets their lungs more broadly expand. That helps to remove mucus build-up and allows more oxygenation in the lungs, she said.
In addition, the introductions of the antiviral medication remdesivir and the anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone have made huge waves in medical science. The former slows damage caused by the virus while the latter can reduce one’s chances of mortality, according to health care and drug research magazine Pharmaceutical Technology.
“Physicians now have a lot more knowledge in terms of how to best treat a patient who’s suffering from COVID,” Nandy said. “That, I think, is part of it: They learned a lot how to treat patients better.”
Dallas County was able to flatten the curve early on thanks to the “stay home, stay safe” mandates, Huang said. After the state reopened, though, the case count began to rise.
Many new cases were tied to Memorial Day weekend get-togethers, Huang said. If that’s any indication, then the county could soon see an even greater surge as a result of July 4 celebrations.
“If the trends increase as they have in the last week and a half, two weeks," Huang said, "by mid-July, we may be reaching surge level for some of the hospital systems."
Less crowded hospitals lead to better patient outcomes, Carlson said. Once hospitals are overwhelmed, those in desperate need of treatment may not be able to receive it.
Officials in Houston, Austin and Fort Worth have warned that their hospitals may soon face overcrowding, according to the Texas Tribune. If the case count continues on its current trajectory, Carlson said that Dallas could soon follow suit.
“Once hospital capacity rises to capacity or beyond, we will start seeing an increase in deaths again,” she said.
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Doctors once thought that the novel coronavirus was a respiratory illness, Carlson said. Now, though, many health experts believe it’s a blood vessel disease.
While COVID frequently attacks the lungs, Carlson said it’s also been proven to devastate organs with many blood vessels, such as the kidneys, liver and heart. The virus can also cause major blood clots, leading to strokes and amputations.
As such, Carlson encourages everyone to take the disease seriously. Even if patients survive the coronavirus, she said, their quality of life could suffer.
“If this was just a respiratory infection, we could beat it,” Carlson said. “This is not a respiratory infection. This is far worse.”