More than 1.5 million people worldwide have contracted the virus—and that number continues to grow.

By Leah Groth
Updated April 09, 2020

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that Americans should begin preparing for a likely coronavirus outbreak in the US, panic around the illness has escalated. Since December 2019, when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was first discovered in Wuhan, China, it has infected nearly 1.5 million people worldwide and caused nearly 92,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University's real-time COVID-19 tracker.

On March 12, the World Health Organization began describing the outbreak as a pandemic. That declaration, along with a slew of questions about the virus, has stoked a certain level of public anxiety. How many people recover from the virus versus how many people die from it? Unfortunately, there's still no clear-cut answer to that question, according to Jeremy Brown, MD, director of the Office of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health and author of Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History.

There's not enough information that's readily available yet to determine the true survival rate of COVID-19, says Dr. Brown, "but given the tens of thousands of people infected with the virus, the survival rate will be very, very high," he adds. Manisha Juthani, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist, agrees. “It can be scary to watch the news and see the death toll rise from the coronavirus overseas. But we now know that most cases of coronavirus in China have been mild and less than 3% of patients have died,” she points out.

As for the data we do have, that information also shows a low fatality rate and high survival rate for COVID-19. In a viewpoint article published February 24 in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), the authors looked at the case records of 72,314 patients, 44,672 of which were confirmed as having COVID-19. Of those confirmed cases, 36,160 cases, or 81%, showed only mild symptoms, while 14% were severe and 5% critical. The overall case-fatality rate, or coronavirus cases that ended in death versus the total number of people with confirmed cases of infection, was only 2.3%, or 1,023 deaths.

Also worth noting, according Dr. Juthani: “[Coronavirus] appears to be more deadly for adults, especially those with other medical conditions"—no deaths have been reported in children, nor were any reported in those who had a mild or severe case of the illness. Dr. Brown also points out that those with chronic heart or lung problems and those who are immunocompromised are also at a higher risk of death.

As far as survival rates among different populations outside of China, there's still a lot left to learn, including region-by-region survival rates. "As more data are reported from different regions of the world on their cases of COVID-19, we will learn if there are any regional differences in the disease," says Dr. Juthani. 

Experts say the recovery rate in the US won't really be known until there is widespread testing to determine the actual number of Americans who have been infected with COVID-19 and either survived the illness or died. Many people are not currently counted because they have mild cases, which don't require hospitalization and so they escape surveillance.

At this point, the best way to keep survival rates high–and to prepare and protect yourself against coronavirus—is to continue taking preventive measures recommended by the CDC, which include avoiding close contact with people who are sick; not touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; staying home when you are sick; putting distance (about 6 feet) between yourself and other people; cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces; and washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom and before eating.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter