More than 200,000 deaths have occurred in the U.S. in 2020 than would have been expected according to trends from previous years, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.
The figure encompasses all deaths that have occurred since March 15, including the roughly 162,000 found to have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in the United States.
But the 200,000 count is more than 50,000 deaths higher than the toll of those who died due to identified cases of COVID-19, suggesting that far more have passed away either from the illness or from the disruption associated with the pandemic.
The CDC tracks observed deaths week-by-week in the U.S., based on regular reporting from state departments of health. In May, the agency released an online tool that shows the data it receives and compares it to estimates of how many deaths would occur in the U.S. based on trends from previous years, adjusted for changes in population.
The tool takes delays in reporting into account, and includes a formula that adjusts the current death rate to compensate.
The estimate — known as excess mortality — allows epidemiologists to diagnose the full death toll of a pandemic. The deaths of those who died from COVID-19 without being diagnosed, who faced long ambulance or hospital waits, or who put off treatment of curable conditions are all encompassed by the metric.
Epidemiologists see excess death as one of the best ways to capture the course of a pandemic in relative real-time. It takes weeks for the CDC to collect preliminary numbers of the dead for each state, but the agency does not publish final, cause-by-cause mortality statistics until at least two years after the fact.
“This approach allows for the assessment of the total mortality effects of the pandemic in different places,” explained an article in The Lancet published in May. “Crucially, the counts would be of deaths by all causes combined, thus side-stepping issues of what is or is not a death attributable to COVID-19.”
The same method of calculating excess deaths was used after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, allowing public health officials to measure the true toll of a disaster that deprived the island of needed services.
The horrific milestone of 200,000 comes after two months that saw cases surge around the country, with large outbreaks in Arizona, Texas, and Florida.
Case growth in those states appears to have subsided, while deaths — a lagging indicator — continue to mount.
At the same time, COVID-19 — and reports of deaths from diagnosed cases of it — continue to spread. According to an estimate by the New York Times, only the states of Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and West Virginia have maintained death rates in line with previous years.