400,000 more U.S. deaths than normal since COVID-19 struck

By Josh Katz, Denise Lu and Margot Sanger-Katz

Since March, at least 400,000 more Americans have died than would have in a normal year, a sign of the broad devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

An analysis of mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows how the pandemic is bringing with it unusual patterns of death, even higher than the official totals of deaths that have been directly linked to the virus.

Deaths nationwide were 18% higher than normal from March 15, 2020, to Dec. 26, 2020. Our numbers may be an undercount since recent death statistics are being updated.

Our analysis examines deaths from all causes — not just confirmed cases of coronavirus — beginning when the virus took hold in the United States last spring. That allows comparisons that do not depend on the accuracy of cause-of-death reporting, and includes deaths related to disruptions caused by the pandemic as well as the virus itself. Public health researchers refer to fatalities in the gap between the observed and normal numbers of deaths as “excess deaths.”

Public health researchers use such methods to measure the effect of catastrophic events when official measures of mortality are flawed.

As COVID-19 cases have spread across the country, the geographic patterns of abnormal mortality statistics have followed. Excess deaths have peaked three times, so far, as have deaths from COVID-19.

There are now excess deaths in every state, with surges in states like California, Colorado, Kansas and Ohio fueling record death tolls in recent weeks.

Counting deaths takes time, and many states are weeks or months behind in reporting.

Estimates from the CDC are adjusted based on how mortality data has lagged in previous years. It will take several months before these numbers are finalized.

During the period of our analysis, estimated excess deaths were 21% higher than the official coronavirus fatality count. If this pattern held through Jan. 14, the total death toll would be about 470,000.

For comparison, around 600,000 Americans die from cancer in a normal year. The number of unusual deaths for this period is higher than the typical number of annual deaths from Alzheimer’s, stroke or diabetes.

Measuring excess deaths does not tell us precisely how each person died. Most of the excess deaths in this period are because of the coronavirus itself. But it is also possible that deaths from other causes have risen too, as hospitals in some hot spots have become overwhelmed and people have been scared to seek care for ailments that are typically survivable. Some causes of death may be declining, as people stay inside more, drive less and limit their contact with others.

Drug deaths also rose steeply in the first half of 2020, according to preliminary CDC mortality data that runs through June of last year, a trend that began before the coronavirus pandemic arrived.

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