“Covid is over” may be the trend in social media circles, but the weekly US death toll tells a different story.
The rate of COVID-19 deaths has remained relatively steady since May, rising to 400 per day in July, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.
“We’re sitting on this terrible plateau,” said Dr. Daniel Griffin, an infectious disease specialist at Pro Health Care in New York and a clinical instructor of medicine at Columbia University. “It’s been like that for the last couple of months and we’re getting used to it.”
More than 12,500 Americans died from COVID-19 in July, according to a USA TODAY analysis.
The coronavirus death toll is similar David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said. A bad flu season in the US could see more than 50,000 deaths.
That doesn’t mean COVID-19 deaths have caught up to the flu, he said, because peak flu season only lasts three months. Spread over the year, Dowdy said, there will be four times more deaths from COVID-19 than from the flu.
COVID-19 “has to live with flu season all year long, and we don’t do that with flu,” he said. “If we had to do that with the flu, we would have taken more precautions than we did.”
Experts say most Americans who have died from COVID-19 were immunocompromised or older than 75. These patients are by vaccination status – ranging from unvaccinated to receiving all recommended vaccines and boosters.
According to Griffin, the biggest difference between patients who recover or die from COVID-19 is whether or not they receive treatment within the first week of diagnosis.
“I don’t remember anyone in recent memory who did everything right, got the vaccine, got early treatment, went to the hospital and died,” he said.
Pfizer’s antiviral Paxlovid has been effective in keeping high-risk COVID-19 patients out of the hospital. But it’s losing ground among providers and patients, as public figures report an increase in infections after taking the antiviral, Griffin said.
President Joe Biden, 79, tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday, three days after he tested negative twice. His chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, 81, reported a relapse in June.
What we know:Biden’s “resurgence” of COVID-19 is not common but not serious, White House says
CDC guidance:People who have recovered from COVID-19 treated with paxlovid should be isolated again for 5 days
Although more recurrent infections have been reported, Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, said the case rate is about 5%. Most people are not tested as often as medical professionals, Jha said in a series of tweets on Monday.
It is not known whether relapse after antiviral therapy is different from relapse without medication. In the trial that led to the approval of paxlovide, 2% of those who took the drug and almost the same percentage who did not experienced rebound.
Griffin said the uncertainty surrounding antiviral and other COVID-19 treatments could help prevent deaths.
“A lot of clinicians are reading the popular press and they’re influenced by things from there,” he said. “You have five days to slow the progression of the disease, and once that window closes, it closes.”
A monoclonal antibody from AstraZeneca, called Evusheld, has prevented severe disease in people with weakened immune systems who are not fully protected by vaccines. It provides long-term protection, but Griffin says some providers don’t offer it to eligible patients.
“It’s not an easy lift,” he said. “You can’t just write a prescription. It is still only shipping to certain locations and there is a process to register your patient.
Some doctors consider it an “uncompensated and time-consuming lift” and prescribe other drugs that are not suitable for early treatment, such as high-dose steroids.
Nearly 92% of Americans over age 65 are fully vaccinated, and about 70% have received at least one booster. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reformulated COVID-19 booster shots targeting the omicron variant of the coronavirus could be available this fall, but health experts don’t think they will have a significant impact on death rates.
“The vaccines we’ve had so far are still very effective against significant morbidity and mortality … so I don’t think bivalent vaccines are going to be a game-changer in that regard,” Dowdy said. “What they can do is help curb the infection a little bit because they can be more effective against the infection.”
Experts say the best way to protect people with severe COVID-19 and those at high risk of death is to stay up-to-date on recommended vaccines and seek early treatment with proven therapies.
“As scary as this plateau is right now, it’s unfortunately lower if we don’t do a great job this fall of increasing and improving knowledge about how to properly manage COVID,” Griffin said.
Contributed by Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY. Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
USA TODAY’s health and patient safety efforts are made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation on Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial information.