Are COVID-19 deaths actually normal deaths?

I often hear from people that COVID-19 deaths might actually be ordinary deaths, but classified as COVID-19 because the virus was detected in the deceased. On the surface, this argument appears plausible. COVID-19 is so widespread, and so many tests are being conducted, surely it is sometimes merely detected in those who die, but was not in itself the cause.

To answer this question, let us go back to the fundamental problem we are faced with: Are more people dying now than before the pandemic? And if yes, how does that number compare to the number of deaths reported due to COVID-19?

Some estimates, available on the internet, seem to support the claim that this is a normal year. For example, this website claiming to be a summary of the CIA factbook shows that the number of deaths in the US in 2020 was no higher than in previous years — lower, in fact, than 2017. We could try to figure out if this is an accurate website, but why not just go back to the CDC?

The CDC publishes the number of individuals who die each week by simply summing up the number of death certificates. They also keep track of the average number of individuals who die on any given week of a year to calculate an “expected” number. By comparing the two we can see how the current overall mortality rate compares to the historical norm:

The deviation in 2020 is striking. Particularly striking is the resemblance to the reported deaths from COVID-19, showing the early peak in March when the virus was spreading in uncontrolled fashion, the peak in summer, and finally the resurgence in the fall. Note that this data is not final. It can take up to 8 weeks for the CDC to process death certificates so the data for November/ December will probably be revised upward.

Summing up the weekly totals we get 368,164 more people dead between Dec 29th 2019 and Dec. 5th 2020 than in a typical year. The number of COVID deaths reported up to that point was 287,734. Thus, we are not “double-counting”. COVID fatalities are a good explanation for the high mortality rates we see this year.

Why is the observed mortality of 368,164 greater than the reported COVID mortality of 287,734? An analysis from the CDC, summarized here, suggests that this is in part due to an under-count of COVID fatalities, especially early in the pandemic.

And why aren’t we double counting the fatalities? That is easier to answer. On Dec. 5th, there were 5.9 million active cases of COVID-19 in the US. Even assuming that all of those people would test positive if they suddenly died and were tested, that is only 1.8 % of the US population. That would give approximately 1,000 weekly covid fatalities, when in reality we are seeing 10–20x higher numbers. If COVID did not increase the cause of death we would simply not see many deaths of people who happen to have the virus.

All in all, the specious explanation is, unfortunately, not correct. We are not double-counting fatalities. The numbers are exactly as bad as they appear.

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Father, husband, engineer, scientist, reader, hiker.

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