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As mid-state COVID-19 cases skyrocket, why are deaths rates so low?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Ashley Norman)  --  The number of mid-state residents dying from COVID-19 remains relatively low despite the recent spike in active cases, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Davidson, Rutherford and Williamson counties have all reported climbing case counts in recent weeks, but corresponding increases in fatalities due to virus-related complications have not materialized. WMOT spoke with one of the region’s top infectious disease experts to understand why.

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, attributes the lower death rates to medical professionals’ heightened understanding of the virus and the increased access to better treatment options. Although the virus is spreading rapidly and hospitalizations are gradually increasing, the death rate has not gained a comparable momentum.

“We are actually better in treating patients than we were a few months ago,” Dr. Schaffner said. “We have learned much more about how it is that the virus can make [someone] so, very sick, and doctors taking care of patients can do more to prevent that.”

The changing infection demographics with younger people now accounting for a growing percentage of total COVID-19 cases also contributes to the lower hospitalization and death counts. While the younger population is still able to transmit the virus to those who are at higher risk for severe illness, they are much more likely to experience milder cases.

“The virus, although it can affect people who are middle-aged and younger, is less apt to cause severe illness in that group,” Dr. Schaffner said. “As we are expanding our testing, and that includes younger adults, [we] find more cases and they tend to be less severe.”

Dr. Schaffner also said the emergence from lockdown, in Tennessee and nationwide, has been met with the public’s more carefree response than a careful approach, further fueling the sharply increasing transmission rates. As more people contract the virus, an increased percentage of the older population and those with underlying chronic illnesses will become severely ill with an increased risk of death.

A spike in COVID-19 related deaths and hospitalizations is expected in the coming months as the virus continues to reach record highs. With the number of new cases gradually increasing during the summer months and soon met with clinically similar influenza cases in the late fall, Dr. Schaffner feels as if this winter will be a serious respiratory virus season.

“I see more cases in our future and more deaths … because we as a complete society still have not committed to really flattening the curve and getting this virus under control,” Dr. Schaffner said.

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