Two infectious-disease experts I spoke with believe that the number of deaths attributed to covid is far greater than the actual number of people dying from covid. Robin Dretler, an attending physician at Emory Decatur Hospital and the former president of Georgia’s chapter of Infectious Diseases Society of America, estimates that at his hospital, 90 percent of patients diagnosed with covid are actually in the hospital for some other illness.
“Since every hospitalized patient gets tested for covid, many are incidentally positive,” he said. A gunshot victim or someone who had a heart attack, for example, could test positive for the virus, but the infection has no bearing on why they sought medical care.
Dretler also sees patients with multiple concurrent infections. “People who have very low white blood cell counts from chemotherapy might be admitted because of bacterial pneumonia or foot gangrene. They may also have covid, but covid is not the main reason why they’re so sick.”
If these patients die, covid might get added to their death certificate along with the other diagnoses. But the coronavirus was not the primary contributor to their death and often played no role at all.
But the study also demonstrates that hospitalization rates for COVID, as cited by journalists and policy makers, can be misleading, if not considered carefully. Clearly many patients right now are seriously ill. We also know that overcrowding of hospitals by COVID patients with even mild illness can have negative implications for patients in need of other care. At the same time, this study suggests that COVID hospitalization tallies can’t be taken as a simple measure of the prevalence of severe or even moderate disease, because they might inflate the true numbers by a factor of two.