What’s the risk of getting hospitalized with COVID?

Many people who catch COVID have difficulty breathing and other serious symptoms that require hospital care. This has put a serious strain on hospitals across the country. But COVID symptoms range from non-existent to deadly. So what percentage of people who catch COVID actually need to go to the hospital? 

It turns out it’s difficult to estimate the risk of getting hospitalized with COVID. First of all, it varies by age groups. Older people tend to get much sicker with COVID than younger people. Second of all, since some people do not have symptoms at all, it’s hard to know how many people actually have COVID without randomly testing people.

One study from the Cleveland Clinic looked to see what happened to every person who tested positive at the facility. 4,536 patients tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 during the study period. Of those, 958 (21.1%) required hospitalization. This percentage is probably high, since people with no or mild symptoms likely didn’t get tested. A study from New York, which has not been vetted by other scientists, found that of the 4,103 patients testing positive for COVID during the study period, 1,999 (48.7%) were admitted to the hospital. Again, that number is probably too high. 

It’s easier to estimate how much more likely some people are to be admitted to the hospital than other people. The CDC estimates, for example, that people aged 40-49 are 15 times as likely to be admitted to the hospital with COVID than adolescents aged 5-17 years old. The complete chart is below.

Now matter how you slice it, COVID puts people at serious risk of needing hospital care. So get vaccinated when you can, practice social distancing, and wear a mask to keep you and your family safe and out of the hospital.

Last update: March 25, 2021, 2:00 pm ET

Science review: ERS