Experts say US coronavirus death count is flawed, but close

Experts say US coronavirus death count is flawed, but close

Experts say US coronavirus death count is flawed, but close

NEW YORK — The U.S. is hitting a tragic milestone: 100,000 dead from the coronavirus. But is that number right?

The accuracy of U.S. coronavirus death count has been both a scientific and political issue. Some conservatives have suggested coronavirus deaths were being over-counted. Meanwhile, some researchers say the toll is far more likely to be higher than the count.

Here’s a look at how deaths are being counted in the U.S.

THE NUMBERS

There is no U.S. coronavirus death count that is both current and complete.

The most recent death data is gathered through searches of preliminary reports doctors send to state and local health departments. Those numbers appear on different websites, including those of government agencies and some news organizations. One widely followed site is maintained by Johns Hopkins University researchers.

But those quick daily tallies ebb and flow for reasons unrelated to when deaths happen. For example, there are fewer reported deaths on weekends, when staffing is lower and fewer people are filing reports.

Still, they are reasonably accurate, said Robert Anderson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

WHY IT’S COMPLICATED

Many people who died of coronavirus were older and already fragile, weakened by heart disease or some other malady. So ascribing a single cause can be challenging.

Experts believe the coronavirus has played an unrecognized role in many deaths — especially soon after the virus arrived in the U.S. That’s in part because testing might not have been available, or because the virus was not thought to be spreading in an area.

“In the beginning of any epidemic, where physicians and health-care workers have less experience with a disease, they’re more likely to miss it or misdiagnose it as something else” said Anderson, who oversees the CDC’s death statistics work.

Over time, reporting improves, he said.

AN EVOLVING COUNT

For months, most states reported only lab-confirmed cases and deaths, though many places didn’t have enough accurate tests available to confirm every one.

Last month, the CDC told states to include probable COVID-19 cases in their reports to the agency. Probable coronavirus deaths don’t have positive test results but in which other evidence — like the symptoms and course of their disease, and exposure to infected people — points to the infection. Currently, 28 states count only lab-confirmed deaths, while 22 others include probable coronavirus cases, too.

CDC officials say they do not know what percentage of reported deaths are lab-confirmed and what percentage are probable.

DEATH CERTIFICATES

Death certificates are the best source of mortality data, because a doctor or medical examiner reviews a deaths — and may even perform an autopsy before assigning a cause. But it can take a month or more for all the death certificates for a given week to make their way to the CDC.

Anderson said his agency is looking both at death certificates that cite coronavirus and looking for deaths that were indirectly caused by the pandemic.

Last month, the CDC said the U.S. has seen at least 66,000 more deaths than usual at that point of the year. The new coronavirus was reported as a cause in about half the excess deaths. But Anderson said it’s likely the virus was a factor in many other deaths too.

For example, a death certificate might name pneumonia or other coronavirus complications without mentioning the virus.

“I think there is ample evidence to suggest we are missing some,” Anderson said.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Mike Stobbe, The Associated Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

skip2
Rimbey Christian School students experience the joy of giving

Grades three and four students raised $2,000 for Somalian children

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said growing COVID-19 case numbers continue to be a concern in the province. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta announces 1,077 new COVID-19 cases Thursday

There are currently 14,052 active cases in the province

Bids for Kids poster
Wolf Creek Youth Foundation online auction gets ‘overwhelming’ response

Santa’s Bids for Kids auction to benefit youth programs in Rimbey, Ponoka

The Red Deer Games Foundation has made changes to its grant program as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo supplied)
Red Deer Games Foundation adjusts grant program due to COVID-19 pandemic

The foundation postponed the spring 2020 grant program due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Alexandre Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty to a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque, arrives at the courthouse in Quebec City on February 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathieu Belanger - POOL
Court strikes down consecutive life sentences; mosque shooter has prison term cut

The decision was appealed by both the defence and the Crown

Gold medallists in the ice dance, free dance figure skating Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, of Canada, pose during their medals ceremony at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Charlie Riedel
Olympic champions Virtue, Moir and Tewksbury among 114 Order of Canada inductees

Moir and Virtue catapulted to national stardom with their gold-medal performances at the Winter Olympics in 2018

Shoppers line up in front of a shop on Montreal’s Saint-Catherine Street in search of Black Friday deals in Montreal, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Black Friday shopping in a pandemic: COVID-19 closes some stores, sales move online

Eric Morris, head of retail at Google Canada, says e-commerce in Canada has doubled during the pandemic.

skip2
Rimbey Christian School students experience the joy of giving

Grades three and four students raised $2,000 for Somalian children

File Photo
Sylvan Lake Town Council asks for a mask bylaw to be brought forward for consideration

The bylaw would require face coverings in all indoor Town-owned and operated facilities

The corporate headquarters of Pfizer Canada are seen in Montreal, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. The chief medical adviser at Health Canada says Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine could be approved in Canada next month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Health Canada expects first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved next month

Canada has a purchase deal to buy at least 20 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine,

Most Read