Cases, cases, cases! What about deaths?

It seems to me that the media is more focused on COVID-19 cases than on COVID-19 deaths. I get it. The more cases there are, the more the virus will spread. The more the virus spreads, the more deaths will ensue.

However, the number of actual cases is difficult to determine, as many with the virus are never tested. Also, there are plenty of false-positives and false-negatives.  Add to that the many who are asymptomatic. It is practically impossible to measure the true number of COVID-19 cases. But in all the discussion about cases, many miss how the true impact of this virus must be measured in deaths.

But many are confused with the number of deaths that COVD-19 has caused. In mid-July, one Axios survey revealed that 1 in 3 Americans increasingly believe that the death toll numbers are inflated (Axios-Ipsos poll: The coronavirus death toll skeptics are growing – Axios). On the other end of the spectrum, a week later, another poll revealed that some Americans believe that 9% of the US population has died from COVID-19 (see page 12 of kekstcnc_research_covid-19_opinion_tracker_wave-4.pdf).

The confusion is understandable. I have heard from some who have witnessed intense pressure put upon medical workers to identify deaths as COVID-19. It has led many to doubt the reality of the threat of COVID-19. ,

Further, when the media reports COVID-19 deaths, they often omit the fact that only 6% of the COVID-19 related deaths are recorded as COVID-19 alone. An overwhelming 94% of COVID-19 deaths come with comorbidities. In other words, for the most part, people die WITH COVID-19, rather than FROM COVID-19. This is why the sickly are at high risk. COVID-19 seems to bring on an earlier-than-expected death of those with pre-existing conditions. Please be careful, this 6% figure has been mis-understood and mis-applied. Here’s one article that seeks to explain: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/09/01/fact-check-cdcs-data-covid-19-deaths-used-misleading-claims/5681686002/

So, how deadly is COVID-19? Is the reporting accurate? Can we trust the media?

Full disclosure: I’m not a health worker. I have no expertise with COVID-19. I’m a pastor, seeking to lead a local church through these trying times. With the vastness of differing opinions on these things, I have been compelled to search for objective facts in these matters.

So, I went to the source: the Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov).  I retrieved their data on the weekly number of all deaths since 2014 (to the present). The data can be found here: https://data.cdc.gov/NCHS/Weekly-Counts-of-Deaths-by-State-and-Select-Causes/muzy-jte6 and here: https://data.cdc.gov/NCHS/Weekly-Counts-of-Deaths-by-State-and-Select-Causes/3yf8-kanr.  When you compare the deaths of previous years to deaths this year, you can see the true effect that COVID-19 has had upon our society.

Here’s a graph I generated from the CDC’s data. I entitled it, “Deaths in America by Week.” Week 1 is the first week in January. Week 52 is the last week in December. Because of the lag in reporting deaths to the CDC, these numbers are current as of August 2020. Further, the numbers for 2019 and 2020 are identified as “provisional” by the CDC. I assume that this means the numbers may increase slightly as the CDC awaits reporting that lags for one reason or another.

The first thing that you notice in this graph is the spike in 2020.  Before addressing this spike, notice the general trend of all the years. America regularly experiences more deaths at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year. Presumably, this comes because of winter forcing us inside, where disease can spread easily. Further, note the high death rate at the end of 2017 (yellow) and at the beginning 2018 (light blue). This represents the effect of the 2017-2018 flu epidemic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017%E2%80%932018_United_States_flu_season). 

Let’s address the 2020 spike in the above graph. America has experienced significantly more deaths in 2020 than in other years. In some ways, this must be due to COVID-19, as this is the only major difference between 2020 and other years. This shows the undeniable impact of COVID-19. During the peak (week 15, mid-April), America experienced a 50% spike in deaths over normal.  Currently, America is hovering around 20% more deaths than normal on a weekly basis.

Of significance also in the graph above is the downward trend. Deaths in America are heading down toward normal levels. I can only surmise that this is because of the measures that our society has put in place, like social distancing measures, masks and closures. Furthermore, our medical workers have figured out better ways to treat the virus. Only God knows what the graph would have looked like had no action been taken. And we will find out whether the trend continues toward normal or toward another spike as we move indoors for the winter.

Of curious interest also is how the impact has varied from state to state.  Here are a few examples (with my comments):

I live in Illinois.  We have followed roughly the same course as the United States.

For all of its early troubles, New York has practically returned to normal death rates for months.

Arizona experienced a late surge (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/07/01/arizona-coronavirus-record-pence-visit-347105).

Despite some of the earliest and most stringent regulations, California still seems to be struggling.

Montana has been unfazed.

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Now, let’s work to the core question of this article: how many people have actually died of COVID-19 in America? To help answer that question, the graph below represents the death totals above average experienced in the United States in 2020 from week 12 (late March) an onward. I picked this week, because this is where we experienced the first noticeable spike in the number of deaths. The number represents the difference between total deaths in 2020 and the average number of total deaths from 2014-2019.  Because of the lag in data collection, this takes us through week 32 (mid August).

As you can see, this number is approaching 250,000!  These are the excess deaths of people in America in 2020. By mid-August, the press was typically reporting COVID-19 numbers in the 160,000-170,000 range.  Today, this number is approaching 200,000. In other words, the press (reporting CDC numbers) has been under-reporting the true impact of COVID-19 on deaths in America. You can see this under-reporting the graph below, where I have added the CDC death totals each week where COVID-19 is listed as one of the causes (or the only cause) of death.

The reason for the discrepancy in the lines above is that CDC reports a death as COVID-19 only if the deceased tested positive for COVID-19. But if a test was never conducted, COVID-19 cannot be recorded as a cause of death. So, many who died with COVID-19, but never were tested, are not included in the CDC number. Further, I can think of several scenarios where people didn’t die with COVID-19, but did die due to the impact of COVID-19 upon them. For instance, some suicides may have been caused by the isolation that came through quarantines. The same may be true of domestic abuse cases that have escalated to death when people have been forced to live closely with others without ability to separate. Also, some deaths may have come because of surgeries or treatments or ER visits that were postponed from fear of COVID-19 and other COVID-19 related pressures. Many other scenarios could be envisioned.

Regardless of how or why a person dies, the way to measure the impact of COVID-19 is to measure the number of deaths above average. So, COVID-19 is real. And the true numbers of excess deaths in 2020 are actually larger than the CDC has reported as official “COVID-19” deaths.

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As I have showed these graphs to some of my friends, their first question has often been, “How old are those who are dying?” I found some data here to answer the question: https://data.cdc.gov/NCHS/Weekly-counts-of-deaths-by-jurisdiction-and-age-gr/y5bj-9g5w/. Here are the graphs I produced from the data:

As you can tell, the graphs are looking quite similar to the first graph in this article, only in reducing numbers, corresponding to reducing age. That’s because, in general, more people die old. And most of the deaths from COVID-19 are older people as well.

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COVID-19 has made a real effect upon our country, perhaps even more than reported. Further, I think that the protective measures we have taken have helped to reduce the spread of infection, and as a result, death. I’m thankful to God for the adaptations that medical workers have made to treat patients with COVID-19.

Yet, to put things in perspective, using the 250,000 number of deaths and using 330 million for population of the United States, only 0.08% of Americans have died due to COVID-19.  That’s 1 in 1320 people.  For comparison’s sake, the Spanish flu (H1N1) pandemic of 1918 killed a conservative estimate of 550,000 Americans, out of a population of 103 million (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2740912/). This is 0.5% of the population.  That’s 1 in 200 people. We have a long way to go to match the devastation of that pandemic.

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