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Your Coronavirus Death Risk Just Got a Whole Lot Lower

New antibody testing is revealing that more people were infected with COVID-19 than previously thought.
Coronavirus COVID-19 medical test vaccine research and development concept. Scientist in laboratory study and analyze scientific sample of Coronavirus antibody to produce drug treatment for COVID-19.

Since December 2019, when the first cases of COVID-19 started popping up in Wuhan, China, experts estimated that the fatality rate of the highly infectious virus was somewhere around 5 percent or more. However, new evidence supported by antibody testing is leading researchers to believe that the virus is more common and less deadly than previously believed. 

Previously, death rate estimates were being calculated based on the number of people who were diagnosed with COVID-19, using tests that detected the presence of virus in an individual's body. Scientists were not taking into account those who were infected with the virus and were either asymptomatic, didn't realize they had it, and/or were not sick enough to warrant testing. 

However, now researchers are basing their calculations on antibody testing, looking for antibodies in the blood which suggests a previous infection — not the virus itself. Research suggests that many people were infected at some point, but never became seriously ill. If added into the general data, the death rate drops dramatically. 

"The current best estimates for the infection fatality risk are between 0.5% and 1%," Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, explained to NPR. While the number is a lot lower than earlier estimates, it is still significant, according to River. "That is many times more deadly than seasonal influenza," she says.

These latest estimates also parallel early predictions from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House coronavirus task force. In March, Dr. Fauci and colleagues wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine, that the case fatality rate for the virus "may be considerably less than 1%."

These latest findings are a result of antibody testing efforts across the county. Indiana is one of the first states to complete the first phase, after their governor's office turned to Nir Menachemi, chair of the health policy and management department at Indiana University's Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health, in order to compile information as to the infection and death rate of the virus. 

At the time, "it was really difficult to know for sure," Menachemi explained to NPR, noting that the only information available at the time was based on coronavirus testing, which only really included those who were sick enough to get tested. "And frankly, not just in our state, but in any state." 

In late April, he began conducting a study of over 4,600 people across the state, giving them two tests: one which tests for an active virus, and a blood test looking for antibodies to the virus. Early results showed that about 3 percent of the state's population — 188,000 people — had been infected. 

"That 188,000 people represented about 11 times more people than conventional selective testing had identified in the state to that point," he points out. Interestingly enough, 45 percent of those who had antibodies, reported having no symptoms at all. 

With this new data, Menachemi and his team calculated the "infection fatality rate" at 0.58 percent or one death per 172 infections — which determines the odds that an infected person will die. Previously, scientists were working with a "case fatality rate," which determines the odds that someone who develops symptoms will die. 

Other states, including New York, Florida, and California, have calculated similar — or even lower — infection fatality rates. According to the New York Times, almost 20 percent of residents in New York City have coronavirus antibodies. In Los Angeles, the percentage is much lower — close to 5 percent. 

While your coronavirus death risk may be lower than you though, keep in mind that certain populations are still at a higher risk. "Thankfully, children and young adults are at low risk of severe illness and death," Rivers says. "But older adults are at quite high risk."

Until there is a vaccine, it is important to continue following the guidance of the CDC: social distance as much as possible, practice diligent hand hygiene, clean and disinfect surfaces, and wear a protective face covering when around others.

And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

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