New Stanford Study: Risk of Dying from COVID Is 7 Times LESS than Spine Surgery

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The lethality of COVID-19 should be driving our public health policy. Meaning, if this thing is really lethal we should be doing what we’re doing and erring on the side of staying shut down. If it’s much less lethal, we need to be thankful that we gave our health system a chance to catch up and erring on the side of opening everything up. So which is it? In addition, how does that risk compare to common surgical procedures?

The Tale of the Inflated Crude Fatality Rate

The CFR or Crude Fatality Rate for COVID-19 has been an awful lesson in how to start a panic. You know the ones you see at soccer stadiums where people get crushed to death becomes someone yells “fire”? Well, that’s what happened in the media with the CFR.

What is the CFR in an epidemic or pandemic? It’s the simple back of the napkin calculation of the total number of deaths divided by the positive cases. The problem is that in EVERY outbreak, early on, this number is ALWAYS wildly INFLATED because there is limited testing.

The CFR tale begins with the WHO. If you were not paying attention while reading the World Health Organization website early in the pandemic, you would have read that the CFR is 3-4% (1). That should have scared the heck out of anyone and lead to what we see today, abject panic. However, the WHO website really said:

“While the true mortality of COVID-19 will take some time to fully understand, the data we have so far indicate that the crude mortality ratio (the number of reported deaths divided by the reported cases) is between 3-4%, the infection mortality rate (the number of reported deaths divided by the number of infections) will be lower.” 

Hence, the WHO knew that the IFR would drop. While most everyone in the media took the bait and caused a panic, there were some smart science reporters who read the whole statement and reported accordingly:

The CFR Today

Just like most other countries, the US has been ramping up testing in a big way. Our testing rate today is now 78,000 per million, surpassing early testing superstar Germany (56K/million) and the socialized medical system in Canada (59K/million) (2). Hence, we can expect the CFR to go down as the tests go up.

Based on John’s Hopkin’s data, what is the CFR this week? As of this writing, it’s 5.5% (116,140 deaths/2,104,346 cases) (8). That calculation is confirmed by the data on the CDC website (9). That means that the crude mortality rate is about 1 in 20. In addition, this number is hugely inflated, meaning the real fatality rate of everyone who got infected is MUCH lower. How low? Let’s dig in.

Old Infection Fatality Rates

The IFR is the Infection Fatally Rate. That’s the number that the average person would want to know. Meaning, if I get the virus while out and about, what are my chances of dying? In a virus where there are a significant number of asymptomatic cases, this number can only be calculated by studies that tested everyone in a general population.

Some early studies that tried to do that were conducted in New York and California and found:

  • Santa Clara County California at 0.15% (3,4)
  • New York at 0.5% (5)

Many more datasets are now being released, so researchers have begun to look at many of them and calculate the mean IFR. This morning I’ll go over an unpublished study placed on a preprint server by scientists at Stanford.

The New Infection Fatality Rate

This study comes to us from the Departments of Medicine, of Epidemiology and Population Health, of Biomedical Data Science, and of Statistics at Stanford (6). The authors are also part of the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford. What did they do?

The researchers looked at COVID-19 studies with at least 500 people that were available as of June 7th, 2020. 23 studies were identified with positive testing rates of 0.1% to 47%. The mean IFR of people of all ages was 1 in 400 (0.25%). However, among people under 70 years old, the IFR was 0.05% or 1 in 2,000. 

Comparing the COVID Death Rate to Spine Surgery

If you have back or neck pain, you may at one point have thought about spine surgery. What we do at Regenexx is help patients avoid back or neck surgery. However, it might be useful to compare the risk of dying from spine surgery to the risk of someone under 70 years of age getting infected with COVID-19 and dying.

So how does this COVID-19 IFR of 0.05% compare to spine surgery risk? Meaning, if you did sign up for spine surgery, is it more or less risky than getting infected with COVID-19?

