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Here’s how to calculate the real number of COVID-19 deaths: columnist

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(Photo By Felipe Mahecha/Shutterstock)

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof sounded the alarm Wednesday that the United States is missing thousands of people who have the coronavirus but aren’t being counted.

Conservative supporters of President Donald Trump are promoting conspiracy theories that the number of Americans dying from the coronavirus is inflated. In reality, Kristof explained, there are far fewer listed than there should be.

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Trump is “right that the death toll seems off — but not in the direction he would suggest,” Kristof wrote. “We’ve crunched the numbers, state by state, and it appears that somewhere around 100,000 to 110,000 Americans have already died as a result of the pandemic, rather than the 83,000 whose deaths have been attributed to the disease.”

He is getting that number by working with Harvard statistician Rafael Irizarry, who compared the average death rates from previous years from the spring. Some states haven’t been impacted by COVID-19, and their death rates have actually dropped, likely, he said, because there are fewer people on the roads and fewer accidents. Other states, however, show significantly higher death rates, even if those numbers aren’t being attributed to COVID-19.

“Over all, in a bit more than two months, the United States lost more Americans to the coronavirus than died over seven decades in the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars,” said Kristof.

According to their numbers, there are about 21,500 deaths that are unaccounted for in 2020 that hasn’t occurred in previous years.

Based on calculations by Harvard statistician Rafael Irizarry. Note: Estimated uncounted deaths exclude Connecticut, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, which had missing or unreliable data. | By The New York Times
The starting point is that the cause of death is often uncertain. Most people who die don’t get an autopsy, and many never had a coronavirus test. The precise number who died from Covid-19 is in some sense unknowable.

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Still, one standard approach to measure the impact of a pandemic like this is to look at “excess deaths,” meaning mortality greater than the average for a particular time period. You can click to the story to see the state-by-state data that they gathered.

“For example, for the seven weeks ending April 25 in the United States, about 70,000 more Americans died than is normal for those weeks (death is seasonal and normally declines over the course of spring and summer),” he explained. “That 70,000 figure for excess deaths does not include Connecticut, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, which were excluded because of missing or dubious data. The official number of COVID-19 deaths in that period for the rest of the country was 49,100. That suggests an undercount of more than 20,000 coronavirus-related deaths as of April 25.”

Those 20,000 missed deaths combined to 83,000 deaths reported get the U.S. to 100,000.

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The data isn’t good enough, he explained.

“There’s probably less underreporting as time goes on,” said the CDC’s Robert N. Anderson, the chief of mortality statistics. Medical examiners in Florida, for example, were blocked from exposing deaths that weren’t reported because the Florida Department of Health prevented it.

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“Most frontline doctors will tell you that the numbers are grossly underreported,” said Bronx ER Dr. Michael P. Jones. The early days of the virus, in particular, underreported the fatality rate. Many COVID-19 deaths were listed as something like “respiratory failure” or “multisystem organ failure,” because no one knew enough about the virus.

Read the full editorial by Kristof at the New York Times.


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