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What Is The Recovery Rate For Coronavirus? Here’s Why It’s So Hard To Predict

Looking for answers? Here's why the questions might not be the right ones.

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How soon will you get well if you or a loved one has COVID-19? It’s a reasonable question, but right now, there’s not an easy one-size-fits-all-answer. As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the globe, some estimates have suggested that somewhere from 40 to 70 percent of the world’s population will get the virus sometime over the next few years. What that will look like after the initial wave of cases is unclear — there have been a number of models showing some small waves might happen further on or that there will be a drop in cases over the winter — but most doctors and experts think that a majority of people will get the virus.

That sounds scary, and it is, but it’s important to remember that the majority of those who do get Coronavirus will either not be symptomatic or will experience mild to moderate, flu-like symptoms that don’t require hospitalization. Still, given that many people will still get sick, it’s important to know what the recovery rate for the Coronavirus is. That means not just how many people across the world have recovered, or how many have gotten sick, but also how long it takes to recover from the illness and what the fatality rate of the disease is. 

It’s also worth noting that the peak, at least in the United States, is still at least 10 days away. Some projections suggest that the peak of resource use — meaning hospital beds, ICU beds, and ventilators, will come in just nine days on April 15 and that the peak of Coronavirus-related deaths will happen on April 16, 2020. 

Why Is It Hard To Determine the Recovery Rate for the Coronavirus (So Far)?

Data on COVID-19 is woefully inadequate. This is largely due to a lack of adequate testing in many countries. In the United States, for example, there is not only inadequate testing for COVID-19, but there’s also the fact that there’s not a clear and regular system for reporting confirmed cases.

Global estimates suggest that as of April 6, there were at least 1.3 million total confirmed cases of the disease and that over 72,000 people across the planet have died. But over a quarter of a million — some 272,000 people, have recovered from the virus. That makes the “official” recovery rate, based on the limited data that we have, about 20 percent of cases so far.

But even that isn’t clear. Since most people can’t get tested for the disease, many people have shown symptoms of COVID-19, fallen ill, and recovered without so much as stepping near a medical professional, making the recovery rate hard to predict. In some hospitals across the United States, unless you are having shortness of breath so severe you can’t breathe on your own, hospitals won’t even admit you or give you a test as they don’t want to waste testing resources. 

Then add the fact that about 1 in 4 people who contract Coronavirus are asymptomatic carriers. That means that there could be (and likely are) hundreds of thousands of Americans who have contracted and passed along the disease without ever knowing they had it themselves, because, as stated above, only symptomatic patients get tested and in most cases, they have to be very serious, very critical cases. The recovery rate — in this definition, meaning the number of people who have recovered from the illness — could be higher or lower than what we know. The problem is that we don’t know.

In South Korea, for example, nearly 70 percent of its confirmed cases have recovered so far. This isn’t because South Korea has the world’s most advanced medical system or they’ve figured out some silver bullet cure to the virus. It’s because South Korea has been testing as many as citizens as possible, regardless of whether or not those tested show symptoms, to determine who has the virus and who doesn’t. On some level, they have a much more complete data pool than the United States or other countries with limited testing. And, according to reports coming out of China and South Korea, infection rates have been rising again as people return to countries that have successfully flattened the curve, which could change the recovery rate significantly. And more cases could explode across the planet as we wait for a vaccine, overwhelming hospitals and making it harder to help save lives. Or the virus could mutate, making it harder to beat or develop a meaningful vaccine for, and therefore extending the trail of infection.

So, yes, the short answer is that there’s too much we don’t know about Coronavirus, how it will be resolved across the planet, and how many people already have it to know what the recovery rate is. That also makes much of the other data on the virus incomplete.

What Is The Fatality Rate (So Far)?

Short answer: we don’t know. Long answer: The fatality rate is muddied by the fact that many countries do not have adequate testing, and therefore, the fatality rate might be over-inflated as many people who have the illness and recover will never even have a confirmed case.

So, imagine a system (like the United States) where, in some overloaded cities, people are dying in their homes, having not been tested. Imagine a system where only people who are symptomatic are tested — even though nearly 25 percent of cases are estimated to be asymptomatic. Imagine a system where, in some cases, only the severely ill, severely symptomatic and hospitalized are tested. In that case, in that system, which surely exists, the fatality rate is going to look a lot higher, than, say, South Korea, which has tested almost 500,000 of their 52 million citizens, regardless of whether or not they are symptomatic. The denominator in South Korea is much larger than the denominator in the United States. That’s a data problem. And it makes it very hard to know how many people will actually die from the disease.

We do know some data — like how certain age groups or gender groups cope with the virus. The elderly are more likely to die from the disease, men appear to die at higher rates than women when infected, and those with comorbidities, like heart disease, diabetes, or lung problems, also are more likely to not recover from the bug. We also know that 80 percent of victims of the virus who are put on ventilators do not come off of them. But young people, healthy people, and otherwise fine human beings are not immune from death. Young people without any comorbidities or underlying health conditions can also die from the disease and have.

Based on data coming out of China compiled by the World Health Organization, the median time from the onset of symptoms to recovery in mild cases is about two weeks or fourteen days. If you or your family begins to experience symptoms, by the time the symptoms abate you should also quarantine for 72 hours to make sure that you aren’t passing the disease on to anyone. 

For more serious or even critical cases, it can take anywhere from three to six weeks to begin to feel better, and even hospitalization. While most hospitalized COVID-19 patients spend a week on a ventilator, some spend three weeks on the breathing aid, which makes the problem of inadequate supplies all the more severe. 

At the end of the day, there’s too much we don’t know about the virus, and we’re way too early in the fight against it, to know the recovery rate from the Coronavirus, or how many people will die, or how many people even have it. To that end, the only advice that matters is this: stay inside. Wear a mask and gloves if you go outside for essentials. Only leave your house for essentials, and when out, stay at least six feet away from others.

Wash your hands regularly, try not to touch your face. That way, we can collect more data about the virus while losing fewer lives. Answers will come, but staying safe is more important right now.