This is good news, and we could all use some good news. But I feel like the focus on the death rate is partially obscuring the key issue. We don’t have a “death rate” problem yet. What we have is a “hospitalization rate” problem. Even if aggressive social distancing measures succeed in sharply limiting the number of people who get infected (in the short term), there are still going to be an unmanageable number of infected patients descending on U.S. hospitals over the next few weeks and months. And that’ll have a cascade effect. Doctors and nurses, many of whom lack proper safety equipment, will get sick and be sidelined or even die. (That’s not hypothetical.) People who need hospital treatment for conditions unrelated to COVID-19 will fall through the cracks, with some ending up dead. (That’s not hypothetical either.) And many who do need treatment for COVID-19 won’t get the quality of care they require to beat the disease, leading to more death among that group too.
The death rate is partly dependent upon the hospitalization rate, in other words. And we don’t need studies to grasp that. All we need to do is look at the overwhelmed health-care system in Italy, where the death toll is now higher than China’s (if you believe the official Chinese numbers). How do we solve the hospitalization rate problem ASAP? China can conscript labor to build and staff temporary hospitals overnight to increase capacity. We can’t.
Bear in mind too that even the revised Wuhan death rate is still many times higher than the rate for the common flu. If 10 million Americans were infected and the Wuhan death rate held, we’d be looking at 140,000 people dead. Flu season this year is expected to kill about a third that number at worst.