The risk of dying from all spine surgery is 0.32% or about 1 in 300 (10). That means that the risk of dying from COVID-19 is about 7X less than spine surgery!  In fact, the disparity is likely higher as the risk for spine surgery also includes the very old who are more likely to die from any surgical procedure. So if you would sign up to get your back or neck operated, you should have no issues tolerating the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Deaths by Age Group

I always get asked by patients leaving comments about how this data applies to them at their current age. Hence, I used the data from the CDC as of June, 10th, 2020, which I graphed above (7). Note that the vast majority of the deaths are in patients who are 65 and over.

The upshot? According to the scientists at Stanford, if you’re younger then 70, your chances of dying from a Coronavirus infection are about 1 in 2,000! That’s MUCH less than your risk of dying from spine surgery. That’s really good news if you’re the average person worrying about yourself or your family. That’s really bad news is you’re a media outlet trying to sell eyeballs to advertisers, which is why you will likely never find this story at one of those websites.



(1) World Health Organization. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 46. Accessed 5/5/20.

(2) Coronavisus Worldmeter. COVID-19 CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC. Accessed 6/17/20.

(3)  Bendavid E, et al. COVID-19 Antibody Seroprevalence in Santa Clara County, California. medRxiv 2020.04.14.20062463; doi:

(4) Santa Clara Public Health. County of Satna Clara Emergency Operations Center. Accessed 4/25/20.

(5) New York Governor Press Briefing on April 23rd, 2020. Accessed 4/25/20.

(6) Ioannidis J. The infection fatality rate of COVID-19 inferred from seroprevalence data. medRxiv 2020.05.13.20101253; doi:

(7) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Provisional COVID-19 Death Counts by Sex, Age, and State. Accessed 6/17/20.

(8) Johns Hopkins University of Medicine. COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE). Accessed 6/17/20.

(9) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Accessed 6/17/20.

(10) Poorman GW, Moon JY, Wang C, et al. Rates of Mortality in Lumbar Spine Surgery and Factors Associated With Its Occurrence Over a 10-Year Period: A Study of 803,949 Patients in the Nationwide Inpatient Sample. Int J Spine Surg. 2018;12(5):617-623. Published 2018 Oct 15. doi:10.14444/5076

This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.

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Category: Coronavirus, Spine

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7 thoughts on “New Stanford Study: Risk of Dying from COVID Is 7 Times LESS than Spine Surgery

  1. Randy L. Sparacino

    This is great news regarding age ! How does that change if there is an underlying medical condition?

    1. Chris Centeno, MD Post author

      That risk hasn’t been stratified, but you would be at higher risk for severe illness if you have an underlying medical condition.

  2. Richard Crandlemire

    I appreciate the true data you are publishing about the corona virus and the media’s mis=reporting of the data. I really related to today’s article, regarding spinal surgery., I had spinal surgery about 10 years, years before hearing about the work you do. Nobody told me about the likelihood of death. from it, although I was about 70 at the time. As a result of the surgery, I have not walked since, even though I have had physical therapy every year since the surgery. Had anyone told me about the likelihood of death from the surgery, I would have considered it more and looked for alternatives, and possibly would have heard of the work you are doing and avoided the surgery, Believe me, I would have welcomed some other method of alleviating my pain. In addition, I could possibly have been walking for the last 10 years! Please keep up the good work in reporting what the media is mis-reporting. Incidentally, if there is any possibility of gene therapy helping me to be able to walk again, please contact me. Thank you for what you are doing.

  3. Peter Salvatori

    Let us not ignore the long term health impact of those that will have “recovered” or “survived” being infected with Covid-19. How many / what percentage will have suffered a stroke from blot clots, permanent organ damage, etc?

    1. Chris Centeno, MD Post author

      Yes, I’m sure that there are a good number of long-term ill or disabled due to severe COVID. That would be typical for post-ARDS.

  4. Kyle Paice

    “As of this writing, it’s 0.55% (116,140 deaths/2,104,346 cases)”

    I do not understand your math here: 116140/2104346 = 0.055 or 5.5%.

    Is 0.55% a typo?

    1. Chris Centeno, MD Post author

      Thanks for catching the math typo, fixed…

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