Coronavirus: falling ICU death rate suggests improving care, says new study

The mortality rate of patients with the novel coronavirus treated in ICUs had fallen to just under 42 per cent at the end of May from almost 60 per cent in March

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Fewer Covid-19 patients are dying in intensive-care units around the world, researchers found, indicating that hospitals are getting better at treating severe forms of the pandemic disease.

Overall, the mortality rate of patients with the novel coronavirus treated in ICUs had fallen to just under 42 per cent at the end of May from almost 60 per cent in March. That’s according to the first systematic analysis of two dozen studies involving more than 10,000 patients in Asia, Europe and North America.

Six months of Covid-19

Six months of Covid-19

The fast spread of SARS-CoV-2, high caseload and proportion of patients requiring breathing support placed “unprecedented demand” on ICU services, researchers wrote in a study published on Wednesday in the journal Anaesthesia. Countries in the later phases of the pandemic may now be coping better, they said.

“It may reflect the rapid learning that has taken place on a global scale due to the prompt publication of clinical reports early in the pandemic,” wrote the authors, led by Tim Cook, an anesthesiologist and intensive care physician in Bath, England. “It may also be that ICU admission criteria have changed over time, for example, with greater pressure on ICUs early in the pandemic surge.”

Global toolbox of treatments

The World Health Organization is collating data from countries to identify elements that reduce mortality, with a goal to create a toolbox of treatments that will enable doctors to provide better care for the full range of Covid-19 patients. The new study will add to the cumulative knowledge, said Sylvie Briand, the WHO’s director for global infectious hazard preparedness.

“This is critical information that will help us to refine our strategy for reducing mortality,” she said.

The review found ICU mortality doesn’t differ significantly across regions, despite apparent variations in treatments and other areas, suggesting that no specific therapy reduces ICU mortality, the authors said in a statement.

Last month, the inexpensive anti-inflammatory dexamethasone was found to reduce deaths by a third among patients receiving mechanical ventilation, and there is hope this will improve survival further, they said.

Critical illness associated with Covid-19 can be prolonged. About a fifth of ICU hospitalisations in the UK lasted more than four weeks, and 9 per cent persisted for more than 42 days.

Mortality in ICUs for Covid-19 is almost twice the typical 22 per cent rate there for other viral pneumonias.

“The important message, however, is that as the pandemic has progressed and all these factors combine, survival of patients admitted to ICU with Covid-19 has significantly improved,” the authors said.