Obits Spiked Around Country With COVID Onslaught

NEW YORK, USA - APRIL 14: A drone photo shows that new container morgues are being prepared for the new type of coronavirus (COVID-19) victims to be delivered to hospitals in New York City, United States on April 14,... NEW YORK, USA - APRIL 14: A drone photo shows that new container morgues are being prepared for the new type of coronavirus (COVID-19) victims to be delivered to hospitals in New York City, United States on April 14, 2020. (Photo by Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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May 27, 2020 12:00 p.m.
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Don’t just take it from the CDC.

Deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic have been spiking around the country according to a tabulation of obituaries published, a new report found.

The analysis — by the Health Care Cost Institute — found that obituaries including deaths from all causes have gone up during the pandemic, corroborating government statistics.

Specifically, the study found up to 15 percent more deaths nationally during the month of April, based on obituary announcements. In the epicenter of New York City, that reached to a staggering 180 percent increase over previous, average daily deaths, on April 4.

The study represents a new way of estimating what has become an all-too familiar concept: excess deaths. These are the deaths that occur above an expected baseline of mortality.

The data comes as the country approaches the symbolically important COVID-19 death toll of 100,000. Though that number is high, and flies in the face of repeated, lowballed predictions from the Trump administration, it also fails to account for the pandemic’s true toll. That number encompasses undiagnosed COVID-19 deaths, as well as the deaths of those who would otherwise have lived if not for the disruption of the pandemic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, this can include deaths due to the disease itself, people who died of COVID-19 without having ever been diagnosed, and those who wouldn’t have passed away if not for slower ambulances, flooded ERs, or missed check-up appointments, among other potential causes.

Researchers estimated expected daily deaths in 2020 by averaging the yearly daily death rates from 2014 to 2019, providing a baseline historical comparison for total U.S. mortality.

The study’s findings largely align with government estimates, which have suggested significantly increased deaths around the country starting in March and continuing up to the present day. Government statistics rely on death certificates, and not obituaries.

The alignment between the two suggests that the government’s reporting has been reliable, including in its estimates of excess deaths. The CDC currently estimates non-COVID-19 excess deaths since Feb. 1 at between 22,105 and 43,204.

By using the obituary counts, the Health Care Cost Institute was able to develop a tool that shows the amount of obituaries recorded, compared to the amount that would have been predicted in a normal, non-pandemic year.

The study estimates a 95 percent confidence interval for its findings, though it’s for all cause data: whether the deaths occurred due to COVID-19 or another cause remains unclear from the study.

Though the toll remains staggering, the study’s authors note that obituary data often takes longer to register than typical state-level mortality data, which is itself subject to extensive lags as it is reported from the local level onwards to the federal government.

Researchers say that obituary data suffers from around a four-week delay in reporting, meaning that the chart only shows data “reported as of this week for deaths occurring in the prior three weeks.”

The underlying data comes from Datavant, a healthcare data analysis firm that has been conducting research into the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Coronavirus Crisis Links

TPM’s COVID-19 hub.
Josh Marshall’s Twitter List of Trusted Experts (Epidemiologists, Researchers, Clinicians, Journalists, Government Agencies) providing reliable real-time information on the COVID-19 Crisis.
COVID-19 Tracking Project (updated data on testing and infections in the U.S.).
Johns Hopkins Global COVID-19 Survey (most up to date numbers globally and for countries around the world).
Worldometers.info (extensive source of information and data visualizations on COVID-19 Crisis — discussion of data here).
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