Study predicts over 400,000 excess pandemic deaths in US by end of 2020
New research, published in the journal JAMA, tracking total all-cause death rates in the United States has found 20 percent more people have died in 2020 compared to prior year averages. And, even more strikingly, only two-thirds of those excess deaths this year can be directly attributed to COVID-19.
It is difficult to grasp the human cost of this devastating ongoing global pandemic. One measure that some researchers are looking to is called "excess deaths."
From year to year, total death counts in the United States are incredibly consistent. So tracking excess deaths can offer researchers a useful metric for evaluating the real mortality impact of events like this viral pandemic.
“Excess deaths are typically defined as the difference between the observed numbers of deaths in specific time periods and expected numbers of deaths in the same time periods,” states the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its page dedicated to tracking excess deaths in the country.
Researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine have been closely looking at excess deaths in the US since the pandemic began, and their latest report suggests the impact of COVID-19 is more significant that the general mortality count indicates.
"Contrary to skeptics who claim that COVID-19 deaths are fake or that the numbers are much smaller than we hear on the news, our research and many other studies on the same subject show quite the opposite," explains lead author on the study, Steven Woolf.
The new study looked at data from 2014 to 2020 to determine average expected mortality rates in a given year. The researchers calculated the United States could have expected 1,111,031 people to have died between March 1 and August 1 this year – if this was a normal year.
The real numbers revealed 1,336,561 deaths recorded across those five months. This amounts to 225,530 excess deaths. That is a 20 percent increase in all-cause mortality over the first few months of the pandemic.
Even more striking, only 67 percent (or 150,541) of those excess deaths were directly attributed to COVID-19. The researchers suggest some of these excess deaths could be unaccounted, or undocumented COVID-19 cases. But, according to the researchers, the majority are most likely deaths that are indirectly caused by the pandemic.
"Some people who never had the virus may have died because of disruptions caused by the pandemic," says Woolf. "These include people with acute emergencies, chronic diseases like diabetes that were not properly care for, or emotional crises that led to overdoses or suicides."
An editorial from two JAMA editors accompanying the publishing of the new research notes these kinds of studies are important as they offer insight into the profoundly far-reaching implications of a pandemic such as this.
“The importance of the estimate by Woolf et al. – which suggests that for the entirety of 2020, more than 400 000 excess deaths will occur – cannot be overstated, because it accounts for what could be declines in some causes of death, like motor vehicle crashes, but increases in others, like myocardial infarction,” the editorial states. “These deaths reflect a true measure of the human cost of the Great Pandemic of 2020.”
From a more granular perspective, the new research references fluctuating rises in both heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease morality rates over the course of 2020 in the United States. These are increases in deaths not attributed directly to COVID-19 but the study found these increases did coincide with waves of viral cases in certain states.
The research also refers to complementary studies noting significant increases in opioid overdoses between March and June this year. A study published last month reported a 123 percent increase in nonfatal opioid overdoses compared to the same period last year.
On this point, Woolf affirms death is not the only way we should be measuring the impact of this pandemic. The ripple effects of this pandemic will likely be seen for years to come.
"Many people who survive this pandemic will live with lifelong chronic disease complications,” says Woolf. “Imagine someone who developed the warning signs of a stroke but was scared to call 9-1-1 for fear of getting the virus. That person may end up with a stroke that leaves them with permanent neurological deficits for the rest of their life."
The new study was published in the journal JAMA.