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Rising deaths, hospitalizations suggest WNY's second wave will kill more than its first

Rising deaths, hospitalizations suggest WNY's second wave will kill more than its first

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Covid-19 testing

A drive-up Covid-19 test site operated by the state in the Cobblestone District.

At current rates, Western New York's second wave of Covid-19 will be deadlier than its first. Fatality and hospitalization data from late November and early December show the disease is steadily claiming more lives than it has in months, despite improved therapies and lower fatality rates at area hospitals. 

In the first week of December alone, 112 Covid-19 deaths were reported in Western New York, averaging 12 deaths per day over the two-week period ending Monday.

By comparison, just over 13 people died of Covid-19 each day, on average, in the two-week window that ended May 10  to date, Western New York’s deadliest stretch of the pandemic.

With epidemiological models forecasting a likely increase in the number of hospitalizations through the end of the year, and new infections still clocking in at record levels, fatalities will also inevitably climb this month, confirmed Dr. Peter Winkelstein, the executive director of the University at Buffalo’s Institute for Healthcare Informatics, in an email. 

These insights are part of a Buffalo News project to track and analyze critical Covid-19 metrics. The News is using data from the state and local county departments of health, as well as the state Department of Education and the New York Times’ national coronavirus database, to provide context and visuals to the still-unfolding story of Covid-19 in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties.

Those data show the so-called “second wave” is pounding Western New York  and forecast a worsening winter to come. The region's new infections and hospitalizations have set record after record over the past three weeks, as Halloween parties, Thanksgiving dinners and other interactions spread the virus well above even its early spring levels.

While the five-county positive rate appears to have leveled off over the last few days, new cases are still up more than 200% from this time last month, with an average of well over 850 people testing positive each day. By the end of the month, that figure could exceed 1,100 cases in Erie County alone, according to recent projections by the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the region has already well exceeded its spring hospitalization peak: There were 501 Western New Yorkers hospitalized with Covid-19 on Monday, almost twice the previous high of 263 on April 28. Hospitalizations have climbed 170% in just the past three weeks.

Both those trends suggest that fatalities – already heightened – will increase further throughout this month and next. Nationally, after accounting for delays in data analysis and release, there is typically a 22-day lag between a reported bump in cases and a reported bump in deaths, according to analysis by Trevor Bedford, an infectious disease specialist at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. That means that deaths reported now likely date back to infections from mid-November, and that any surge in new infections reported this week will yield increased deaths early in the new year. 

The good news, such as it exists, is that fewer Covid-19 patients are getting seriously sick, and fewer of the seriously ill are dying. Hospital fatality rates have fallen to 10% versus 25% eight months ago, said Winkelstein.

Still, any sustained increase in new cases will result in more deaths, even if the fatality rate is lower. Speaking to The Buffalo News on this subject in late November, Kenmore Mercy Hospital’s Dr. Michael Gough warned that even a very small fraction of a very large number still yields a large number, overall.

Nationally, daily deaths from Covid-19 also spiked to a new high on Monday, according to the New York Times, with more than 2,200 reported per day on a seven-day rolling average. By the first week of January, as many as 317,000 Americans will have died of Covid-19, according to projections by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since Western New York recorded its first case of Covid-19 on March 14, more than 42,750 people have tested positive and 1,202 have died. Of those deaths, nearly a fifth were reported in the past 20 days.

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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Caitlin is an enterprise reporter at The Buffalo News, covering stories about how Western New York is changing. A Buffalo native, she spent six years reporting for the finance and style desks at the Washington Post before returning home in 2018.

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