New York City released new numbers on the COVID pandemic on Tuesday, bringing the death toll to more than 10,000.
But even those new numbers don’t capture the pandemic’s true toll.
In its Tuesday press release, the city did not only release the numbers of those diagnosed with COVID-19 who passed away, and those who bore the symptoms of the disease and died without an official diagnosis.
The city also released another number: the number of deaths to have occurred in New York City for the duration of the pandemic that were not related to COVID.
That number — total deaths in the city — allows us for the first time to compare the mortality rate in New York City during the pandemic’s first few weeks to the city’s baseline average mortality. In doing so, we can start to see how many excess deaths COVID-19 has caused, not just from the disease itself but from its various knock-on effects, including the halting of the economy, the overloading of the health care system, and other causes.
We’ll get to the preliminary numbers in a moment, but first some explanation.
Cruz Nazario, an epidemiologist who studied excess deaths following Hurricane Maria, confirmed to TPM that the new data provided by the city could help to estimate true excess mortality — the number of people who died of COVID without ever having been diagnosed, or who otherwise would not have died if not for the pandemic.
Excess deaths can encompass people who faced longer ambulance wait times or overcrowded ERs, or those who decided not to seek medical care due to an overwhelmed health care system.
Nazario’s team ran a study on excess deaths following Hurricane Maria which took the aggregate death count on the island following the hurricane, and compared it to how many deaths would have been projected to occur based on averages from prior years. That, she said, allowed the team to estimate so-called excess mortality due to the hurricane.
“If you have all data, from the same time period in two different years, you can average that and then compare it to what you have today for NYC during this month, March 11 to April 13,” Nazario told TPM, cautioning that it would be “very preliminary.”
The data released by New York City on Tuesday makes an attempt at doing that possible.
Per the city, a total of 18,551 people died of all causes between March 11 and April 13.
Those deaths fall into two broad buckets: COVID and non-COVID. The COVID tally stands as of this writing at 10,367, while the non-COVID death total for that time period is 8,184.
So, how does that compare to what previous averages of NYC mortality would tell us to expect?
Here’s the rub: many cities release monthly death totals, but few places release daily death totals. Given that New York City started Tuesday’s data release with the city’s first death in the pandemic on March 11, and ended it on Monday, April 13, that makes it a little bit harder to generate an average from which to compare mortality rates.
Fortunately, the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene publishes detailed annual reports on vital statistics — deaths, births, marriages, etc. Those tables include monthly death totals, as well as daily average death totals by month.
So, take a look at the most recent report, for example, covering 2017. That report records daily average deaths for March at 151, and daily average deaths for April at 146.
So, multiplying those averages by the days in 2020 for which New York City released its pandemic data establishes a rough prediction of how many deaths would have been expected in a non-pandemic year: 3213 deaths from March 11 to March 31, and 1942.2 deaths from April 1 to April 13.
That comes out to a projected total of 5155.2 deaths expected for New York City from March 11-April 13, 2020. The reality was 18,551 deaths.
Sherry Tower, a research professor at Purdue University and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, came up with a similar average based off of separate, CDC data. She told TPM that her average came out to between 4500 and 5000 deaths per month.
“You’re gonna be forced to take the numbers from March and April and just average them,” she said, adding that it would be a quick, rough result.
The monthly averages suggest that more than 13,000 New Yorkers have died during the COVID pandemic than otherwise would have.
Subtracting the 10,367 who have been designated as dying due to COVID gets another startling figure: 3,028 people dead.
Those are all the numbers dead beyond the expected average for 2020, who haven’t been identified as dying due to COVID, but who died as the city’s hospitals hit their capacity limits, and as ambulance sirens never stopped sounding in the city.
Late update: After doing some additional calculations to account for a small decline in the population of NYC since 2015, Nazario, the Puerto Rican epidemiologist, estimated there were 3,009 non-COVID excess deaths during the period in question. Refining the estimates is likely to continue for quite some time as data are updated and epidemiologists analyze them.