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COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. may be 28% higher than official count, study estimates

Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

As if the death toll of COVID-19 weren't bad enough, a new study estimates that the true number of U.S. fatalities linked to the pandemic is up to 28% higher than the official tally.

That means that for every 3.5 known victims of COVID-19, another American lost his or her life as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

"Official tallies likely undercount deaths due to the virus," researchers reported Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine. The extent of this undercount varies "markedly between states," they added.

Between March 1 and May 31, the number of COVID-19 deaths reported to the National Center for Health Statistics was 95,235. But there are good reasons to suspect that figure is an undercount, the study authors explained.

The country didn't have enough coronavirus test kits to make a definitive diagnosis for everyone suspected of having COVID-19, especially in the early days of the pandemic, they wrote. Furthermore, the tests that were available were sometimes wrong, causing people who were actually infected with the coronavirus to be told that they didn't have it. And some states haven't compiled their death certificate data as promptly as others.

To get a more reliable count of coronavirus-related deaths, a team led by Yale epidemiologist Daniel Weinberger set out to determine the number of "excess deaths" that occurred in the U.S. in March, April and May.

 

They started by gathering weekly death counts for each state, starting with January 2015 and ending in January 2020. Then they used that data to project what the weekly death counts would have been through the end of May 2020 if the pandemic hadn't happened. That gave them a baseline figure of expected deaths for 48 of the 50 states, along with the District of Columbia. (North Carolina and Connecticut were not included because some of their mortality data was missing.)

Next, the researchers tallied the actual number of reported deaths in each state between March 1 and May 30. The difference between the expected deaths and the actual deaths gave them the number of excess deaths.

Actual deaths exceeded the expected deaths in all but seven of the states they analyzed. In other words, 41 states and the District of Columbia all had at least some excess deaths.

In California, for instance, the historical trend suggested the state would have about 65,600 deaths in March, April and May. In reality, there were 72,407 -- a difference of just over 6,800 deaths. Yet the state attributed only 4,406 deaths to COVID-19 during that period, suggesting the official count did not capture the true toll of the pandemic in the Golden State.

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