Are more people dying overall from all causes in the U.S. this year with COVID-19 afoot?
The only correct answer at this point is: Maybe yes.
However, even if the answer turn out to be no, that’s not necessarily an indication that COVID-19 has all been some farce. More on that in a bit.
This past week I had a Facebook exchange with one of our page’s frequent fliers, who likes to chime in with a complaint along the lines of “More people aren’t dying overall so shut up with all the COVID stuff.”
First, I find this to be a curious sentiment. Applied more broadly, then I guess car accident deaths or homicides wouldn’t really be newsworthy, because one or two of those per year wouldn’t result in more deaths overall on a year, so why should I care? It’s a sentiment that is, of course, ridiculous.
I’ve heard arguments that COVID-19 isn’t worth the hoopla because it kills fewer people than cancer or heart disease. It does. But so does every other cause of death in America. Also, worth noting, you can’t spread cancer or heart disease to your family members by sitting near them, so there’s that.
Anyhow, on a more factual basis, that hypothesis that more people aren’t dying doesn’t appear to be accurate to start with it, at least based on currently available information.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a pretty nicely laid out page regarding “excess deaths from COVID-19” that illustrates average expected death numbers versus actual and notes months when deaths exceeded normal expected ranges.
Outside of 2020 during COVID, the graph also shows one other period when this happened in winter 2017-18, during a particularly harsh flu season.
I was shown current provisional total deaths counts from the CDC, showing about 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. so far this year. With just two months to go, that was proof that deaths aren’t any higher than any other year.
But the CDC notes those provisional counts may be lagged up to two months. Overall deaths may also increase more sharply toward the end of the year as cold weather sets in and more elderly succumb to illness.
The argument is also kind of undercut when the next column over on the CDC provisional death count is labeled “Percent of expected deaths” and that reads 112% — 12% more than forecast.
So are deaths higher overall?
As I told people on Facebook, right now, the best I can say is, that’s the way it looks, but I can’t know for sure until the numbers come in.
I can’t compare past years to 2020 until 2020 is done. Apples to apples and all that.
At 218,000 deaths and counting nationally, COVID-19 would foreseeably be the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S. this year, behind heart disease and cancer if past trends continue.
The sentiment that I’ve seen is that if total deaths aren’t higher than the 2.8 million in 2018, then this was all obviously fake.
Yet again, not necessarily.
It’s certainly possible the U.S. may not hit 2.8 million deaths overall this year, but that doesn’t mean COVID-19 is a lie. Then again, it also doesn’t not mean that.
Gauging COVID-19’s mortality impact will take more investigation than simply “Which number is bigger?!” that I’m sure people will clamor out as soon as its ready.
For consideration: If people’s behaviors changed during the pandemic, could other causes of deaths actually seen positive impacts from COVID-19? The No. 3 cause of death in the U.S. in 2018 was unintentional accidents — about 169,000 per year.
If people weren’t driving as much, not going to the beach, not participating in other activities because things were shut down or they were wary about traveling, how might that number have been affected?
What about suicides? What about drug overdoses? Homicide? How did those change?
Likewise, how do numbers for other causes of death compare? Are heart disease and cancer sharply down, or did the influenza/pneumonia category get slashed, suggesting that, maybe yes, COVID-19 was taking primary blame for deaths that, in other times, might have been tallied in those categories?
Still, in that scenario it would hearken back to this question — Would that person have cancer died this year or died at all if not for also contracting COVID-19? Just because you have cancer doesn’t mean it’s your cause of death, regardless of what else may have happened to you.
So how will we know the answers to these questions?
Good journalism, of course.
It won’t be the Twittersphere or the Facebook comments section that is going to do the dirty work. Those people will just find whatever conclusion fits their narrative best and scream it out to as many people who agree with it and argue incessantly with the people who disagree with it.
No, it’ll be curious journalists like myself who want to get dirty in the data, compare and contrast and parse out those answers.
Whether total deaths go up, down or stay about the same, I’ll want to see what role did COVID-19 play, but also what role did everything else play, too?
Finding that context, explaining it and presenting it accurately is how truth is found.
Come 2021, when year-end numbers are ready, I hope to do a big analysis of exactly this question for our local counties, for the state and even for the country as a whole if I can gather the necessary data.
What was the story of 2020 and, more importantly, how does it compare and contrast to prior years, will help answer these questions.