In the 1980s, a diagnosis of AIDS was an assumed death sentence—approximately 95% of people diagnosed with AIDS died from it. By the 1990s, more than 200,000 Americans were being diagnosed each year with the disease. After spending billions of dollars on intense scientific research, a “cocktail” of assorted antiviral medications had reduced the mortality rate to 22.6%. Today, there are 1.2 million people living in the US with HIV/AIDS—it is no longer considered a death sentence but a treatable disease.
AIDS is not the only disease that was once deadly and now is “treatable.” Assorted bacterial infections, including the bubonic plague and leprosy, now are treated with antibiotics. Even many forms of cancer, including ovarian cancer and certain leukemias and lymphomas, are now looked at as chronic illnesses rather than death sentences.
The US mortality rate from COVID-19 has dropped from 5.9% in May 2020 to 2.8% on October 10, 2020…and 94% of those deaths occurred in people who had “underlying conditions.” As of I write this blog, a total of 7.8 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19 and tragically 215,000 have died. So very sad as that is, this is a far cry from worst-case estimates of 2.2 million US deaths and an 81% infection rate predicted in March.
Much has been done in the last eight months. We have gone from very little knowledge and experience about the novel coronavirus to having several vaccines in phase-three development and a number of treatments that are helping to improve outcomes…significantly. The lockdown was needed to bend the curve, giving hospitals and first responders time to prepare for the potential influx of cases and medical researchers time to figure out what the heck this thing was and how to treat it.
Thank goodness we did that. It cost our entire country dearly, but no doubt, it saved many, many lives.
I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but I do spend a lot of time with many of them. And to me the question now is whether we can consider COVID to be a treatable disease rather than a modern-day plague. An article in this week’s The Atlantic details the far-lower-than-predicted transmission rate in schools and indicates that they simply are not “super spreader” environments.
And, like it or not—and like them or not—two very high-risk (and high-profile) individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 were each released from the hospital after only a few days.
So where do we stand on treatments? In spite of what some media outlets might have you believe, there are, in fact, treatments—and growing evidence to support their safety.
Below are treatments that are actively being used and that have research supporting their use for people at every stage of the COVID cycle—severely ill to mildly symptomatic and for prevention.
Dexamethasone: In use for many years, this steroid is an anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressant. Last June, was proven to improve outcomes for severely ill COVID patients. It not only saved lives but also increased the number of ventilator-free days and reduced risk for ventilator complications. It’s widely available, well-understood and inexpensive.
Remdesivir: This highly publicized and readily available antiviral drug has been described as the COVID version of Tamiflu. It is given to people who are hospitalized—often in addition to dexamethasone. It has been shown to reduce hospital stays from an average of 15 days to 11 days, though mortality reduction has not been very significant. Proponents of Remdesivir say that reducing the amount of time in the hospital reduces health-care costs and risk for hospital-born infections.
Antibody treatment from Regeneron: This is a lab-produced combination of two antiviral antibodies that improve the immune response in COVID-positive patients, including patients who had not mounted their own immune responses. It is used for patients who are admitted to the hospital as well as those fighting the infection at home. The manufacturer has applied for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for this drug. There are currently 50,000 doses available with an estimated 300,000 doses to be available in the next few months.
Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ): Political controversy has surrounded this longtime antimalaria medication since President Trump and groups of medical professionals first touted it at the beginning of the pandemic. But a new meta-analysis of five studies from Yale University showed that “HCQ was associated with a 24% reduction in COVID-19 infection, hospitalization or death,” While early reports indicated that hydroxychloroquine caused adverse cardiac events (in Brazil, in particular where researchers used a dangerously high dose of the medication), there were no serious adverse cardiac events reported with proper dosing and timing in the five studies. Like dexamethasone, hydroxychloroquine is widely available, well-understood and inexpensive.
For overall prevention: Numerous studies have shown that deficiencies of zinc and vitamin D increase risk for the illness and death. I have had numerous Facebook Live conversations with assorted doctors who have recommended these inexpensive and safe nutritional supplements.
Vitamin D deficiency has been shown to increase all-cause mortality in numerous studies, including a recent one from the European Congress of Endocrinology. Specific research about vitamin D deficiency and COVID risk includes recent research from University of Chicago, reported in JAMA, that showed a 1.77 times greater risk for COVID among people who are vitamin D deficient than people with adequate levels. That means that people who are deficient have about a 75% greater chance of getting sick than those who have adequate levels. And a study from Italy showed increased risk for severe COVID-19 and death among people with lower vitamin D levels.
Zinc: This mineral has been proven to reduce the impact of viruses including the common cold (also a coronavirus) for many years. Among other things, adequate levels of zinc in the body have been shown to inhibit the coronavirus from taking hold and replicating in our cells. Since COVID’s arrival in the US, studies have focused on the association between low zinc levels and risk for increased severity and mortality. For example, a recent study from Barcelona Spain showed that zinc levels below 50 mcg/dl were associated with 2.3 times increased risk for in-hospital death.
Little specific research has been done on zinc’s ability to prevent or reduce risk for COVID-—not because it’s not effective but because our health-care system is focused on treatments rather than prevention. But holistic medical experts who understand zinc’s ability to support our immune function, block the replication of the virus in our bodies and reduce severity and death state that adequate levels of zinc through diet and/or supplementation would be protective. I had discussed this many times with Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, a leading holistic doctor
There are other assorted supplements that can boost our immune systems and reduce inflammation and might help to reduce risk for COVID, including vitamin C, ashwagandha and elderberry. But zinc and vitamin D are the two most closely studied with regard to COVID.
It’s tragic that doctors and the media aren’t talking about prevention—beyond wearing masks, washing hands and avoiding crowds. How many lives could be saved if we encouraged people to work on prevention as much as they do avoiding human interaction? Zinc and vitamin D are cheap, available and safe when taken in appropriate doses.
With concerted efforts at reducing individual risk for infection and a growing arsenal of treatment strategies that are being proven to reduce the severity of and mortality from COVID-19, it seems time to shift our perspective on the disease. We have been fed messages of the potential for enormous death counts for the last eight months, and that has struck fear and paranoia in the hearts and minds of people across America and around the globe. The numbers are bad, but the trend lines are encouraging (in spite of the uptick in cases as students returned to schools) and the cost of continuing to stay closed may be even greater.
Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast, where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life.