The number of COVID deaths in America might have been vastly underestimated

university of washington imhe covid deaths
Photo via Joe Mabel/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

A new study from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation contends that the COVID-19 death totals around the globe and in America are significantly higher than the official count based on Johns Hopkins University-managed data.

If the UW totals are correct, the U.S. number of deaths is more than 900,000, or 57% more than what’s been previously recognized, and the global death rate is approaching a staggering 7 million—or more than twice the currently accepted number.

NPR reported on the IMHE calculations and wrote the Institute “looked at excess mortality from March 2020 through May 3, 2021, compared it with what would be expected in a typical non-pandemic year, then adjusted those figures to account for a handful of other pandemic-related factors.”

Reuters quoted Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, who accounted for some of the discrepancies between the IHME and Johns Hopkins numbers of COVID deaths in America to testing.

“If you don’t test very much, you’re most likely to miss COVID deaths,” Murray said, with the article adding that “deaths go unreported as most countries only record those that occur in hospitals or of patients with a confirmed infection.”

The Reuters article also noted that the new estimates may not even account for the full effect of the pandemic, with the IMHE report only factoring in deaths caused directly by the virus and not necessarily counting deaths that were caused indirectly by the pandemic (an overwhelmed healthcare system, for instance).

“Many countries have devoted exceptional effort to measuring the pandemic’s toll, but our analysis shows how difficult it is to accurately track a new and rapidly spreading infectious disease,” Murray said.

The NPR report noted the researchers thought India, Mexico, and Russia might have dramatically undercounted the deaths in their countries, while in other countries—Japan and Egypt, for instance— the death toll might actually be 10 times high than what’s been reported.

The report also detailed the outsized impact of COVID-19 in the U.S. throughout the 14 months of the pandemic chronicled. Slate noted, “In the U.S., the researchers said just about all of the excess deaths could numerically be attributed to COVID-19 because increases in certain types of pandemic adjacent deaths, like drug overdoses, were offset by a decline in other areas, like flu deaths, which were far lower last year because everyone was at home.”

The Slate article also noted that the global underreporting of numbers also had to do with COVID-19 being such a severe health crisis for many nations. “In most parts of the world, deaths that occur outside a hospital setting don’t get attributed to COVID-19 because they likely were never tested for the virus,” the article noted. “The severity of the pandemic has, understandably, meant that health officials have focused their resources on treating patients and saving lives, not surveying the symptoms of the deceased.”

The IMHE report is being seen by researchers as a welcome addition to the understanding of how the pandemic has affected the world—even for those affiliated with Johns Hopkins.

“We need to better understand the impact of COVID across the globe so that countries can understand the trajectory of the pandemic and figure out where to deploy additional resources, like testing supplies and vaccines to stop the spread,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins.

Sources: NPR, Reuters, Slate

Continue Learning