The risk of Covid for the elderly


The risks here for the elderly are frightening: a rate of 0.45%, for example, translates to about a 1 in 220 chance of death for a 75-year-old vaccinated woman who contracts Covid. If the risks stay near those levels with Omicron, they could lead to tens of thousands of deaths in the United States and many more hospitalizations.

Encouragingly, there is reason to believe that Omicron’s death rate may be lower. Three new studies published yesterday suggest that Omicron on average causes milder illness than earlier versions of the virus. “I guess the risk of death with Omicron is much lower” than with previous variants, Dr George Rutherford of the University of California at San Francisco told me yesterday.

A reassuring comparison is with a normal seasonal flu. The average death rate among Americans over 65 who contract the flu has ranged between 1 in 75 and 1 in 160 in recent years, according to CDC Pre-Omicron versions of Covid, in other words, appear to have risks of the same order. of magnitude to people vaccinated like a typical flu. In some years, an influenza infection can be more dangerous.

With Omicron, “I don’t think the risk is very high for relatively healthy and boosted people in their 70s,” Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, told me. “I think it’s moderate at best.”

Still, Baseman and other experts recommend vigilance, for several reasons. First, the flu kills tens of thousands of Americans a year, and we probably should be paying more attention to it. (After declining last year during social distancing, influenza infections are on the rise again now, as these Times charts show.)

Second, Omicron is so contagious that it has the potential to overwhelm hospitals and cause many otherwise preventable deaths, even if only a small portion of infections are serious. “We’re not in a place to treat this like a cold,” said Azra Ghani of Imperial College London.

Baseman said if she was 70 her main concern would be getting moderately ill, needing standard medical care and not being able to get it in a busy hospital. Dr. Aaron Richterman of the University of Pennsylvania told me, “There is a strong rationale for reasonable efforts to mitigate transmission, especially over the next four weeks.


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