Editor’s Note: Thanks for all those who responded with thoughtful replies and critiques. You are correct about the CDC revisions, which can be large. That’s certainly the case with week 14, which was revised up above 61,000 deaths, which is a lot. That came after the research for the piece was completed last week. Because of the revision, it pushed the death rate per 100,000 up to 18.5. That’s a big number.
More importantly, it pushes the average for the data to the year to date to 16.7, which is slightly above the 16.4 long-term average. Please recall what we wrote in the piece: “As of the first week of April, the last week for which there is solid data, the U.S. overall death rate including COVID-19 fatalities was about 14.9 deaths per 100,000. Since 2013, the U.S. average has been 16.4. During past flu epidemics, the rate got as high as 20.”
So yes, because of those upward revisions, we are now above average in our long-term death rate up to week 14. We stand corrected, not because of error but by dint of new data that superseded the old. Thanks to all of you for calling attention to the changes, and for all your other insights into the data.
But the broader point we tried to make still stands: That is, that the average rate of deaths nationwide has not increased in a way that would suggest a massive pandemic, at least not yet. We’re still about at the average rate. And we used that rate, rather than the raw number of deaths, because raw death numbers mean little given our growing population. It’s the average per unit of population over time that matters.
Along with many of you, we’ll be watching closely in coming weeks to see if the rate does indeed spike as new data come in, or whether it will flatten out. Obviously, we hope we’re right and the death rate stays low, because it would mean we can all go back to our normal lives sooner.
The numbers used in I&I’s piece were the ones we felt most trustworthy at the time. Again, later unforeseen revisions changed the picture somewhat, but not radically. At least not yet. Thanks so much for all your analyses and critiques. We’ll keep them in mind when next we visit this topic.
The story, as printed, follows:
With more than 55,000 deaths attributed to it, COVID-19 would seem to remain a major U.S. health threat, justifying the closure of the U.S. economy. But if so, why is the overall U.S. death rate declining in the midst of a deadly pandemic?
It’s a curious thing. In recent weeks, despite a growing COVID-19 infection rate (due mostly to a jump in testing) and rising fatalities, the overall U.S. crude death rate (total deaths per 100,000 population from all causes) is falling.
That’s right, falling.
“Despite the panic over the Wuhan virus, it now appears that the overall U.S. death rate this winter season is at a multi-year low, no worse than 2014, 2016, and 2019, and far better than 2015, 2017, and 2018 (when we were hit with one of the worst flu seasons in years),” writes blogger Robert Zimmerman.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Centers for Disease Control data indicate the current average U.S. overall death rate, even amid the coronavirus pandemic, is actually lower than it has been for much of the past seven years and well below the long-term average.
As of the first week of April, the last week for which there is solid data, the U.S. overall death rate including COVID-19 fatalities was about 14.9 deaths per 100,000. Since 2013, the U.S. average has been 16.4. During past flu epidemics, the rate got as high as 20. You can find the data here.
There are many possible reasons for this.
For one, the actual number of flu deaths has declined in recent weeks. From the beginning of March, the weekly number fell steadily from 568 to a little more than 200. However, the number of deaths attributed to pneumonia jumped sharply from 3,446 to 6,017, the highest rate since at least 2013.
“The percent of deaths due to pneumonia or influenza (P&I) is high but the increase is due primarily to COVID-19, not influenza,” the CDC noted this week.
Meanwhile, with much of the U.S. in semi-lockdown and not commuting daily to work, the number of traffic fatalities and work-related deaths is surely down.
While reliable recent data aren’t yet available, traffic deaths are in the midst of a long-term decline.
“In 2019, an estimated 38,800 people lost their lives to car crashes – a 2% decline from 2018 (39,404 deaths) and a 4% decline from 2017 (40,231 deaths),” according to the National Safety Council. So it’s reasonable to expect a fairly large drop.
A smaller impact could be felt by the many people working at home, thereby reducing workplace fatalities. Some 5,250 people died in 2019 from workplace accidents, a record. So any decline in that would show up in lower overall death rates.
So why are death rates falling while COVID-19 deaths continue to grow? It may be that many deaths that aren’t really COVID-19 related are counted as that anyway. The net effect is to exaggerate COVID-19 deaths, while underestimating others.
Employing simple arithmetic, in a pandemic you would expect a surge in overall deaths, all things being equal. Could it be that the number of COVID-19 deaths has been inflated? There’s strong evidence for this.
Pennsylvania, for instance, recently removed some 200 deaths previously recorded as COVID-19 fatalities from its data after coroners complained that state numbers and methods for tallying virus deaths didn’t match their own.
“Pennsylvania Health Department officials had included in their count ‘probable’ coronavirus deaths in cases where they believed the virus was the cause of death but did not have confirmation from a positive test result,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Similarly, in California, a 37-year-old man recently overdosed on non-prescribed drugs. But because he tested positive for COVID-19, it was declared a COVID-19 death.
But New York’s COVID-19 death reporting is even worse, if that’s possible.
The Empire State has fewer than 6% of the nation’s population but nearly 30% of all U.S, COVID-19 deaths, or nearly 17,000 deaths out of a national total of 55,383.
On April 13, New York mysteriously added 3,700 new COVID-19 deaths to its tally, jacking it even higher. Did it miss a bunch of deaths? No. Officials just started counting as COVID-19 fatalities the deaths of some who died at home or in nursing homes and hospitals, even if they didn’t get tested.
This exaggeration of death counts has added to the sense of panic that led to the lengthy national shutdown of our economy. There is no clear national standard. Indeed, a recent Washington Post investigation found that COVID-19 death count methodology varies wildly from state to state.
So do we really have 55,000 COVID-19 deaths? Not likely. Meanwhile, evidence is growing that the total number of people exposed to the virus is much greater than thought. That means the fatality rate is far lower than first estimated.
It’s important to note that the wild inaccuracy of supposed experts led to a U.S. overreaction and the disastrous shutdown of our economy, which could end up costing us $4 trillion in lost output, by some estimates. That includes former President Barack Obama and current Joe Biden health care adviser Dr. Zeke Emanuel, who predicted as many as 100 million infected and a million deaths.
A recent Stanford University study suggests that the true death rate from COVID-19, rather than being 3% or higher, as the World Health Organization predicted, is really about 0.1% to 0.2%. That’s about the same as the flu.
Studies elsewhere, including in Los Angeles and New York, have found the same. COVID-19 exposure is much more widespread than thought, so reported death rates are likely much lower.
“‘Coronavirus deaths’ soared by assuming that people dying with the virus were dying from it and then by ascribing to the coronavirus other deaths among people with symptoms of pulmonary distress, even without being tested,” wrote American Enterprise Institute economics fellow and futurist George Gilder in RealClear Markets.
Two California doctors recently did a deep dive into the data and concluded: “Lockdown versus non-lockdown did not produce a statistically different number of deaths. That is the bottom line.” Other looks at the data have found the same thing.
The point is, Americans got stampeded into closing the economy for a pandemic that may end up no worse than a very bad flu season. And for what? States now are moving to end their lockdowns. It’s about time.
— Written by Terry Jones